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Five projects that successfully combine the old with the new

Five projects that successfully combine the old with the new

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Saving an old, dilapidated building from the wrecking ball can be challenging - especially if you are not its owner and if local leaders, blinded by opportunistic developers, fail to comprehend its significance.  Even if you succeed in thwarting its demolition, there is always the tricky issue of how to make the building’s preservation more than a delay of its gradual demise.  Here are a few buildings that found new relevance by successfully blending “new” design with their original architecture.

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1. Mill City Museum, Minneapolis, MN. As a general rule, buildings that explode and catch fire are prime candidates for being torn down, especially if they occupy valuable waterfront real estate in the downtown of a major city.  But not the old Washburn A Mill, built in 1878 on the banks of the Mississippi River.

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While being burnt to a crumbling crisp in 1991, Nina Archabal, then-director of the Minnesota Historical Society, told firefighters to avoid resting their fire hoses on the mill’s sagging walls.  Her thoughtfulness paid off when the mill was saved and reborn as the Mill City Museum.  Meyer, Scherer, & Rockcastle ingeniously preserved the outer walls, industrial scars, and front-facade of the original mill, while housing the museum’s modern functions in a glass-covered steel-frame set within the mill’s walls.

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2. Porter House, New York City. While the jury is still out on SHoP Architects‘ valiant attempt to ensure a modicum of architectural splendor for Barclay Center, the Brooklyn Nets’ arena in the Atlantic Yards comlex, they have received much-deserved praise for transforming this old warehouse in the Meatpacking District.

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Instead of knocking the 1905 Renaissance Revival structure down (the city wouldn’t allow that to happen, anyway) or awkwardly (and ruinously) stacking new floors directly above the warehouse’s peaked facade, SHoP did something entirely different.  They crafted a strikingly modern, zinc-clad addition and, in order to preserve the historic facade’s integrity, set it back from the front and center of the warehouse.  Like Norman Fosters’ iconic Hearst Tower, which wedded the old and new on a much larger scale, the Porter House is confirmation of Justin Davidson’s belief that unabashedly modern design is perfectly capable of respecting - even rescuing - historic architecture.

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3. Brooklyn Museum, New York City. Although McKim, Mead, & White’s massive 1893 design wasnever fully realized, the Brooklyn Museum finally got the architectural love it deserved when Polshek Partnership Architects finally rectified problems of access, approachability, and appearance that began when the museum’s grand staircase was chopped off the front facade in 1934.

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In its stead, the Polshek Partnership wrapped a glass-sheathed atrium around the facade’s base and softened it with substantial landscaping, thereby preserving the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the original design while also giving the museum the spacious, inviting entrance it never really had.

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4. The High Line, New York City. How successful has Phase I of the High Line been as an urban park coursing through Chelsea on an old, elevated, freight-railway?  So successful that its use has even beenrationed and it has already experienced a bit of a backlash.

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But few people have recoiled from James Corner Field Operations‘ clever design.  Meandering paths and wild-seeming vegetation supply skyline vistas and valuable greenery, while original, exposed train tracks (albeit not always in their original spots) give the park an authentic, gritty tone that mirrors the neighborhood and coaxes visitors along its 1.1-mile length.

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5. Byron G. Rogers U.S. Courthouse, Denver, CO. This Modernist courthouse was saved from poorly-done renovations and disgust for its drab appearance and cramped, poorly-lit interior.  As bad as things were, the federal government saw potential.  After all, the 1965 building was relatively young, was host to significant court trials (including Timothy McVeigh’s), was an excellent (though predictably polarizing) example of Formalism, and if nothing else, would make for an informative case study on “green” makeovers.  Bennett Wagner & Grody Architects‘ changes supplied no reason to regret the government’s decision to save rather than destroy.  On the outside, the Modernist exterior was largely preserved, but softened by a revamped plaza speckled with trees and grass.  The interior was the beneficiary of much-needed improvements to lighting, swaths of natural wood, and a systems makeover that resulted in the courthouse obtaining a LEED Gold rating.

Images courtesy of (1) saitowitz, (2) maurizio_mwg, (3) niallkennedy, (4) notladj, (5) mattjohnson2005, (6) bobex_pics, (7) amayzing, (8) arthurohm, (9) courthouselover.

4 Comments

  1. MT says:

    I have to say that I grew up going to the Brooklyn Museum and don’t really like the new pavilion. What’s this whole massacring old building facades all about anyways? The Brooklyn Museum looks like an old Beaux-Arts building hidden behind some sort of weird visor. Why couldn’t they have just built a new stair case?

    MT

  2. Paul says:

    Well, MT, you’re right that they could’ve simply restored the original grand staircase that they took away in (I think) the 1930s, but doing so wouldn’t addressed their access problems (etc.). As for massacring old building facades - the ever present risk of any renovation of this sort - I think they did alright. By carving out the approaching ground, so that people walk down toward the entry, they were able to lower the visual interference of the new canopy with the original facade.

    “Weird visor” - nice.

  3. [...] reuse is often difficult to pull off, especially when old buildings are neglected or contaminated. Here are five projects that managed it, often in surprising [...]

  4. [...] time that the GSA has selected one of its thousands of buildings for an environmental makeover.  Just last month I wrote about the recent renovation of Denver’s Byron G. Rogers U.S. Courthouse, which [...]

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