Traditional Building Portfolio




Sustaining Communities

QUINN EVANS | ARCHITECTS has brought expertise in preservation and sustainability to university campuses, theaters, government buildings, museums, churches and historic park settings across the country.
By Kim A. O’Connell

In a city as crowded with classical masterpieces as Washington, DC, one can easily overlook the National Academy of Sciences building, designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and built in 1924. Located near the Lincoln Memorial on the western end of the city’s Constitution Avenue, it lacks the grand columns that characterize nearly every other classical building in the city. Yet this is a monumental structure of “extreme simplicity and refinement,” as noted scientist and academy leader George Ellery Hale once wrote, marked by beautiful details and metalwork. For the better part of a century, the building has served as the headquarters for groundbreaking research in science and technology. Today, that tradition continues in a comprehensive renovation that will showcase both state-of-the-art preservation treatments and sustainable design technologies – the perfect kind of project for its designers, Quinn Evans| Architects.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Quinn Evans has developed a diverse portfolio of projects in historic preservation, interior design, new architecture and master planning. Since its inception, the firm has operated out of two full-service offices in Washington, DC, and Ann Arbor, MI, – which has provided opportunities to work on nationally significant landmarks such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the historic City Hall in Miwaukee, WI, as well as regionally significant projects such as the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, MI, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD. In the last decade and a half, the firm has also become a leader in the sustainable preservation movement, developing innovative strategies for updating historic buildings with state-of-the-art green products and systems.

“We want our work to respect its cultural heritage,” says Michael Quinn, FAIA, the firm’s president and cofounder. “We strive to recognize heritage, express it and build on it. As a group of professionals, we have a social commitment that we try to express in our work. We want each of our projects to help stabilize and enhance its community and serve future needs.” At the National Academy of Sciences, the firm is transforming what has historically been a private and insular forum for academy members into a more welcoming venue that will include the public at its events and meetings.

In addition to restoring the historic 132,000-sq.ft. building, the firm is creating two new 100-person conference facilities to house day-long scientific panel discussions by world-renowned scientists. The project will enclose two open-air courtyards to create additional interior atrium space for breakout sessions and other gatherings. These new spaces will incorporate significant daylighting as part of an overall sustainable design scheme. “This is very much about taking this building and giving it a purpose to continue on in the future,” says Larry Barr, AIA, a vice president of the firm. “It’s about the traditional preservation of original fabric as well as a major sustainable redesign.”

Quinn Evans has performed this kind of balancing act – between restoration and new design, between one period of history and another, and between sometimes competing agendas – in many other projects.

A Professional, Collaborative Team
On a bright morning this spring, Michael Quinn was narrating a slideshow of the firm’s past and current projects in its Washington, DC, office. Advancing from frame to frame, he spoke as passionately about the small, unassuming preservation projects as he did about the large, high-profile ones – lingering, for example, over a 19th-century Midwestern grist mill that the firm had restored. “We are probably better known for our large institutional projects,” he says. “But we actually love both big and little projects. On the small projects you get to really practice your craft. When we started Quinn Evans, we didn’t have an ambition to be large; we just wanted to be big enough to do any project that inspired us. And we wanted to build a professional, collaborative team that stayed together. That’s a very important part of who we are.”

Quinn’s future in architecture was not always assured. Quinn had started architecture school in the 1960s but was not impressed by the architecture of the time. After earning an undergraduate degree in zoology, he entered the Peace Corps and worked on cultural heritage preservation in Barbados. Inspired, he went back to school and earned a master of architecture degree from the University of Michigan. In 1974, he joined Preservation/Urban Design/Inc. led by preservation architect Richard C. Frank, FAIA. There, David Evans joined forces with Quinn and they developed their skills in renovation and reuse in various cities, culminating with projects such as the renovation of the Old Post Office Building and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries museum in Washington.

After ten years at that firm, Quinn and Evans formed their own practice in 1984 – establishing the two-office system from the beginning. Quinn, who today oversees work in both offices, says he has always found living and working in two regions an enriching experience that has informed his work. “In 1984, in a similar recession to today, we were lucky that our personal resumes brought in work at both locations,” Quinn says. “Since then we’ve evolved from a team of two to 65 people, pretty equally divided between the two locations. And we recently opened a satellite office in Madison, WI.”

In addition to Quinn and Barr, the firm’s principals include Steven Jones, AIA, a vice president in the Ann Arbor office, who directs cultural stewardship projects with the National Park Service; Kenneth Clein, AIA, LEED AP, who specializes in both civic and university projects; William Drewer, AIA, LEED AP, a leader in context-sensitive design and museum projects; Carl Elefante, FAIA, LEED AP, director of sustainable design; Elisabeth Knibbe, FAIA, who has extensive experience in community revitalization and historic tax credit projects; Jeffrey Luker, AIA, LEED AP, who manages federal building modernization work and is currently focused on renewal of urban k-12 schools projects; Baird Smith, FAIA, FAPT, director of conservation in the Washington office who is currently managing the restoration of DC’s historic Eastern Market following a devastating fire; and Ilene Tyler, FAIA, FAPT, LEED AP, director of conservation in the Ann Arbor office, who brings leadership in monument conservation and ecclesiastical renovation projects. (Sadly, David Evans, FAIA, passed away in 1998, prompting the Michigan Architectural Foundation to write in an obituary that Evans’ presence “is felt in dozens of small towns and a few important urban centers where his meticulously restored monuments stand.”)

Although the firm’s projects vary widely, they are united by a desire to serve constituent communities through reuse and transformation of existing community resources. For example, the firm has worked on more than 50 museums and cultural facilities, including such disparate places as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, VA.; the Ulysses S. Grant home in St. Louis, MO; and the Parthenon in Nashville, TN. Performing arts work ranges from the Kennedy Center to the Civic Theater Renovation in Grand Rapids, MI. The firm has completed major projects on 15 university campuses, ranging from master planning to specific building rehabilitations including the renovation of the Christopher Wren Building at the College of William and Mary and expansion of the Peabody Music Conservatory for John Hopkins University. Visitor centers, government facilities, religious buildings, and primary and secondary schools are all major sectors of the practice as well.

At the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, for example, an 1878 structure with a massive dome and spire, the firm directed a complete restoration of the exterior as well as the ornate Governor’s Wing. Like many repurposed office buildings, the Governor’s Wing had been altered over time by dropped ceilings, inappropriate paint jobs and obscured architectural features. In addition to restoring the wing to its Victorian experience, the firm was able to sensitively introduce updated communications and mechanical systems.

At the Kennedy Center, where the firm has worked since 1992, Quinn Evans has been engaged in restorations or renovations of all of the center’s renowned performance halls. It was designed by the Modernist Edward Durell Stone (although critics have always pointed out the stripped-down quasi-classicism of the façade). The three main halls of the Kennedy Center each have a distinct character, such as the floor-to-ceiling-red Opera House.

The firm endeavored to maintain these distinctions even while making some dramatic changes, such as a more decorative proscenium arch and expanded balconies in the center’s Eisenhower Theater. “I like to think that we’ve shown measured respect for Stone,” says Quinn, “but that we haven’t been afraid to show some creativity and bring some theatrical experience back into these spaces where it was lacking.” Quinn credits the firm’s work at the Kennedy Center for informing an exquisite transformation and restoration of the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan, a 1913 Neoclassical structure with a striking parabolic ceiling.

Another Neoclassical building, Nashville’s Parthenon museum, was in dire straits by the time the firm was engaged to do a complete restoration. Built in 1897 as a temporary structure for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the Parthenon was reconstructed in the 1920s in more permanent concrete and is a full-scale replica of its ancient counterpart in Athens. By the late 1980s, however, leaking, corrosion, and concrete failure had become major problems.

The ten-year restoration entailed meticulous materials conservation and replication of pediment figures and ornamental details, taking care to match the original aggregate concrete construction. The site will be a featured field tour at this fall’s National Preservation Conference. “We made a lot of field decisions there, and it seems to be working,” says Ilene Tyler. “It’s the featured building in a wonderful urban park.” (See Traditional Building, October 2002, page 58.)

Green and Groundbreaking
In the last couple of years, a slogan of sorts has arisen in the preservation field, appearing in articles and blogs and presentations and PowerPoints. “The greenest building,” the saying goes, “is one that’s already built” – which a growing body of research has proven true in terms of retaining embodied energy, the inherent energy-efficiency of traditional materials, and resource conservation. That oft-repeated phrase has been attributed to Carl Elefante, who wrote an article on the subject in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Forum Journal in 2007. For the past 13 years, Elefante has led Quinn Evans’ growing sustainable design sector, with a particular focus on green restoration.

The first major sustainable preservation project for the firm (and among the first nationwide) was the renovation of the S.T. Dana Building for the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. Working with William McDonough + Partners, Quinn Evans added 35,000 square feet to the 100-year-old building, with an enclosed courtyard and a new fifth floor under exposed steel trusses and an extensive skylight roof. It was important that the building be a showcase for its sustainable interventions, Elefante says, including daylighting, natural ventilation, recycled-content materials, composting toilets and an innovative radiant-cooling ceiling panel system. The project also reused the building’s original fabric wherever possible, rather than send it to the landfill: Load-bearing brick walls, more than 200 doors, and the old-growth pine timbers from the original roof were all incorporated into the renovation.

“When we started the Dana building, LEED hadn’t even been published yet,” says Elefante. “We were defining what a green renovation was as this project unfolded. It’s still a really important project in terms of how to define this intersection between preservation and sustainability.” Unlike most new interventions in historic buildings, which designers attempt to hide, the Dana building was unique in that the client wanted to show the new materials and techniques, while preserving the building’s original fabric and character. At the same time, at least 75 percent of the building is being used the way it was before, Elefante adds.

The firm has applied its sustainable design expertise to new architecture as well, such as the construction of a police and municipal courts addition to the 1960s Ann Arbor Municipal Center and American University’s new School for International Service, for which the firm is again partnering with William McDonough. At the latter, a strong effort was made to ensure that not only the building’s materials and systems are sustainable, but that the building itself is easily reusable. The floor plan has been designed so that it could one day be converted for residential use, part of McDonough’s widely touted “Cradle to Cradle” philosophy. Both of these projects are expected to earn a gold rating under the LEED system.

In addition to its sustainability work, Quinn Evans has also achieved some groundbreaking preservation successes through the creative use of historic tax credits, which can help fund projects that might not otherwise be financially feasible. Using these incentives, the firm is working to save Detroit’s historic Tiger Stadium, even after demolition crews began to tear it down (demolition has been stopped while new funding is being secured).

Another tax credit project is the Armory Arts Lofts in Jackson, MI, for which the firm recently rehabilitated a former prison site into a live-work facility for artists that incorporates affordable housing with large gallery and studio spaces. “It’s creating, within a real dead zone in the city, a heart that’s starting to beat,” says Elisabeth Knibbe. “We took what was a major liability for the community and turned it into an asset.”

Preserving and creating community assets has been a guiding principle for the firm for 25 years – which it has found immensely rewarding. “It’s not hard to motivate people to do this kind of work,” says Ilene Tyler. “A lot of what we do is problem solving, and a lot of it is team building, getting people to work together and feel like that end product is better because of that synergy. And that’s been the joy of being part of a firm like Quinn Evans.” TB

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