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Group Dynamics

Tradition and contextualism are essential to the work of Newport Collaborative Architects, Inc.
By Kim A. O'Connell

For three graduate students at Miami University in Ohio, one could say that they literally lived and breathed architecture. In their classes, they studied both traditional and modern precedents, collaborated on projects and studied under visiting critics, including such luminaries as Bruce Goff, Peter Eisenman, Stanley Tigerman and Romaldo Giurgola. Their full immersion into their chosen profession continued off-campus too. The three had the unique opportunity to live together in a house that was designed by previous Miami University architecture students for use by others in the program (a tradition that continues to this day). Sometimes, those famous practitioners would stay at the house with the students, offering insights in casual conversations that others would have paid good money for.

What those three students couldn't know then was that they would still be collaborating closely nearly 35 years later. Within just a few years of graduating, and after separate stints at prominent firms in New England and Chicago, John Grosvenor, AIA, Glenn Gardiner, AIA, LEED AP, and J. Michael Abbott, AIA, CNU-A, came together again in 1981 to found their own firm in Rhode Island, called Newport Collaborative Architects, Inc. (NCA). Today, NCA has become one of the largest architecture firms in the state, with the addition of new principals Mohamad Farzan, RIBA, AIA, and Jack Evans, offering a full range of traditional design services from their two offices in Newport and Providence. Surrounded by an incredible density of historic and traditional architecture, NCA specializes in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, master planning and new construction for many public and private clients. The firm currently operates with a staff of about 25 people (a number that waxes and wanes with the economy) and has won close to 100 awards to date.

Although the three principals took their own unique paths to graduate school, they all developed a strong appreciation for tradition and context. Grosvenor grew up in history-steeped New England, where his father worked as an artist and taught architecture, before heading to the Midwest to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology from Kenyon College. Gardiner was raised outside Chicago, where he says he "couldn't help but be influenced by Wright and Sullivan and the Chicago School," earning a bachelor's degree in architecture at the University of Illinois. And Abbott, who grew up in Ohio's farm country, earned a bachelor's in environmental design from Miami University, where he gained an understanding of the profound connections between the built and natural environments.

This mix of backgrounds and interests has resulted in the firm's remarkably sensitive approach to design, whether it be infilling vacant urban lots, restoring or re-creating historic details in preservation projects or incorporating sustainable elements that preserve a building's embodied energy or lower its carbon footprint. Recent projects include the firm's Palladian design for the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue in Newport; a new Golf House at the Carnegie Abbey Country Club in Portsmouth, RI, next to Narragansett Bay, which blends aesthetically with the surrounding landscape; the new Center for Marine and Nautical Sciences at Tabor Academy in Marion, MA; and the restoration of the mid-century modern Church of St. Gregory the Great in Portsmouth, RI (see Traditional Building, December 2009), as well as several master planning efforts, lighthouse restoration projects (see Traditional Building, October 2009) and designs for private residences around the state.

"We don't want to do just individual buildings, but rather the whole block in context," Grosvenor says. "We want to be sympathetic to the architecture around us. It's been the root of our practice. Whether we're adjusting a building already standing or designing a new one, we're always working with an eye on how to make it fit."

Making Old Buildings Relevant
In the 1970s, half a century after it opened to great fanfare, the Loew's Movie Palace in downtown Providence was on the verge of demolition. Like so many "grande dames" of its day, the building had fallen into disuse and disrepair, its 1920s opulence devalued in an era of corporate Modernism and multiplexes. Today, however, the palace has been positively transformed.

The building has been completely renovated and expanded through a multi-year, multi-phase effort led by NCA, with many of its most historic features meticulously restored, to become the popular Providence Performing Arts Center. The playhouse has helped to foster the city's ongoing downtown renaissance, drawing large crowds for Broadway shows and family programs such as Jersey Boys and Nickelodeon's Storytime Live.

"The building was functionally obsolete," says Abbott, "so we converted it from a movie theater to a live stage. We took part of a city street and pushed out the back part of the theater so it could accommodate performing arts groups….The whole concept of knocking things down and building something new in its place was just foreign to me. We're always trying to find ways to make old buildings still relevant in today's market, to give them enough functionality so they can still exist."

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse have been the backbones of NCA's portfolio since the firm's founding. In the early 1980s, the market was "overheated with condominium projects," as Grosvenor recalls, so they put their energy into historic preservation tax credit projects, earning several important commissions.

One groundbreaking project for the firm was the rehabilitation of Perry Mill in downtown Newport – a town that was chockablock with historic buildings and infrastructure just waiting to be renovated and repurposed. Perry Mill was a mammoth structure that had been severely damaged in a hurricane, until the firm reconstructed and restored it to become the Newport Bay Club and Hotel. "It had lost its top half," says Abbott, "so we went to the city and proposed adding two floors to re-create the missing clerestory gabled roof and 20-ft. cupola." The project earned the firm two of its earliest awards from the American Institute of Architects.

More recently, the International Yacht Restoration School commissioned the firm to rehabilitate Aquidneck Mill, a circa-1831 former textile plant constructed from native green granite and brick, with a post and beam interior. The building was rehabbed to include space for yacht restoration and boat building, a library and visitor center, as well as office space that can be rented to other companies. NCA points to the project as a prime example of the economic value of leveraging federal and state preservation tax credits in rehabilitation.

In addition, the firm came up with a creative way to retain the building's extant historic windows while installing more energy-efficient new windows where necessary. When work began, about half of the building's original 16-on-16, double-hung windows had been removed and their openings filled in to rework the building for other uses. For the rehabilitation, all the window openings were returned to their original locations and existing windows or window parts were preserved and restored whenever possible.

In an edifying solution to the common problem of combining new and old windows, the firm placed all the remaining original windows on the south side of the building so that one elevation could retain its historic appearance. New, more energy-efficient windows were placed on the colder north side, although they were designed to emulate the historic windows as well.

At Fort Adams, a coastal fortification in Newport that dates to the early-19th century, NCA was engaged by the Fort Adams Trust to restore and reconstruct the property's historic redoubt and jail for modern uses. The original single-story masonry building dated to 1845, and a wooden second story had been added in 1880 for more jail cells and office space. After a storm leveled the second story in 1945, however, the building lay dormant for more than 50 years.

Working with the Trust, NCA built a new second-story addition, based on historic photographs and plans, for use as the Trust's administrative offices. The first-floor jail is now a museum, while the circa-1869 Guard Room is now a gift shop. The project was designed to conform to the LEED Gold standard for sustainability.

Taking an historically sensitive and understated approach to sustainability is typical of the firm, which retains several LEED-accredited professionals. "We were sustainable before sustainability was in," says Grosvenor. "People like to think that new building technology is what's driving LEED, but it has a lot more to do with how you design a building, how it's sited. Good design basically embodies passive solar, product durability and a smart-growth attitude. It happens to be what we have here in Newport, which is a very walkable, livable city."

Giving Buildings and Towns New Life
For decades, the U.S. Navy has owned the 260-acre military complex on the north end of Newport, occupying prime real estate along the scenic Narragansett Bay. As with other military installations nationwide, however, the Navy has decommissioned parts of the property in recent years, creating an unprecedented opportunity for revitalization in an industrial, underused part of Newport.

Working with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), NCA did a master plan for the site that created new street patterns and building aesthetics on the surplus land, where there had once been uniform military buildings and insular, self-contained sections that had little relationship to the rest of Newport. The centerpiece of the plan involved locating a community college campus on the North End, which has in turn paved the way for other new developments such as housing and a daycare center. "This was once not a pleasant area to be in," says Abbott, who is actively involved in the CNU and promotes New Urbanist thinking for downtown infill revitalization as opposed to simply greenfield development. "The North End was where all the crime was, but we've given it a new life and made reconnections to other parts of the neighborhood."

The firm is now engaged in a large-scale, sustainable energy initiative in Fall River, MA, that will incorporate both massive new infrastructure and historic preservation to reposition this old mill town as a new major hydropower source. The project includes a new dam and waterfall, rehabilitation of existing mills for new industry research and development and the daylighting of the Quequechan River (currently buried and channeled) to promote riverfront development. The multi-phased project is expected to be completed in 2016.

Educational design is another important niche for the firm, which has worked on several school projects that involve adaptive reuse, preservation or green building principles. "There's a lot of change going on in the K through 12 environment," says Gardiner, "where they're looking at other models to deliver education, so communities can save money but have access to the resources they need."

For the Pennfield School in Portsmouth, the firm designed a new 40,000-sq.ft. facility on an historic 20-acre farm. The U-shaped building features two wings that are connected by an enclosed walkway and a staircase housed in a farm silo. Although the design is traditional, to save money the firm used pre-engineered building systems that were then clad in brick and shingle, so they blended with the area's agrarian heritage.

For the St. Philomena School, also in Portsmouth, NCA contributed both a master plan and the design for a new middle school, which incorporates classroom clusters, common areas, administration offices and a library. Other work on the campus included renovating a 1960s classroom building.

Looking ahead, John Grosvenor acknowledges that the economy has affected the firm just as it has the rest of the profession, forcing workforce reductions while projects languish in the face of tight budgets. In response, the firm has implemented several measures to preserve jobs, including work-share situations where employees can gain some hours while still collecting unemployment benefits. "We now have to all run around and do multiple jobs," says Grosvenor, "and it's a challenge, but the outlook is improving."

After all, the firm has survived recessions before by maintaining a varied portfolio and strong connections both within the firm and with the community at large. "We work together well as a group," says Gardiner, "but at the same time we can practice on our own. The diversity of our projects is wide-ranging. The exciting thing is that one day you're working on a school, and the next day it's a residence or an urban plan. We do like to look back at the things we've done, but you're always looking for the next challenge. For John, Michael and me, like Frank Lloyd Wright said, our favorite project is always the next one."

 

 
 

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