Traditional Building Portfolio




Seismic Forces

Since 1980, Architectural Resources Group has fostered a strong sense of tradition on the West Coast while dealing with a broad range of clients and problems – including earthquakes.
By Kim A. O'Connell


During the City Beautiful Movement in the early-20th century, the civic leaders of Pasadena, CA, issued a lyrical mandate for its proposed city hall. It was to be, in their words, "an official building of imposing beauty, massive yet graceful, and suited to a land of flowers and sunshine." Designed by the San Francisco architecture firm of Bakewell and Brown (for a review of the recent Arthur Brown Jr.: Progressive Classicist, see Traditional Building, August 2007, page 167) and completed in 1927, Pasadena City Hall features ornamental sculpture and scrolls, a massive arched dome and a garden courtyard. The building was deemed so architecturally significant that it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It was also only a matter of time, however, before the building would crumble to the ground.

Like many other buildings located on California's geological fault lines, Pasadena City Hall had suffered worsening damage through several earthquakes, including the famous 1991 Sierra Madre quake. Deep cracks, water damage and other problems had appeared in the building, particularly affecting two of the stair towers and the dome's lantern. In addition, mechanical and electrical systems had become outdated. In the 1990s, studies found that future earthquakes were likely to destroy the building and even result in loss of life.

Clearly, the city needed to take serious steps to strengthen the building against future seismic activity while restoring its historic elements and updating its infrastructure. For this, the city turned to Architectural Resources Group (ARG), an architecture, preservation and planning firm headquartered in San Francisco, to serve as the lead contractor on the project team (which included Forell/Elsesser Engineers, DMJM Management and Clark Construction). The three-year, $117.5-million project featured a complete seismic retrofit using a "base isolation" system, in which mechanical isolating devices are placed between a structure and its foundation, thus relieving most of the destructive forces during an earthquake and protecting the building. Some 240 isolators were installed at Pasadena City Hall, which had a grand reopening ceremony in July.

Seismic retrofitting may not sound like typical historic preservation work, but it's the reality along the West Coast, according to ARG's founding principals, Bruce D. Judd, FAIA, and Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, LEED AP. Since starting their firm in 1980, Judd and Farneth have forged a practice that places great emphasis on tradition, while recognizing and respecting the diversity of resources, disciplines and demands in the western United States.

"One of the things that we do pretty well is mediating between all the different forces that go into making a building," Farneth says. "Preservation is one of the most important elements of our work, but not the only element. We help the client to understand how all those forces can be shaped and adjusted to meet their needs." At the same time, Judd adds, "we strongly feel that what we're doing is just one step in the history of the building, and we have to respect that."

Making the Case
By the 1970s, the Classical design advocated by the City Beautiful Movement had largely been relegated to the history books as corporate Modernism took hold in both decaying downtowns and rapidly growing suburbs. Yet the nascent historic-preservation movement was gaining ground nationwide, especially in progressive cities like Berkeley, CA. Incorporated in 1974, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association was a well-organized and active preservation group, and one of its most dedicated volunteers was Bruce Judd. After graduating with a Master of Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, Judd took a position as a young architect with a San Francisco-based firm called Page, Clowdsley & Baleix. "They basically did commercial architecture that was fairly routine – but it never leaked," Judd recalls. "It wasn't very exciting work. At the same time I was volunteering with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. I hadn't received any training in preservation, and I wanted to meet other like-minded people."

Judd moved on to Charles Hall Page and Associates, a relatively new firm that soon attracted Steve Farneth, who had earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. "There was no program in preservation there, but I was very interested," Farneth says. "Pittsburgh was a rich historical environment." After working summers with the Historic American Buildings Survey, Farneth was lured to California to do some residential design with an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. Later, after determining their compatibility as colleagues with Charles Hall Page, Farneth and Judd launched their own practice.

They started with two desks and a coffee pot in Farneth's living room. Today their office is located on a pier at the Embarcadero along San Francisco's bustling and historic waterfront. Judd and Farneth chuckle when they recall one of their first projects – renovating the bathroom of a Victorian house. "We wanted to do the most interesting and best projects in historic preservation on the West Coast," Judd says. "It didn't have to be big or prestigious."

After about five years of practice, Judd essentially ran the firm solo so that Farneth could undergo additional training at ICCROM – the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property – based in Rome. Both men were and remain highly attuned to the European emphasis on materials conservation and appreciation for the patina of age, especially when compared to the 1980s "American disposal culture, particularly in the West," as Judd describes it. "In Europe and Great Britain, they have a tendency to reuse and restore and conserve. In the United States, we had to deal with clients that didn't understand what we were trying to do. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the Secretary of the Interior's Standards [for rehabilitation of historic structures]. We were continually making the case for historic preservation."

Early on, Judd and Farneth also strived to cultivate long-term institutional clients – and ongoing source of work and an ongoing source of inspiration. One early client, the Dominican Convent in San Rafael, CA, hired the firm to update the chapel located in its Victorian-era motherhouse building. The nuns had assumed that the chapel's primary ceilings would be lowered to accommodate the new infrastructure until the principals encouraged them to consider an alternative method that hid the new systems while protecting historic fabric – an expected solution today but a novel approach back then. Although the convent building burned down in 1990, the firm has stayed in touch with the sisters over the years. "We like to develop a very close relationship with a client," Farneth says. "I think that's one of the things that has held our firm together through 27 years."

Having grown to 50 people, and with additional offices in Pasadena and Portland, OR, the firm works on a wide range of projects encompassing architectural design and conservation, master planning, design guidelines, historic-structures reports and seismic strengthening. In keeping with the objective of providing integrated services, ARG started the first in-house conservation lab on the West Coast. The firm's other principals are Naomi O. Miroglio, AIA, who oversees diverse projects such as the seismic-strengthening project at the Filoli Estate in California; Takashi Fukuda, who manages information technology, special projects and contracts for the firm; David P. Wessel, AIC, FAPT, the firm's principal conservator who recently completed the restoration work at Watts Towers in Los Angeles; and Aaron Jon Hyland, AIA, who specializes in institutional and university clients such as the Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA.

As a result of its work in materials conservation analysis, the firm has spun off another company named ARG Conservation Services, a general contracting firm whose staff includes architectural conservators, maintenance specialists and construction managers.

Flowers and Sunshine
Despite the breadth of the firm's portfolio, its architecture and preservation work tend toward certain categories, all of which reflect a distinct western sensibility. The firm has worked in national parks and recreation areas, at wineries in Napa Valley and in several churches and other historic buildings that have survived some of this nation's most devastating earthquakes.

The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco (see Traditional Building, October 2005, page 18) is just one example. A Victorian beauty made primarily of old-growth redwood and glass, the 1879 conservatory is the oldest extant structure in Golden Gate Park. Remarkably, the 12,000-sq.ft. greenhouse withstood the devastating 1906 earthquake that left many of San Francisco's grandest buildings in ruins. Instead, the conservatory suffered a fate that was far less dramatic but just as damaging – decades of deferred maintenance. By 1995, the structure was so compromised that a severe windstorm nearly destroyed it, forcing the city to shutter the building. In a six-year restoration, however, ARG and San Francisco-based Tennebaum-Manheim Engineers completely rehabilitated the building, including lateral strengthening and a historically accurate reconstruction of the building's delicate wooden skeleton.

One of the firm's more challenging projects involved the seismic retrofit and restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hanna House on the grounds of Stanford University. Built in 1937 for a Stanford professor, the house is famous for its "honeycomb" design – an open floor plan of connected hexagons covered in the architect's signature broad, flat roofs. After the family donated the house to the university in the 1970s, it was used as a provost's residence until it nearly collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

ARG was charged with shoring up the structure and preparing it for a new use, which involved stiffening the walls and roof. Much of the work was below grade, protecting the historic appearance and materials to the greatest extent possible. "It was challenging because Wright tended to under-build things," Farneth says. "It was an exercise in problem solving. We tried to get to the root of the problem, which was less about building structure and more about the interaction between the building and the soil." In Napa Valley, ARG oversaw a 15-year restoration of the 1879 Italianate opera house, which had fallen into a state of boarded-up disrepair by the 1990s. After a passionate advocacy effort by local residents, which included a fundraising challenge grant from vintner Robert Mondavi, ARG was retained to implement a three-phase restoration, including seismic strengthening and façade restoration; lobby restoration and the addition of a new theater and bar; and finally the complete renovation of the main theater, which was completed in 2003.

Two other projects showcase ARG's complementary ability to design new construction in a historically sensitive way. At Yosemite National Park, ARG designed new employee housing near the Curry Village Historic District, a tent-cabin complex in Yosemite Valley that is listed on the National Register and dates back to the 1920s and '30s. For this project, ARG developed 22 two-story housing structures and four two-story common buildings that are well suited to the natural surroundings and complement the existing rustic cabins.

Similarly, at Filoli, a historic Georgian house and lush garden estate in Woodside, CA, ARG won an invited design competition for a new visitor center and education building at the edge of the property's oak forest. The architects crafted a contemporary Georgian pavilion that echoes the historic house while providing updated visitor service areas. "We feel that architecture and preservation are both part of the design process," Farneth says. "We work hard at that. But we love the constrained nature of existing buildings. They help you make decisions."

Speaking the Language
Having worked in the field of historic preservation for three decades, Judd and Farneth are bemused that the sensitive, ecological approach to building they espoused at the start of their careers has gained new currency with the advent of "sustainability" and the LEED rating system. "We formed during the first energy crisis, and we strongly felt that demolishing buildings was a real waste of resources," Farneth says. "These cities had good urban design, and the way buildings went together in neighborhoods was of great value."

Today, Farneth is a LEED accredited professional, and the firm continues to work on projects that are registered and certified under the popular U.S. Green Building Council system. One of those involves the adaptive re-use of the Fort Baker military installation near the Golden Gate Bridge, for which the firm is working as part of a design team and with a developer to convert the site to a conference and retreat center. ARG is responsible for master planning, programming and rehabilitation of buildings within the historic district, which is expected to be LEED-certified at the silver level. "It's been a great challenge and we're really excited," Farneth says.

Both principals are heartened by the fact that young architects have many more opportunities to study preservation than they had years ago. Clients, too, have a greater appreciation for traditional buildings and conservation techniques. At the same time, Judd and Farneth are concerned that today's preservationists are somewhat distanced from the rigors of the architecture profession. "They've never actually done drawings or worried about egress," Farneth says. "You get specialists and architects speaking slightly different languages. Our belief is that you need to speak both languages." In the overlapping and complex fields of architecture, planning and preservation, ARG has certainly proven its fluency.

When asked about what the future holds, Judd and Farneth joke about retirement. But both men remain passionate about their work, and neither is likely to give up his day job as long as the great buildings of the West remain threatened by nature and neglect. "We have always been most interested in designing meaningful places for people," Judd says. "Historic buildings are places of memories and meaning, and they should be preserved. That remains a driving philosophy." TB

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