Historic Renovation Is a Labor of Love

There was a time when the United States was beleaguered by the image of a country that had no appreciation for its history—one that would rather tear down something old to put up another office building, strip mall or housing development.

Current trends in the construction industry belie this depiction, and for those that take on the onerous and challenging work of renovating and restoring historic buildings, it is more than just a job. It’s a labor of love.

At the heart of this movement is an upsurge in the desire to move near downtown areas to be close to work and home, particularly among today’s younger generation. The result is that historical buildings—brick and granite, and all the charm to match—are in high demand. This bodes well for construction companies that garner much of their revenue from preserving buildings that are a testament to the nation’s past.

And for landowners and developers, electing to adapt and reuse existing structures—especially in urban locations where space is at a premium—makes fiscal sense.

It’s All About the Aesthetic

The Old City Hall in Quincy, Mass., one of the nation’s oldest functioning city halls, recently underwent a notable renovation. Built in 1844, and designed by the same architect as the Bunker Hill Monument, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For those in the industry, that honor is both a blessing and a curse, in that standards and aesthetics must be upheld per the historical society’s mandates while adhering to current construction codes. The balance between the two can be difficult.
“There is a huge collaboration between subcontractors and suppliers before we even start because we have to meet certain sustainability requirements while maintaining the structural and aesthetic quality of the building in order to maintain its historic elements,” says Ben Goldfarb, vice president of Nauset Construction, the project’s general contractor.

The Quincy Hall restoration project included preserving the building’s granite facade, adding a structure connecting the old city hall to the new city hall, Nausetrestoring the second floor to its original design, and adding meeting rooms and exhibition space.

By working closely with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Nauset Construction was able to restore many of the building features to their original design, most notably the Great Hall, which once served as the primary public meeting space for city residents and the city council.

Now the hall can accommodate 200 people for events such as the recent mayoral inauguration. New meeting space also was created for the city’s boards and commissions, along with exhibition space to display historic artifacts, including letters from John Adams, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock. In addition, Nauset Construction installed new windows and a slate roof, as well as new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“To see the transformation of the building from its deteriorated state to its former grandeur is amazing,” says Nauset Construction President Anthony Papantonis. “It’s a testament to all who worked on it, from the architect, to the historical commission to the subcontractors, who provided such beautiful work.”

Fast forward more than eight decades and a few thousand miles from Boston, and SpawGlass, Beaumont, Texas, found itself renovating the First National Bank of Port Arthur, a building that dates back to 1930 and was last inhabited in the early 1980s.

In all, the bank has survived two hurricanes, the oil boom and the Great Depression.

Fashioned after an Italian Renaissance design, the bank’s exterior once included monolithic columns weighing 7 tons each and all carved from one solid piece of limestone about 20 feet long and 4 feet in diameter without seams or flaws.
When the building was abandoned in the 1980s, and Hurricanes Rita and Ike ripped through the small town, it left the once beautiful building in decay and disrepair.

“The main challenge was restoring the ceiling on the second floor,” says SpawGlass Project Manager Michael Green. “The problem was that you couldn’t see how it was originally built.”

Instead of having the atrium ceiling open up, previous tenants poured topping slabs of concrete to use as a floor, knocked 3- and 4-inch diameter holes in plaster and artwork, and installed an acoustical ceiling.

“To think anyone could make a conscious decision to destroy artwork to hang acoustical ceiling is ridiculous,” Green says.

The project team’s crowning achievement during the restoration was keeping the existing vault.

“We were able to keep the door, repaint it and leave that in place as a monument in time,” Green says. Now the vault is a conference room.

One of the greatest challenges was keeping the windows, which was a requirement to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We had to keep the original windows, but remove the glass and repaint the sashes, to keep up with today’s standards for hurricane ratings,” Greensays. As such, SpawGlass had to fix the hinges and fasten them shut, per current codes, so the windows are no longer operable on all three floors.In an interview with the Port Arthur News, Floyd Batiste, executive of the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation who “gets all the credit for being behind the restoration,” according to Green—said he believes renovating this historic building could be the start of something huge in downtown Port Arthur. “We’re excited. The historical marker and the building itself will play a significant role in the revitalization of this end of town,” Batiste says. “Seven years ago you could shoot a cannon ball down Procter Street and not hit anything. It’s not like that now.”

To add to the honor of renovating a piece of history at a cost of about $3.45 million, supplemented with tax credits of $1.1 million, SpawGlass won a 2016 Excellence in Construction® Eagle Award from Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

What’s Old Is New Again

For Doster Construction, Birmingham, Ala., restoring the historic 12-story, 80,000-square-foot Van Antwerp building in Mobile, Ala., known as the first skyscraper in the Southeast, to something akin to its original 1907 state was both challenging and rewarding.

“It was this little gem that was dilapidated next to new structures, yet tangled in with all these historical structures,” said Charles “Bill” Bowman, vice president of Doster Construction.

The $31 million project redeveloped the building from its days of housing a drug store and soda fountain to corporate offices, mixed-use space and a bank.

In addition to completing an entire interior renovation to the structure, including all new architectural and interior design, new mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems, along with new elevators and life safety improvements, Doster was able to preserve and restore the original terra cotta skin.

“To build this up to code was a monumental effort,” Bowman says.

It was important to keep as much of the original material as possible, and when impossible, to recreate what it would have looked like in the early 1900s.

“The cornice was beautiful,” Bowman says. “It came over on a boat from Italy in 1906, but was taken down in 1950 because the city was afraid it wasn’t structurally sound. So we recreated what it would look like.”

For its effort, Doster earned an Eagle award in ABC’s Excellence in Construction® competition.

Like its southern counterpart, Mississippi-based White Construction Company is in the midst of rehabilitating a collection of historic properties. The Capitol Art Lofts, located in downtown Jackson, Miss., is a $10.4 million project composed of a group of architecturally significant buildings constructed between 1885 and 1929 that will be converted into 31 affordable residential units of artist housing, community areas and art gallery/studio space.

“To qualify, you have to be an artist,” says Tracy Bailey, White Construction Company’s vice president of preconstruction services. “In addition to pursuing your art, you are driving a cab, waiting tables, while at the same time waiting for that big break in life. This building is for people like that.”

Amenities will include common studio/art gallery space and business and fitness centers.

As with any area of construction, clearly there are obstacles when restoring old buildings, such as offsetting new-world regulations against old-world aesthetics, plus budgeting and finding skilled workers.

For John Felton, vice president of Building Restoration Corporation in Roseville, Minn., restoring the masonry of historical buildings is more than a job, it’s a responsibility.
Building Restoration Corp
“What happens on restoration projects is that you see the exterior, but once you start working on it you typically will find additional problems to repair. With new construction, you can reliably bring it in on budget, but with restoration projects it’s difficult to do,” Felton says. “The reality is that once you discover underlying conditions that need to be fixed, it would be irresponsible to ignore them or cover them up.”

Another challenge is finding the right materials. For example, when Felton’s company renovated and restored the almost $520,000 Bayfield County Courthouse, he said the “particular color of stone used in the construction of the building is distinctive enough that there are very few substitutes available that are currently being quarried.

“Using a stone that is close would stand out and call attention to the repair,” he says. “The original stone was from a quarry that is no longer in use, so salvaging stone from demolished buildings that were built using that stone is the best possible option.”

For Felton, the greatest compliment he could receive is when people are hard pressed to tell that repairs were done.

“With us,” Felton says, “it’s artisanship to the very last sweep of the broom.”  


Cindy O’Hara is a contributing writer to Construction Executive. For more information, email cindy.ohara@yahoo.com.