Designers turning offices, banks and other commercial buildings into hospitality venues must meld a passion for the past with a vision for the future.
By Matthew Hall
Portman notes that that 50-year-old building was originally designed by his firm. “But it’s not like our old plans told the story of what exists in the building today,” he says. “We discovered that a half-century of tenant fit-outs and upgrades had created a situation where existing conditions were inconsistent from floor to floor, and in some cases, from office to office. That made converting the office bays into configurations suited to today’s guest rooms all the more problematic.”
Changing an office building into a hotel also typically entails making major overhauls to the structure’s entrance and exit systems, FRCH’s Stapleton notes. His firm ran into that situation in its role as design architect for the conversion of the historic Bartlett Building in Cincinnati—a century-old structure designed by legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham—from a bank headquarters into the Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel. (Cauhaus Design did the project's interiors.)
“The original building had its main banking hall on the second floor, and our plans involved converting that space into a meeting and ballroom space,” he explains. “But in making that decision, we had to install several new stair towers to accommodate the increased foot traffic that would be going up to that area.”
There’s also the issue of figuring out which features in an existing building to keep—and which ones have to go. In some cases, GrizForm’s Bové notes, local historical societies or ordinances play a major role in such decisions.
She has seen those entities impact several GrizForm projects, including Agua 301, a new Mexican restaurant the firm designed in the historic Lumber Shed within the newly redeveloped Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C. The district's Office of Planning's Historic Preservation Review Board required that the columns in the space remain untouched, except for lighting, she says.
“We responded to that requirement by hanging a Mayan-inspired, wood trellis structure from the ceiling. The trellis wraps the columns, thereby celebrating them, while also providing shade from the floor-to-ceiling windows that were installed to highlight the shed’s concrete box and its open plan.”
And sometimes, what seems like a no-brainer decision on which features to retain and reuse gets complicated. Stapleton notes that the Bartlett Building is home to a striking lobby and bank vault in its basement. But for now, at least, they’re not part of the new Renaissance hotel.
“While everyone involved with the project really wanted to convert that area into some kind of usable space, it did not fit with the essential project program that was needed to make the hotel function,” he says. “We have mothballed this space so that it may be converted into a new use in the future.”
That decision, he notes, reflects these punch-list items for such projects: “The goal in any adaptive reuse project is to save everything possible, as long as it does not make the building less safe, hinder the needed building functionality, or become too costly to preserve and/or maintain.”
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