Blast from the Past

Historic renovation boom changing the future:

Standing in Beacon Hill, Boston, the John Adams courthouse, built in 1894, is at once historic and modern; the granite façade and slate roof are a reminder of the 19th-century legal work, while the voice/data/video and state-of-the-art lighting represent something more 21st century.

During the past 100 years, the courthouse contained judicial activity and housed the Boston Police Department. It was originally designed by Boston’s first city architect, George A. Clough, and when it needed renovation, Ostrow Electric Co., Worcester, Mass., with considerable experience in preservation of historic buildings, brought the electrical system up to date while maintaining the building’s historic look.

The renovation program includes a complete refurbishment of the facility to accommodate all court and library functions. The most important element will be the construction of a new seven-justice courtroom for the Supreme Judicial Court. The building will be supported with new services, new environmental and electrical systems and fully integrated information technology. 

Not only are courthouses being preserved rather than replaced, the inner core of many cities in the United States are being renovated. Renovation work is on the rise in cities and small towns across the country. Federal tax incentives as well as a need for more real estate has led to a boom in historic renovation from San Diego to Boston.

Guy White, senior consultant of GWA, Columbia, S.C., an electrical engineering firm, specializes in historic renovation work, and he has seen an increase in it in the past few years. Robert Ford Electric Co., Bryn Mawr, Pa., agrees. In the past few years, the family-owned company has renovated aging factories, utility plants and a former insurance company. And it’s not just downtown, big cities or necessarily your classic historic facilities.

According to Reed Construction Data/RS Means, universities and municipal building owners this year dedicated 75 percent of their budgets to renovations. Healthcare dedicated 50 percent, and government dedicated 60 percent.

The Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) is one reason many historic renovations are underway. The HPF, a federal grant program, provides matching grants-in-aid to states, territories and tribes for protection and preservation of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Also, two tax incentive programs, the Historic Preservation Tax Credit (HPTC) and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, offer significant tax breaks for the rehabilitation of income-producing historic buildings and housing.

But while the work is available, only a small percentage of contractors embrace it. These projects are harder than new construction. Most who perform the work agree. First of all, White said, “Ninety-nine times out of 100 there is no documentation, there are no drawings [for architects or engineers] to go by. At any time, you would love to find the documentation, but you just won’t.”

Problems with renovation
Whatever the project, White said, when it comes to historic renovation, the contractor needs to know all about documentation and regulations. There are plenty of them. Any building on the historic register will be most challenging of all, since the regulations and local codes will make any change a matter of considerable paperwork as well as physical work.

What a contractor can expect to find is out-of-date construction such as terra cotta block walls, which they will have to cut through before they can accomplish anything else. But it may be worth the effort. Increasingly, historic cities are finding the advantages of restoring their old facilities, bringing new life to depressed urban areas or simply maintaining the historic integrity of the area.

Since most renovation projects require updates to existing electrical systems, much of the work is a matter of hiding wire where wire never ran before. Running electric begins from the ground up again, focusing on keeping historic integrity.

“Often, you have to channel out plaster walls, plaster ceilings—you don’t want to cut decorative walls for example,” White said. “It’s not a game for rookies. It takes a little higher expertise because of the sensitivity and complex nature of the work.”

And, for that matter, “It’s not something everyone is interested in doing,” White said. “You have to love old stuff, and it has to be something you enjoy doing.”

That love of old stuff is generally not just limited to the contractors working on it. Most building owners want to salvage all the old parts they can, Purcell said. A good contractor will know what parts can and cannot be salvaged and will avoid changes later in the project when they find that a piece the owner wanted to salvage will not survive.

The biggest challenge are the unknowns, said Stuart Ford, Robert Ford Electric’s vice president. “You never know what you’ll get until you open it up,” Ford said.

Beyond the unknowns and conflicts with ownership, Ford said the environmental issues often add a layer of complexity to a restoration project. Often contractors strip back the plaster to restore brick walls, sand blasting the entire interior. As in Philadelphia, “We often run into plaster laden with asbestos,” Ebersoldt said. These issues require abatements, which can often delay a project.

“We don’t want our guys anywhere near anything that could be a health hazard,” Ford said. In some cases, that means waiting for trained asbestos removers.

There are plenty of other challenges. Most developers want energy efficiency, something the old buildings don’t always lend themselves to. In addition, if the building is more than 75 feet, an emergency generator comes into the picture.

Qualifying for a historic tax credit requires that the architect and contractors understand the requirements and are able to fill out necessary applications. While the work is underway and even after qualification, state and federal representatives for the programs come through the building.

Renovation across the nation
St. Louis, Missouri, is aggressively renovating many of its historic buildings, including the former Garment Row, where large amounts of clothing manufacturing took place in the 19th and early 20th century.

Rosemann and Associates is one of the architecture firms that are recreating downtown St. Louis. Missouri is one of several states that offers a historic tax credit program, in addition to federal tax credit programs, which provides an incentive for historic preservation.

In the past four or five years, said Vince Ebersoldt, project manager at Rosemann, St. Louis has been remaking itself by renovating former warehouses and commercial buildings that have passed the century mark and turning them into office space and more than 2,000 residences.

Ebersoldt predicts historic renovation work will continue at its current high rate for several more years as incentives continue and demand for housing and office space in St. Louis, Kansas City and smaller towns continues.

With each project, Ebersoldt said, the architects work with the subcontractors on a design/build basis.

“The days of sitting in your office, doing your own design and then sending it out to bid are gone,” he said. Instead, he likes to sit down with the owner, engineers and the contractors to strategize the best design for each historic building.

Typically, the buildings amount to vacant warehouses or factories. Built between 1895 and 1920, they are basic—a rectangle with column every 20 feet, a first-floor showroom and upstairs area for clothing production.

“It’s a great opportunity for creativity,” Ebersoldt said. “Basically, you have a big rectangle, and if you need, say, eight living units inside, there are no rules. Just stay clear of the columns.”

Rosemann makes a practice of preserving history while bringing the cutting-edge design and technology to the project as well.

“When I got out of school I looked at myself as more of a forward-looking architect,” Ebersoldt said. Since then, he has found that working with history is a very creative way of looking forward. “You’re afforded the freedom to make the sleek or the cutting-edge happen.” In Denver, much of the renovation work has been the transition of 100-year-old warehouses downtown to upscale lofts. OZ Architecture takes on many of the historic renovations, and every project is a bid/build. In this case, a contractor needs to self educate before bidding on a historic renovation, said Linda Purcell, OZ associate principal. Electrical contractors need to walk the site before they see the drawings or make any decisions.

“The first walkthrough can be grim,” she said. Vacant or even inhabited buildings can be a sorry sight after 100 years. On walkthroughs, one might find lopsided foundations and indications of rodent activities. Often, she said, “The client hates the building.”

For that reason, a good understanding of what the project will become as well as some creative thinking are vital. In addition, she said, “Expect a full set of drawings from the general contractor. You should review all the drawings, not just the electrical.”

Keith Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald’s Electrical Contracting, Hinkley, Ill., has brought his renovation skills back to the office. Fitzgerald’s is renovating a former stagecoach stop as the company’s office 40 miles west of Chicago on Route 30. His company has its share of experience with historic renovations, including the Geneva Public Library, Geneva, Ill., originally built in 1908.

Fitzgerald bought the brick Italianate former stagecoach shop and is in the process of restoring it for the company’s use. This unique building served as the last stop for pioneers heading west across the prairie from about 1845.

“There won’t be another place like it,” Fitzgerald said. He calls it the “essence of the prairie,” and finds it still marks the transition from Chicago urban area to farm country. The 3,000-square-foot building had one bathroom, nine fireplaces and an electrical system installed in 1940. By the time he’s finished next summer, Fitzgerald said, the office building will be fully functional and modern, yet it will reflect its long history.     EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at




About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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