Revitalizing Historic Facilities

Adaptive reuse projects can add new functions, new life, and vitality not only to buildings, but also to key sections of campuses or even entire campuses. Potential choices can be as surprising as they are strategic.

Such outcomes do not come easily, however. Campus decision makers commonly face the issue of what to do with a building that has outlived its original or current use in the face of changing academic, enrollment, and strategic goals. Costs and the need for sensitivity to historic buildings and campus legacy also are bound up in the process, as is another key issue: sustainability, or how to create a quality institutional structure that will remain relevant for many decades to come, and to do so with a minimal expenditure of resources.

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Peter Aaron / Courtesy of 1100 Architect

Two recent projects are among those that have pointed ways forward for their institutions: the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House in Philadelphia and Haverford College’s Visual Culture Arts Media (VCAM) building in Haverford, PA. In addition to being recent, these projects are bold. Each has leveraged and expanded upon, and within, venerable forms with aplomb in order to meet new demands.

Melding Old With New in Philadelphia

The University of Pennsylvania project, for a reported cost of $18.5 million, opened in 2016. It transformed a 168-year-old fraternity house, a 900-square-foot structure at the center of campus, into a portion of an expanded, 17,400-square-foot, environmentally sustainable building occupied by Perry World House, which as the university indicates, is a cross-disciplinary hub for international relations and global engagement. The design firm, New York-based 1100 Architect, describes the building’s flexible, open “range of spaces, including classrooms, meeting rooms, 14 offices, a 50-person conference room, and common areas, all designed to encourage interaction. At its core is the World Forum, a glass-enclosed atrium that will serve as a dynamic multi-use event space.”

The refreshingly frank yet smooth melding of the original house with the new limestone-clad building creates a striking, distinctive exterior appearance.

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Peter Aaron / Courtesy of 1100 Architect

David Piscuskas, founding principal, 1100 Architect, tells Spaces4Learning that “Perry World House is the outcome of a rigorous analysis of program and space, and the result is a building that performs” and does so informed by the vision of the university.

The architectural-award-winning project speaks to what is driving some discussions about the future of historic structures on campuses today. As Piscuskas puts it, “Colleges and universities are taking a hard look at historic facilities in an effort to optimize existing resources. In terms of budgets, environmental resources, and the importance of campus character, there is good reason to find value in older buildings rather than razing them to start anew.”

Finding such value is one thing. Making it a reality is another. The fact is that the historic nature of much of the high-profile Philadelphia campus required a careful balance between a venerable architectural past and a strategic future. Piscuskas explains that the university “has a long and distinguished record of architectural stewardship. Rather than freezing its campus in one historical style, it looks for buildings that not only perform, but [also] contribute distinction and texture to its beautifully layered campus.”

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Peter Aaron / Courtesy of 1100 Architect

He continues, “In the case of Perry World House, the historical cottage is part of what makes the building perform: by providing two smaller interior spaces—the lower-floor lounge and the upper-floor conference room—and by maintaining the image of a house as a register of the site’s residential history.” In a sense, the adaptive reuse project was not about choosing the past or the future, but about embracing them both to make something new and relevant.

The building, as Piscuskas says, merges “internal reflection with progressive outreach, so even as it refers to the site’s history by including the historical cottage in its function and form, the building is focused on the future.”

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Peter Aaron / Courtesy of 1100 Architect

Finding Fresh Purpose for Existing Spaces

Not far from Philadelphia, a very different building has brought a bold new life to an historic building at Haverford College. There, long-term changes in enrollment and campus buildings, including the construction of an athletic center and the crafting of a master plan, presented planners with various options for the pre-existing Ryan Gymnasium, housed in a building from around 1900. Campus stakeholders saw in the centrally located building “great potential” and “real opportunity” for a new set of functions, reports David Harrower, assistant director of Facilities Management for Planning and Design.

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Scott Berman

The campus forged ahead with a project, completed in 2017, that the architect, Minneapolis-based MSR Design, has called “an epic makeover,” which turned the gym into a center for “hands-on learning (in) visual literacy across the liberal arts.” The college points out that VCAM now houses arts and humanities, and has facilities for a “new visual studies program, cultivating film and digital media projects; curatorial experimentation and arts exhibition; and 3D printing, prototyping, and design…(and a) screening room, a central campus lounge and community kitchen, an innovation incubator, and flexible studio/exhibition labs.” The design won an American Institute of Architects award in 2018.

Harrower says VCAM can be seen “as a conversation between old and new.” Among the many changes that created it: removing a basement swimming pool and inserting into the building’s huge atrium a stack, so to speak, consisting of various spaces, including some for teaching and exhibition. The old gym’s distinctive, suspended running track remains, now serving, after its floor was made level, as a walkway.

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Scott Berman

This is an impressively scaled and attractive interior with many creative touches, such as reusing sections of the old gym floor; furniture pieces carefully selected for the spaces they occupy, including corners; and old running track balusters repurposed as legs for a large table in an attractive presentation lounge community kitchen. The space is a vibrant one also serves as an attractive pathway, and lingering place, that connects the north and south sides of the campus. The bottom line, as Harrower puts it, is that VCAM has achieved “all that was envisioned for it.”

All told, the buildings are bold examples of adaptive reuse, and show the willingness of institutions to celebrate and revitalize historic buildings while taking strategic steps forward. Such an approach could open up countless options, even surprising ones, for existing spaces and overall buildings on campuses from coast to coast.

revitalizing historic facilities 

Photos Credit Scott Berman

Haverford College’s VCAM facility is a 24/7 creative hub that has brought new life to an outdated gymnasium.

Two ideas about adaptive reuse projects on campus:

  • Consider bringing together like functions and programs with logical links into adapted older buildings. Historic structures with outstanding finishes, fixtures, and aesthetic flourishes inside and out can serve accordingly. It is not about shoehorning new things into a building; it’s about consolidation with character.
  • Bear in mind that “there is abundant potential sheltered within existing buildings; it doesn’t take a wrecking ball to be creative,” says Piscuskas at 1100 Architect, adding, “Preservation and reuse can be just as farsighted and forward-looking as a newly built structure.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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