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Shenandoah Urbanism

Project: Three adaptive-reuse buildings in Staunton, VA: American Hotel, Old Y Lofts, R.R. Smith Center for History & Art

Architects: Frazier Associates, Staunton, VA

Contractor: Harrisonburg Construction, Dayton, VA (American Hotel, R.R. Smith Center), Lantz Construction, Broadway, VA (old Y)

By Eve M. Kahn

The streetscapes of Staunton, VA, have gotten lucky half-a-dozen times over the past two centuries. This county seat was so prosperous in the early 1800s, partly on the proceeds of clothing mills and stagecoach lines, that the Greek Revival style flourished there. One of the most elegant and versatile architectural modes that America has yet imported, the style shaped houses, schools, asylums and civic and commercial buildings across Staunton (pronounced like Stanton). The skyline emerged relatively unscathed from Civil War battles and looting, and French Second Empire, Gothic and Renaissance Revival fashions reached Staunton. Post-bellum railroad commerce, coal mines and shoe factories kept the town thriving well into the 1920s. Despite some bouts of urban renewal in the 1960s and '70s, Staunton is now considered a preservation paragon.

A 2002 winner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Great Main Street Award, the downtown boasts hundreds of structures restored during the past 20 years. Some $40 million in private investment has flowed into Staunton's historic architectural riches and major projects keep being unveiled.

One powerhouse behind the trend is Frazier Associates, an 18-person local architecture firm. In the past two years alone, Frazier has turned three abandoned eyesores into heavily sought after commercial, residential and cultural spaces. The firm has transformed an 1854 hotel into offices and stores, an 1894 hotel into offices and galleries for arts and preservation groups, and a 1914 YMCA into lofts. Each building came with a strong architectural personality that proved surprisingly adaptable to new programs (all supported by federal and state tax breaks for preservation).

Across the street from Staunton's Amtrak station, on the Washington-Chicago route, the 1854 American Hotel had once been the town's poshest place to stay and entertain. Weddings and political conventions were held there, and Confederate soldiers gratefully received R&R passes to the hotel. Ulysses S. Grant stopped in Staunton during a cross-country train trip in 1874, and the renowned Stonewall Brigade Band serenaded him from the American Hotel's lacy portico. (Legend has it that the band was grateful to Grant for ordering its instruments spared from destruction during the Civil War.)

The portico was razed in 1891, and the hotel was gutted soon afterwards for use as a produce dealer's warehouse and offices. By the time Frazier took on the project in 2001, it had been vacant for decades, although an owner had largely stabilized the brick skin and standing-seam metal roof.

"There were no traces left at all of the hotel interior, except for one Greek Revival door with two long vertical panels that we found on the top floor," explains Kathleen O. Frazier, principal, Frazier Associates. "Everything else had been stripped down to the columns and beams, which at least made it very flexible from a reuse point of view." Only one exterior wall needed extensive patching, adds senior associate Carter A. Green: "The brickwork had collapsed at some point and a previous owner had replaced it with concrete block. Probably the trains rumbling by caused the structural failure."

The architects pored through vintage drawings and photos, in which many different versions of the portico appear. Frazier ended up developing a Greek Revival-flavored replacement on the original footprint. Steel bars crisscross in a wooden balustrade over wood piers with gilded rectangles studding the capitals. The architects repeated the railing and pier motifs in a new two-story lobby, entered via a two-panel Greek Revival door. Greek-key motifs are inlaid into the parquetry floor. Oak columns and beams, lightly sandblasted, remain exposed in upstairs offices. The produce company's ground-floor headquarters, now a retail space, is lined with vintage tongue-and-groove paneling, archways, ceilings and piers that required only minor patching.

A law firm and a medical-reporting service have taken over the upper floors. When the law firm runs help-wanted ads, it entices future employees by describing the dramatically renovated historic structure. "It's class A office space at a level of quality that hadn't existed before in town," says Katharine Moore, director of business development for Frazier Associates.

Three blocks away, the firm has converted an abandoned YMCA into loft condos. The 1914 Renaissance Revival building had retained many of its original quirks, including tiny bathroom-less dorm rooms, a theater with a stage and a leaky swimming pool. In the lobby, carved walnut trim had come from the farm of reaper magnate Cyrus McCormick, who helped fund construction. In the 1980s, Frazier says, "people started trying to figure out what else to do with the building. A restaurant came in, then a health club, all of which petered out." The brick-and-cast-stone exterior had held up well, and the arched wood windows could be salvaged and repaired. Most daunting to Frazier's team was dividing up the 45,000-sq.ft. interior into a giant puzzle of interlocking lofts.

"We created a number of two-level units to help minimize the length of the corridors," explains senior associate Thomas C. Clayton. The stage serves as a bedroom platform in one unit at the newly re-christened Old Y Lofts, and another home offers access via trapdoor to the pool-turned-wine-cellar. On the first open-house weekend last year, 12 of 19 units (priced from $185,000 to $625,000) sold.

This spring, the loft dwellers gained a new cultural attraction within easy strolling distance. Frazier Associates transformed the 1894 Eakleton Hotel into the R.R. Smith Center for History & Art (it's named after its late benefactor, a trucking magnate). The Augusta County Historical Society, Staunton Augusta Art Center and Historic Staunton Foundation share the space (see www.rrsmithcenter.org for details), which Frazier brought back from the brink of dereliction.

"The upper floors had been abandoned for decades, there'd been plywood in the windows since the 1980s, the balconies were gone, and the first floor had been remodeled many, many times," explains Green. "There'd been a major Colonial Revival renovation at one point, and the hotel had changed names many times, gone through a checkered career and finally closed in the 1950s. On the ground floor somebody had put up barn siding that extended into the interior. That siding, with hanging burlap for a kind of hoedown, faux-Shenandoah effect, was unfortunately very popular in this area at one time." Inside the hotel's central light well, Frazier adds, "there was a three-ft.-deep layer of pigeon droppings."

The good news? "We had the original drawings by T.J. Collins, who was the prominent Victorian architect in town," says Frazier. "We were able to recreate the balconies and the storefronts." In the light well, the architects managed to save original windows and bulls-eye trim, while glazing over the space to create a lobby. The floor was subjected to numerous treatments with industrial-strength cleansers, normally used by poultry plants.

The nonprofit owners' consortium funded the project with private donations plus foundation and government grants – the restoration even qualified for TEA-21 funds, because the Eakleton originally served as a railroad hotel. Its new climate-controlled galleries, Frazier says, "are now the only galleries affiliated with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts anywhere between Roanoke and Manassas."

When new potential clients for Frazier Associates visit, the architects can quickly tour them through the three adaptive reuses. "It's a living portfolio, right in town," says Frazier. But the trio is not just convenient and eye-catching, she adds, it's had a lasting impact on deserving streetscapes: "It's been an honor to take on such significant projects, all in progress around the same time, and so close together." TB

 

 

 
 

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