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Project: 1840 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA

Architect: Commonwealth Architects, Richmond, VA; Robert S. Mills, AIA, principal; Kenneth W. Pope, AIA, NCARB, project architect; Kitisak Ashley, architectural designer; Bryan Clark Green, PhD, architectural historian

General Contractor: Trent Construction, LLC, Richmond, VA

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Awards
Adaptive Re-Use

Winner: Commonwealth Architects

In Character

By Hadiya Strasberg

"Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten." So read a sign on the showroom floor of the Atlantic Motor Company car dealership at 1840 West Broad Street in Richmond, VA, before the building was vacated in the mid 1980s. This motto, once descriptive of the dealership's automobiles, may be applied to the rehabilitation of the building as well. In 2004, Richmond-based Commonwealth Architects set out to transform the dilapidated two-story former dealership into retail and office space.

The 19,600-sq.ft. trapezoid-shaped building – designed by Richmond-based architect Albert F. Huntt with Bascomb J. Rowlett and constructed in 1919 – suited the needs of the automobile sales and repair industry along this urban corridor. Its two stories were occupied by a main showroom on the south side and garage areas and shops on the west side. An alley behind the north façade provided access to a few service entrances and garage bays. Though its function changed over the years, from various automobile dealerships to appliance-sales, dry-cleaning and t-shirt graphics companies, the historic fabric of the building remained untouched. When Commonwealth Architects commenced work on the project, 1840 West Broad Street was severely run down but showed signs of having good architectural bones.

To adapt the space to retail and office uses, Commonwealth Architects designed a rehabilitation plan for both the exterior and the interior as well as extensive site upgrades. The first order of business was the addition of a parking lot to create a usable site. From the City of Richmond, Commonwealth Architects, along with the civil engineer and landscape architect, co-opted an adjacent piece of land – a trapezoid-shaped traffic island to the west of the building that for the first half of the 20th century was occupied by a building owned by The C.F. Sauer Company (also the owner of 1840 West Broad Street). That building was demolished by the city in the 1960s and the land was left unoccupied for many years.

"This was one of many instances during the project in which we turned impediments into advantages," says Ken Pope, AIA, project architect for Commonwealth Architects. "In this case, the road alignment had created a confusing traffic situation and greatly reduced the parking in the area." The intersecting street was closed and the land was captured for parking. "It was a win-win situation," says Pope. "The city wanted to improve the streetscaping and we wanted to provide a parking lot and improve access to the main entrance."

Now a parking lot, the once deserted traffic island is no longer a blight on the neighborhood. Richmond-based Higgins & Gerstenmaier Landscape Architects designed the site elements, which include metal fencing and bollards, brick paving, a wood trellis and new shrubbery and trees. Historically styled, post-mounted lanterns, designed and fabricated by Sternberg Lighting of Roselle, IL, were also installed.

Like many of Commonwealth Architects' projects, the rehabilitation utilized both federal and state historic investment tax credits to aid in financing, which made the project more economically viable. This mandated that the firm comply with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. "Contrary to what many people think, we didn't feel tied down or held back by the standards," says Bryan Clark Green, PhD, architectural historian with Commonwealth Architects. "Too often, people see them as a disincentive, but we view them as just the opposite. The standards promote private investment, especially in historic urban areas, which is great. They encourage consistency in our work, as well as high standards and the pursuit of long-term solutions."

Commonwealth Architects follows these principles with all projects. "The goal at all times," says Green, "is to return the historic character of the building using the gentlest means possible." To do so, he elaborates, the firm "works to retain as much historic building material as possible and make any new interventions compatible, yet distinct from the historic fabric."

Exterior work was extensive, but did not compromise the historic integrity of the building. The original brick façade was re-pointed, where necessary, with traditional lime-based mortar. For repairs around the windows and doors, the contractor salvaged bricks from a retaining wall at the rear of 1840 West Broad Street. "The brick was a perfect match," says Green. "It turns out that the wall of that small structure was probably salvaged from the Sauer headquarters once located on the side of the traffic island, which was built at the same time as the building we were rehabilitating."

Armed with original building plans and some historic images, Commonwealth Architects restored the windows, few of which were original. "The large storefront windows had been replaced over time with inappropriate aluminum-framed panes that were narrower than the originals," says Pope. "For the windows on the south façade, we specified insulated glass in the original size." The true-divided-lite windows above the storefronts were replaced and the wood frames were rehabilitated and re-glazed using original glass, some of which had survived. On the west elevation, the steel window frames were cleaned and rehabilitated in place and re-glazed with clear glass. "They were originally glazed with textured, industrial glass, but we used clear glass to promote visibility," Pope explains. All of the windows were retrofitted with internal storm windows from the Richmond-based Thermo-Press Corporation in order to improve energy efficiency without sacrificing the look of the windows from the exterior.

Other glazing at 1840 West Broad Street included new skylights. "We specified gable-end glass skylights that are similar to the historic ones shown in the original building plans," says Pope. They allow light to penetrate the new office spaces planned in the former storage areas. Before the skylights were installed, however, the badly damaged asphalt roof was removed and replaced with a 3-ply built-up roof including a modified granular cap-sheet roof.

Few of the historic exterior entrances remained and the only original exterior garage door was found to be rotten. The remainder of the historic automobile entrances had been replaced with overhead coiling metal doors that were insensitive to the character of the structure. While the historic door was not salvageable, Commonwealth Architects used it as a model to replicate new doors. "We wanted to design new garage doors in the style of the historic one and those recorded in the drawings – barn-type, double-leaf sliding doors," says Green. "However, for tax-credit purposes, they needed to be recognizable as newly introduced architectural elements, so we created hinged instead of sliding doors and used mahogany instead of white pine." Steel canopies were designed for entrances on the west and north.

Just as the garage doors serve as a reminder of the building's past use, so does the showroom. The former showroom is a two-story space with a mezzanine as its defining feature. The room's plaster walls, columns and cove ceiling were repaired and rehabilitated. "The existing ceiling was badly damaged by water and had collapsed," says Green. "We also needed to repair or replace the joists to ensure the structural integrity of the building." No restoration work was needed for the unique terra-cotta floor tile; a wet-mop did the trick.

Part of the effort to return the showroom to its original appearance was to re-create the decorative-plaster ceiling panels. These rectangular and trapezoidal profiles were documented before removal of the damaged ceiling and rebuilt after the new ceiling was installed. Lighting in the showroom, provided by Richmond-based Reynolds Lighting Supply, was designed to fit the style of the building. "We didn't have any documentation that told us what the original lighting looked like," says Green, "and the lighting that was there in 2004 was pretty bland fluorescent strip fixtures."

The mezzanine level, accessed from the showroom by two parallel staircases, features a restored balustrade with turned posts. The existing railing did not meet building code and needed to be raised 11 in. for safety reasons. Commonwealth Architects' unique solution was to mount tempered glass in simple extruded-aluminum brackets atop the balustrade. "We started out with a steel pipe rail," says Pope, "but no one was thrilled with the aesthetic so we went back to the drawing board. This solution doesn't visually detract from the historic character of the space. One can only see the addition when close up."

One of the staircases from the showroom provides access to the old repair department behind the north wall of the showroom. Because the space was never well lit, Commonwealth Architects planned it for functional purposes, such as bathrooms and meeting rooms, which are shared between the south and north tenants. Between the old repair and storage rooms is a dividing wall with old metal sliding doors that are wide enough for cars. The walls and ceiling beams had been whitewashed, but Commonwealth Architects uncovered colorful terra-cotta walls and wood beams. "The whitewash was easy to remove," says Green, "but we had to be careful in restoring the terra cotta, because there were a lot of holes to fill."

Old automobile storage rooms were adapted as offices for the new tenants, which include the general contractor on the project, Trent Construction, LLC, and an architecture firm, BCWH Architects. "The floor remains mostly open, with only 6-ft. partitions where needed," says Green. "The dividers are not tied to historic walls and are easily reversible at a later date." For conference and storage areas, full-height partitions were constructed, but they consist of glass transoms above 8 ft. to retain the character of the historic space.

Though it is no longer an automobile dealership, 1840 West Broad Street's style was preserved in the rehabilitation. It took a creative architecture firm, fine craftspeople and a very committed and forward-thinking client. The building's owner has been headquartered across the street from 1840 West Broad Street since 1911. It owns many other modest buildings and traditional houses in the neighborhood and has a substantial investment in the community. "We were very fortunate to work with Sauer Properties," says Green. "The Secretary's standards keep everyone in check, but our client was already thinking long-term." Pope adds, "A lot of the credit goes to Brad Sauer. At every fork in the road, he pushed for the right solution and not the cheapest and fastest one."

The rehabilitation of 1840 West Broad Street was completed in less than one year for $3.6 million. It is now listed on the Virginia Landmarks register and the National Register of Historic Places. Commonwealth Architects believes that modest buildings like 1840 West Broad Street are the backbone of American communities and is currently designing another one with Sauer Properties, also an historic investment tax-credit project – an old factory a few blocks from the old car dealership.  

 

 

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