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Thoroughly Modern Preservation Practice

Born in reaction to San Francisco's urban renewal wave, Page & Turnbull has been devoted to the planning, research, conservation and architecture of historic buildings for nearly 40 years.

By Gordon Bock

Whether you chalk it up to a futuristic attitude, or just an outsized population of early adopters, California has a track record of moving on new ideas, from high-tech industries and agriculture to clean-air regulations. The same goes for appreciating the heritage of our built environment, and a prime example is Page & Turnbull, among the first architectural firms in the nation to specialize in historic preservation. Headquartered in San Francisco, with satellite offices in Sacramento and Los Angeles, they have built a practice offering architectural and conservation services for historic buildings that has sent them around the country for over three decades, while continuing to work on the remarkable range of projects and building types found in their home state.

The seeds of Page & Turnbull go back to 1973, a time when the National Preservation Act of 1966 kindled a newfound awareness of historic buildings in San Francisco, the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Board in 1968, and a gradual rejection of urban renewal. Recounts founding principal Jay Turnbull, FAIA, "In the early 1970s, Charles Page, who had been at a local planning firm, thought he would hang out a shingle and see what he could do while concentrating on preservation matters." Page had already been instrumental in creating a local foundation, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, in 1971, as well as moving a dozen or so Victorian houses out of the path of freeway construction. One of Page's earliest efforts was to survey downtown San Francisco for its important historic buildings and their significance to the city. "Conducted for a local foundation, the survey was later published as the book Splendid Survivors," says Turnbull, "and helped put Charles' practice on the map."

At the time of Splendid Survivors, Charles Hall Page & Associates had expanded from a one-man shop to a still-modest group of four to six people, yet became "something of a 'birthing center' for preservation action," according to Turnbull. Along with doing planning, surveys and historic structures reports, Page tried to employ at least one architect, so there would be somebody to practice architecture if the need arose. Says Turnbull, "Some of the people who were working there at the time such as Bruce Judd and Steve Farneth, who founded Architectural Resources Group, went on to start other firms in the preservation community."

By the 1980s, the talent was also clearly flowing in the other direction. Recalls Turnbull, "I came to Charles Hall Page & Associates in 1981 from San Francisco Architectural Heritage, where I was staff architect, and became interested in pushing the amount of architecture we did, either as preservation architects on larger projects, or doing preservation on historic buildings."

Then in 1985 the city of San Francisco adopted Page's survey (which had appeared as Splendid Survivors) as part of their new downtown plan. The plan not only reinforced the idea that historic downtown buildings needed to be saved, but it also paved the way for the nascent Page & Turnbull to go to work on the very buildings they had already identified. Today, Turnbull is joined by four other principals at the firm.

Puns aside, what might be called a seismic shift in the practice took place in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay area with devastation unmatched since the 1906 disaster. Remembers Turnbull, "We were working on the historic Palace Hotel at the time when it and many other buildings suddenly needed help," so it was logical for the firm to work with local engineers as the city recovered from the quake. Adds principal Ruth Todd, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, "In response to Loma Prieta, the city adopted unreinforced masonry building requirements for seismic strengthening, and that helped to grow the firm."

In fact, the partners explain that in Northern California, if an historic building faces a significant amount of rehabilitation, it always includes addressing seismic issues. In such cases, Page & Turnbull works closely with structural engineers to choose the least invasive methods of strengthening the building, "so that you minimize damage and demolition," says Turnbull, "yet still get the building as strong as it needs to be." "We tend to get involved with seismic retrofits on structures of some significance and in noteworthy places, like the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Badger Pass Ski Lodge in Yosemite National Park," adds Todd.

At the time of this writing, Page & Turnbull are sub-consultants to the structural engineering firm working on the Sacramento Depot, the 1925 terminal for the Southern Pacific Railroad. "The project is for seismic strengthening and code upgrades," says Todd, "but we advise and make sure that the work during planning, design, and construction doesn't impact significant historic features or materials," avoiding the proverbial tie rod punched through an ornate plaster cornice.

Maintaining a Preservation Pipeline
In an industry where historic preservation often comprises no more than 15 to 20 percent of an architectural firm's work – that is, if they seek such work at all – it's interesting to ask how Page & Turnbull has been able to devote their practice specifically to this niche field for over 38 years. "Because we've been here for so long," suggests Todd, "I believe people recognize our expertise in historic preservation; and because of the size and number of historic resources in the state, there's enough volume of work to keep us busy."

"In addition we think that the California Environmental Quality Act helps us maintain our practice. It really forces property owners to at least look at the historic significance of their buildings, and to identify the characteristics that make them historic," adds principal John Lesak, AIA, LEED AP. Todd also notes that because Page & Turnbull can work at many levels in an historic context – from materials repair to planning for historic sites to new design in historic districts – she says there are enough history-based projects out there for them to be able to specialize.

What helps makes Page & Turnbull such deft multi-taskers, to cite a popular term, is the way the firm is organized into mutually supporting groups or studios. There is a cultural resources studio (including architectural historians, preservation planners and planners); an architecture studio; and a conservation/materials studio that might also be viewed as a sub-focus of the architecture studio. "What's interesting about it," explains Todd (who has led the cultural resources studio), "is that all groups can work on the same project at different scales."

To illustrate the point, she describes a hypothetical but typical scenario. If the state of California were trying to sell an abandoned and surplus 1930s hospital to a school district, they might hire Page & Turnbull to see if the property is defined as an historic resource. "So then our cultural resources group determines that, in this 57-acre site, three large buildings are individually eligible historic resources, and almost the entire site is eligible as an historic district. Then the client asks 'Help us figure out what uses might work economically to rehabilitate these historic buildings and in a sensitive way.'" Next the architecture group takes advice from the cultural resources group and proposes some schemes for the client.

Then if the client concludes that it would be economically feasible to reuse the buildings, Page & Turnbull could be hired to do the architectural design through construction. As part of the process, the materials and conservation group would likely be called upon to do any investigations and analysis, and then make sure materials are repaired properly. If, however, the buildings can't be economically reused and have to be demolished, Page & Turnbull could be a consultant to the environmental impact report describing what needs to be done to mitigate the loss of the historic resource.

California's progressive view of the environment is not the only legislation that contributes to the practice. "When a project involves a federal agency, it is required by law to 'take into account the effects of the undertaking on historic properties.' So we often find ourselves researching and surveying historic buildings in the paths of new roads and the like," says Turnbull. Lesak, who heads the Los Angeles office, adds an urban perspective. "It behooves a city to do surveys and really understand what their historic resources are from a risk management standpoint." This way, he says, when people come to the city with a potential project, there can be a better understanding of what the impact might be.

Even though the 30-person firm has deep roots in California, federal work regularly takes them outside the golden state. "We've done a lot of historic building preservation plans and historic structures reports under on-call contracts with the General Services Administration and other government agencies," says Todd. "We value such work because it's nationwide and allows us to work in some really incredible buildings." In fact, federal work aside, Page & Turnbull recently completed a preservation plan for the city of Charleston, SC, including guidelines for the preservation and sensitive growth of the historic port, that won a 2009 Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When Venerable Meets Sustainable
That doesn't mean the firm's devotion to historic preservation comes at the exclusion of sustainability, especially in California. Says Turnbull, "We're part of a design team addressing the old San Francisco Mint built in 1874, and our hope is to do everything we can – from using natural light and natural ventilation to catching rainwater on the roof – to make it the first LEED platinum national historic landmark."

Another project that walks the tightrope between preservation and green building is the Wyman Avenue residences in the Presidio, the former military installation that overlooks San Francisco Bay. Built in the early 20th century to house doctors and nurses serving in the nearby Public Service Health Hospital, the severely neglected buildings were rehabilitated according to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation was sensitive to the historic fabric, and also included some "pretty aggressively green" new construction. Says Todd, "We found that the new LEED for Neighborhood Development category was about the only way we could get the historic residences certified, by looking at the whole neighborhood instead of individual buildings."

It's no surprise then that the partners have some first-hand insights on the new crossroads between sustainability and preservation. "I think the clear indication is that LEED and historic preservation need to go hand-in-hand," says Turnbull. "Along the way there may be some glitches in restoring buildings under the LEED rules, but the idea is the important thing." Adds Todd, "We think the green movement is evolving very fast – much faster than the preservation movement – so we try to be aware of the fact that sustainable features – solar panels, for instance, which are getting smaller and more varied every year – really need to be installed in ways that are reversible or can be updated. The last thing you want on a building is a fabulous energy-saving feature that becomes obsolete in five years."

As if the challenges of meshing historic buildings with evolving green technologies weren't enough, the new frontier of mid-century modern design adds another dimension. "We're seeing some interesting materials pop up," says Lesak, "such as composites of aluminum panels and cardboard that are not only building skins but structural as well."

Where do you find a source for these, he muses, or even something once as common as anodized aluminum windows? What's more, he says, buildings of this recent time often don't have the infrastructure necessary for today. "They were designed for the era of cheap energy, with air conditioning of all spaces. Now they don't meet current energy performance requirements. Also, they're often light and thin, so they don't meet current structural requirements either."

In fact, a primary challenge with many buildings of the recent past is simply to quantify them. "One of the exciting projects we're part of down here," says Lesak, "is a comprehensive historic resources survey for Los Angeles." Though the city had cultural heritage regulations on the books as early as 1962, it has never inventoried its built environment as a whole. "Survey LA is a full-property survey that will look at all 880,000 parcels of Los Angeles," he adds.

Surveys? Historic Buildings? Downtown? Sounds like a way to start a nice preservation practice, all over again.  TB



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