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Shell Game

Shell Game

By David Petta
Photo: © 2014 David Wakely Photography

A common misconception about buildings designated as historically or architecturally significant is that they are substantially the same as on the day they opened. That is probably true for the exterior because these buildings are subject to a local landmark commission’s approval, but on the interior, modifications can be extensive due to changes in building use or programming. Repeated alterations can leave the interior of older buildings with a clash of materials, colors, and design characteristics associated with many different eras.

An architect has choices when renovating older buildings, even those registered or designated as local or national historic landmarks. In a structure that has undergone many additions and remodels, removal of non-contributing features can help return the building to its period of historical significance and to simplify the architecture. Non-original walls can be removed to open up larger spaces, making the building more flexible. A more contemporary approach to design and technology can be incorporated into the alterations so they are differentiated from the historic features. When working within an existing building’s footprint, there are more limitations with regard to the exterior shell. In historic buildings, for example, replacing old windows with more energy-efficient ones helps to reduce a building’s overall energy use but may significantly change the appearance and also prove to be an extremely expensive option. Modifications to materials and fenestration are carefully studied to justify the intervention if it turns out to be an important part of the project.

While many terms describe these types of projects—renovation, refurbishing, reclamation, renewal—the most accurate term might be simplification. At least, that has been the thinking over many years of helping the Berkeley (Calif.) Downtown YMCA improve a facility that encompasses four distinct building areas within one structure—an original 1910 historic building and additions completed in 1931, 1960, and 1994. A very adaptive organization, the YMCA of the Central Bay Area, with a design strategy of keeping spaces flexible as each phase is undertaken, hasn’t hesitated to move activity spaces within the various areas in response to program needs.

Landmark Buildings
The city-registered Downtown Berkeley Y occupies an important corner, across Allston Way from the nationally registered U.S. Post Office, diagonally from the nationally registered Berkeley High School Historic Campus District, and facing, across Milvia Street, the city-registered Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center.

Inside the Y, the historic nature of the facility wasn’t nearly as easy to see, thanks to walls, drop ceilings, and other components added over the years. Wayfinding was difficult because of the way in which spaces had been subdivided over time without a cohesive system of circulation.

The nature of decades-old additions is that they, too, often are designed to meet immediate needs rather than anticipate possible future synergies. The original 1910 Berkeley YMCA was primarily a hotel, with rooms on the third and fourth floors, a hotel lobby and member services on the first floor, a lap pool and locker rooms in the basement, and a variety of smaller spaces on the first and second floors devoted to hotel operations, meeting spaces, and rooms for spiritual and physical fitness. Each subsequent addition expanded hotel, sports, and fitness opportunities.

The first simplification—in 1931—added a gymnasium and handball courts in a two-story building appended to the rear of the hotel. The 1960 addition, in the corner created by the 1910 and 1931 structures, added a second basement pool and first- and second-floor fitness spaces, and on the top two floors, extended a secondary hallway and added hotel rooms. Finally, in 1994, a two-story building was erected on the far end of the two previous additions, adding a third basement pool and new women’s locker rooms, more fitness spaces on the first floor, and a large gymnasium on the second. With each of these additions, changes were made to the overall program. For example, a gymnasium became racquetball courts and, later, a weight room; so it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the building plan has been in flux for nearly a century.

A Sustainable Strategy
How does one approach the renovation, over time, of a building marked by redundant spaces, disconnected activity areas, and a jumble of floor levels and connective corridors?

The first step is to take stock of the building’s assets, which, in historic structures, often isn’t easy to see at first glance. The interior of the Downtown Berkeley Y had a preponderance of thick-walled arches (added in the 1980s during the height of post-modernism) that took up a great deal of space. The Y had drop ceilings that obscured original structural materials. Behind the various remodels, the landmark 1910 building was rich in wood and brick, and even the concrete in the 1960 addition was architecturally notable—post-tensioned T beams that, although in perfect condition, were obscured by ceiling tiles, conduit, ductwork, and years of dust.

The decision was made to allow these various materials to be expressed, for three important reasons:

  1. To reveal original materials that characterize the building, which serve the goals of historic rehabilitation.
  2. To allow visitors to more easily differentiate between the buildings, aiding in orientation. One can imagine that attempting to force a common group of materials to help “unify” spaces could easily backfire, leading to an overly homogenous look. Within the various rooms, flooring, lighting, and finishes took the role of helping to visually connect spaces.
  3. To attain LEED Gold certification. Instead of removing walls and ceilings and putting in new ones, we let the structure express itself, reducing the resources used and providing a warm palette of finishes, including 100-year-old Douglas fir joists, steel columns, and brick walls. The resulting spaces are lighter and airier, with higher ceilings and featuring a richer palette of materials.

Programmatically, the Y’s desire for continued flexibility and the need to work within a larger established framework made it necessary to prioritize a few important changes. As part of the LEED Gold renovation, for example, the hotel lobby was shifted to an upper level, thus freeing up prime corner space at the first floor to become the new home of the cardiovascular fitness center. (The cardio area, which has now been located in three of the four structures that make up the Y, is in its largest space to date, befitting its importance to the Y’s members.) Also, an additional program area was provided by inserting a new floor into the 1930 gymnasium (which at the time was the site of racquetball courts), creating a first-floor weight room and a second-floor mezzanine comprising a family fitness area and a kids’ interactive zone. This brings all fitness-related activities within the same general footprint, while gymnasium space appears solely in the 1994 addition as a subdivided main gym and family gym.

Historic Changes
Building owners embark on renovations because of the need to make repairs, to meet new codes, or simply to bring new life to spaces. Landmark buildings make wholesale changes difficult, but they also offer much in the way of a vocabulary of materials, which can be particularly advantageous in the latter case.

In a building like the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, where the interiors have been modified several times, what might otherwise be termed “historical preservation” isn’t really about preserving what remains, because its character has been altered repeatedly. Reconstructing a building’s historic fabric is often a matter of removing it, and letting the original structure speak for itself.

David Petta, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C (dpetta@elsarch.com) is a principal, and Diana Hayton, AIA, LEED AP BD+C (dhayton@elsarch.com) is an associate principal with ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, Calif.

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