When it comes to adaptive-reuse projects, designers don’t have much elbow room. They have to work within the confines set by the basic bones of the building. Sure, they can tweak a few things here and there. But making the most of the cards they’ve been dealt, in terms of a structure’s brick-and-mortar framework, represents one of the biggest challenges related to breathing dynamic new life into a moribund box.
Designers at Gensler’s Houston office found themselves grappling with that situation at what would become the Watermark Baton Rouge hotel, a member of Marriott Intl.’s Autograph Collection. The building housing that hotel first opened in 1925 as the headquarters of the Louisiana National Bank before becoming state offices in the 1960s.
The building was bought in 2014 by local developer Mike Wampold, owner of the Wampold Cos., who planned to turn it into a hotel. Douglas Detiveaux, a Gensler associate who served as lead designer on the project, says the major space-planning issue his team faced within the 12-story structure was finding a way to fit 144 guest rooms into its 11 upper floors.
“That was the owner’s magic number for making the project work, and he also wanted a minimum of 300 sq. ft. for each guest room,” says Detiveaux. “The narrow footprint of the building’s top floors made that quite a challenge for us, requiring extensive study of various guest room and corridor layout configurations to provide efficient room length/width proportions that also met building code egress requirements. Ultimately, we ‘Tetris-ed’ together several unique room layouts that got us the required inventory.”
That translated into 15 rooms on the second floor; 13 rooms per floor on levels three through 10, and 12 per floor on the top two floors. However, the second floor proved to be especially problematic. The designers found themselves working with eight spaces on one side of that level that had no windows—a definite no-no, since building codes require such dwelling units to have natural light.
“Those eight rooms are located within part of a two-story addition to the building from the 1950s that’s on the property line, which made it impractical to put windows in its exterior wall,” explains Detiveaux. “Our solution to that involved cutting in towering skylight openings for those rooms, which fulfilled the code requirements while also creating a one-of-a-kind experience for guests.”
Beyond addressing such logistical issues, the Gensler team worked to create an interior environment that skillfully references the building’s two previous incarnations. That involved preserving several original elements throughout the hotel, including eight bas-relief murals created for the bank by famed Louisiana artist Angela Gregory in 1949 in the space now housing its signature restaurant and a sculpted marble staircase. Eight Greek-revival fluted columns, demolished in a 1960s renovation, were re-created and installed in the lobby.
The designers then sought to fuse whimsical contemporary touches with the classic ones. In the guest rooms, that translates to doors bearing a custom laminate replication of a bank vault, a custom wallcovering that incorporates the hotel’s initials in an art deco pattern and partially exposed concrete columns on the walls and ceilings.
The mix of past and present within the public spaces includes the entry vestibule, which is flanked by two lenticular displays that depict stylized iconography of Louisiana, such as Lady Liberty donning a Mardi Gras mask; a series of wall-mounted photos of the bank’s founders that have been altered to show them using such modern-day tech toys as smartphones and earbuds; and a desk fronting the elevator bank that displays a selection of old-fashioned machines, including a scale, a rotary telephone and a time-stamp punch clock.
“Those artifacts represent the hands-on, mechanical nature of the tools used on a daily basis by the bankers and government-office workers who once toiled in the building,” says Detiveaux. “Several of the more damaged items on the desk were taken apart and hand-painted white to give them a curated feel, while others were restored and polished to take them back to their original luster.”
Even the hotel’s public restrooms—often an orphan when it comes to getting designers’ attention—received a wow-inducing makeover by the Gensler team. “We played up a raw-versus-refined theme in this space, intentionally juxtaposing design elements from various time periods to create a truly unique look that we termed ‘glamdustrial.’ We blended timeless masculine and feminine design elements in a mostly black-and-white interior, with a pop of chartreuse on the stall doors, to create a vivid experience in an unexpected place,” says Detiveaux.
Clearly, the writing is on the wall (and not just the bathroom ones) for designers working on adaptive-reuse projects: Finding imaginative ways to layer bygone eras into the present day can be memorable—even historic.
Gensler, Houston office: Greg LaCour and Nancy Nodler, principals; Douglas Detiveaux, associate and interior designer; Mark Talma, designer; Benjamin Nanson, architect; Hyun-Ju Lee, technical designer
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