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Grounded in Preservation

Hillier Architecture's 10-year-old historic preservation studio has restored a broad range of iconic buildings and adapted others to creative new uses.

By Kim A. O'Connell

After climbing up several levels of scaffolding into the magnificent rotunda of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, George Skarmeas, AIA, seems oblivious to the cacophony of construction noise far below. Designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785, the landmark building is undergoing a restoration so complete that it is difficult to find a spot not covered in scaffolding or drop cloths. Workers fill every corner, cleaning, repairing, and replacing elements – pounding, sawing, and shouting as they go. Up in the rotunda, however, with the ceiling close enough to touch, Skarmeas is lost in the exquisite detailing, noting how each painted flourish will be painstakingly reproduced.

Skarmeas may be more invested in the success of this restoration than anyone. As the founding principal of Hillier Architecture's 10-year-old historic preservation studio, Skarmeas has made it his personal mission to pursue the most challenging and complex restoration projects, usually involving the nation's most historically and architecturally significant structures. The Virginia Capitol is just one project in an impressive roster that includes the U.S. Supreme Court and the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, D.C., the New Jersey State House in Trenton, and the St. Louis Public Library. Other projects are an eclectic mix, ranging from one of the studio's earliest efforts – the restoration of the Undine Barge Club, a Frank Furness masterwork on Philadelphia's Boathouse Row – to one of its most recent, the development of a master plan for the Cincinnati Museum Center, an Art Deco building known for its 1930s murals.

Although Skarmeas extols the depth of his team's credentials and acknowledges his own exacting standards for restoration, he always defers to the guidance offered by the buildings and sites themselves. When presenting the firm's winning proposal for the Virginia Capitol restoration, for example, Skarmeas admitted that they could not yet prescribe a complete solution without spending far more time investigating the bones of the structure, its relationship to site topography, and its historic connection to the city. That deference to the building and its history won Hillier the job.

"It is Jefferson's capitol, not George's," Skarmeas says. "We were clear that we didn't have preconceived notions about the restoration. The building has evolved and stood the test of time, so I can't be so arrogant to say that we'll come up with the solution in two weeks. I would want Jefferson to approve of our work. The historic fabric, the evidence, the truth, the authenticity are timeless."

A Practice Emerges
In his native Greece, Skarmeas was exposed to thousands of years of building tradition, but like many young architects he was more interested in the future, and that primarily meant new design and construction. Only after Skarmeas traveled to the United States did his nascent ideas about historic preservation coalesce into a career. Skarmeas has master's degrees in architecture and city planning from Ohio State University and a Ph.D in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. After a stint teaching architecture at Ball State University, Skarmeas began working on large-scale historic buildings with the Vitetta Group. When Hillier came calling in 1996, Skarmeas had a finely honed sense of what a preservation practice should be.

"I was interested in the way people deal with environments, the process that enables you to understand the important dimensions and subtle things that people see or don't see in the built environment," Skarmeas says. "As a society, we don't often have long-term values; we tend to consider certain aspects of the built environment disposable."

Skarmeas views preservation as a pyramid, ranging from widespread adaptive reuse projects at the bottom to the most exacting, demanding conservation work, like that at the Virginia Capitol, at the top. "We want to avoid doing 'commodity work,' bottom-line-driven conversions," he says. "The higher you go on the pyramid the more challenging and complex it becomes, and your design freedom is limited. At the same time, there is not a single architectural expression. You can do a glass box or a classical house if it is done correctly. But throwing on columns or a pediment is not necessarily the correct expression for any given building."

J. Robert Hillier, FAIA, who founded Hillier Architecture 40 years ago in Princeton, NJ, hails Skarmeas and his team for giving the firm a national presence in the preservation field. The 300-person firm, whose primary offices are in Princeton, NJ, Philadelphia, and New York City, produces a widely diverse catalog of projects, from modern, glass-sheathed office towers in Shanghai to the sustainably designed American International School in Chennai, India. In addition to preservation, the firm's other practice specialties are architecture, interior architecture, urban design and planning and graphic design.

"We're not part of all the noise that's created by the celebration of certain architects," Hillier says. "We're no Frank Gehry because of the way we're structured. We're a service-oriented firm. But what we have done that is different from most service firms is we have established these centers of excellence, such as in preservation, graphics and urban design."

Each studio is allowed to operate with surprising autonomy, although collaboration between practices is easy and encouraged. Although Bob Hillier admits that some potential clients don't know quite what to make of the firm's divergent portfolio, he says that a commitment to top-shelf design and a collaborative, service-oriented approach unify the firm. "I could see that America was starved for a heritage," Hillier says. "More and more buildings were getting older and needed preservation, so I could see it was a growing market. If you take the right people and you give them an entrepreneurial opportunity, they can do wonderful things."

Serving Jefferson and Lincoln
A hundred years have passed since the last major changes occurred at the Virginia Capitol. Between 1904 and 1906, two compatibly designed wings and the steps on the south portico were added to Jefferson's main building. Over time, interior spaces were divided or walled up, decorative paintings were covered, and mechanical systems deteriorated. Today, the capitol restoration includes both an exterior and interior renovation, including the restoration of the roof, elevators, and stairwells, the complete replacement of the heating and cooling systems, and the abatement of water leakage and moisture. Perhaps most significantly, the project entails the construction of a 27,000-sq.ft. extension beneath the south lawn, which will serve as the capitol's new visitor orientation center.

Because the capitol grounds will remain the greensward they have always been, preserving the traditional "temple on the hill" appearance of the main south entrance, visitors will be funneled into the capitol via an underground passageway. Although dwarfed in size and significance by the capitol, the visitor entrance draws on the classical vocabulary, with columns and a dentilled cornice. Inside, however, the space will be streamlined and modern, though deferential in its way, as it leads visitors through a series of ascending rooms and exhibit halls until they complete the journey into the capitol itself.

"The conscience of the design is very minimal and contemporary, with elegant materials such limestone and granite, almost a Jeffersonian idea transferred to today," says Sonja Bijelic, AIA, an associate principal. "What excites us a lot is creating a new piece that is in concert with historic places. Every historic building has its own life and way that it is approached. So, always pulling the inspiration from the historical pieces is very important to us."

At the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, DC, the architecture is far more modest, but the historical significance is no less great. The Gothic Revival cottage was the summer retreat of President Lincoln and his family during the Civil War – as important to Lincoln as Camp David is to current presidents. The house was later used as a dormitory and an office building, with industrial green carpet and linoleum covering floors and pocket doors and other architectural features dismantled. After naming the cottage one the nation's most endangered places, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Hillier Architecture to prepare a master plan that would include restoration of the deteriorated house and creation of a new Lincoln research center.

The complex restoration, which involves removing later additions and restoring details, is made more so because of the dearth of historic documentation. Initial thoughts about the restoration were altered and updated as the team learned more about the building. "Initially, they thought they'd like to operate as a house museum, exhibiting borrowed collections or some of Lincoln's papers," says Richard Ortega, PE, AIA, Hillier's director of preservation technology and project manager for the Lincoln Cottage. "Unfortunately to be able to borrow those things you have to provide an appropriate museum environment, which would have required a certain level of relative humidity and temperature controls in the building. We basically came to the conclusion that that was a bad idea. The building is the major artifact in this case, and if we choose to turn it into a museum and impose those kinds of mechanical systems on it, you're going to ruin the building, for a variety of reasons."

Because no photographs or descriptions of interior spaces have been uncovered, the designers created "period appropriate" rooms that do not necessarily display original furniture or artifacts. But using documentation where it existed, the team was able to restore the cottage's porch to its Civil War-era appearance and undertake a meticulous restoration of all the windows. "I have to give high credit to the National Trust for taking a realistic and conservative attitude and not sacrificing the building for exhibits or programmatic needs," Ortega says. "I think the building is an accurate representation of what it was in Lincoln's time. It's a journey of discovery in many ways."

A Future for the Past
Although Hillier's preservation studio continues to target what some might call "pure" preservation projects, as the nation's infrastructure ages, the firm is increasingly tasked with adapting historic buildings to new uses. Even at the Virginia Capitol, the new visitor extension is a statement more about modernity than antiquity. "What makes that project so interesting is that the capitol itself is done in period design, and there's a transitional zone that goes to the addition, which is very contemporary," says James Garrison, AIA, an associate principal who specializes in adaptive reuse. "It's got a nice mix of new and old."

Both Skarmeas and Garrison note that a vast array of renovation decisions, some more successful than others, can be applied under the forgiving banner of adaptive reuse. "My own approach is very thoroughly grounded in preservation and architectural history, projecting it forward, instead of backward in terms of pure restoration and mimicry," says Garrison. "I want to use traditional design elements as they were really intended and not as a veneer, while keeping the essential qualities of the building. The whole reason you want to adapt a building is that it has certain qualities that are worth keeping."

One such structure is the Parc Rittenhouse, a 1927 hotel in one of Philadelphia's most historic neighborhoods. The 17-story structure, which was first built as the Penn Athletic Club, is replete with architectural features such as iron railings, arched windows, and terra-cotta ornaments. The firm is now tasked with converting the building into condominiums above ground-level retail spaces, adding three new stories that will be set back from the original façade to distinguish old from new.

In Somerset County, New Jersey, the firm is now transforming an early 20th-century country estate once owned by a member of the Macy family (of department store fame) into a boutique hotel and spa for Sir Richard Branson. The main building will be restored to its original appearance wherever possible, with major additions taking their cues from the historic structure.

"It's a challenge to design the additions in a way that is compatible with the house and yet distinct, allowing the main portion of the house to be the visually dominant element," says Robert Hotes, AIA, a senior preservation architect with the firm. "While this house is certainly beautiful, and it is significant for its period, it's not a truly landmark structure. We're creating a very interesting dialog between the old and the new. The new pieces will take the old pieces as a starting point and perhaps exaggerate them and play up this luxury aspect, which is part of its program and purpose. It's a more fun response to the historic context."

One of the firm's most intriguing adaptations involved the reuse of the Chester Waterside Power Station, a massive industrial-age structure in Chester, Pennsylvania. Inside the 100-year-old neoclassical building, the firm designed the sleek, utterly modern headquarters for Synygy, a software development company. At first glance, the cold, gray aluminum and glass boxes that organize the space appear incongruous with the building's warm, cream-colored stone and elegant columns. In a way, though, the fact that a building that once housed the technology of its time now houses the technology of ours is fitting.

"There are so many young companies that are intrigued by these old buildings," says Sonja Bijelic, who led the project. "The building then becomes almost a learning lesson for other young companies, showing the continuation of the ideas about technology over the centuries. The idea was to show technology and to respect the existing building."

George Skarmeas gives high praise to the Synygy project, even if he might prefer to restore those buildings that remind him of the Greek temples of his youth. What he appreciates is the thoughtfulness and intelligence behind the Synygy design – and the fact that the interventions rest lightly on the historic structure and could be easily removed by future generations. "George and the rest of the studio are committed to historic preservation by the book – doing it the right way or not at all," Hotes says. "And that goes for the projects that fit into that premier landmark category as well as anything else."

"Every year more buildings will be deemed historically significant," Skarmeas adds. "From a social point of view, preservation is about more than architecture; it is an important activity that allows people to do the right thing." TB

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