Historic Yet Functional

By James Cavicchia

When renovating a long-standing, beloved community landmark that is also a multipurpose sports complex that people use daily, what is the best way to modernize the facility without stripping away its character?

During an extensive 2013-2014 $18.5-million renovation of the 55,000-square-foot Ridgeland Common Recreation Center in historic Oak Park, Ill., Chicago contractor Bulley & Andrews worked with Nagle Hartray Architecture on a redesign that thoroughly updated the facility while gracefully connecting it to its past.

Functional To Obsolete
When opened in 1962, Ridgeland Common—owned and operated by the Park District of Oak Park—consisted of only an outdoor ice rink and a swimming pool. Covering two city blocks and situated on 5 acres along a main street at the east end of the affluent Chicago suburb, the facility was immediately and hugely popular, quickly becoming integral to the family-oriented community.

As demand for Ridgeland Common grew, it was expanded and diversified its offerings incrementally over the years. A simple open-sided, wooden roof was erected over the rink, and playing fields were added; to enclose the rink, walls were built between the wooden roof’s supports in 1982—the facility’s last major improvement.

And while facilities and amenities were added on an as-needed basis over several decades, it was often in haste, always on a shoestring budget, and without a sense of a master plan. Because the additions had been somewhat makeshift, they fell into disrepair.

In its 2007 Ridgeland Common Existing Condition Report, the park district board declared the complex “functionally obsolete … no longer represent[ing] the ‘flagship’ facility it formerly did, and lack[ing] the flexibility to meet new programming needs.” The board then began a community-led review of options for making the facility once again useful. After years of studies, surveys, and community input, the Nagel Hartray design was selected.

Maintaining A Historical Structure
In March 2013, contractors broke ground on the most extensive renovation in the facility’s history. The most recent design increased functional space and preservedthe most iconic feature—the wooden framework and roof sheltering the ice rink. For the families of Oak Park, keeping the wooden structure was an important, welcoming touch that connected the renovated facility to its roots.

For the contractors, however, this design represented a series of challenges: they required fabricating elements to tie into the existing building’s character, replacing outdated materials, and overhauling various mechanical and maintenance systems, all of which was to be done in a manner that did not disturb the ancestral wooden structure, but in fact would showcase it.

Doing It Right
Senior project manager Peter Kuhn says, “We had to find some way to maintain this historical structure, but also tie it into this new functionality.” Furthermore, the limits of the site were fixed. All of the enhancements--including a reconfiguration of the playing fields--had to be completed within the existing footprint. “There was no room for error,” Don McKay, a principal at Nagle Hartray, says. “We had to plan everything to within 6 inches.”

Kuhn stresses rigorous planning was a key, both for the site and the design. “Any project of this magnitude requires a great deal of planning. When such a sprawling project is constrained in such a non-negotiable space and includes historic preservation, it requires a much higher level of strategy, balance, and attention to detail.”

Finding this balance between muscle and mindfulness is as difficult as it is necessary, and a common mistake is selecting a contractor who is too focused on one side of the equation or the other. “A contractor driven chiefly by construction capabilities, aggressive scheduling, or tremendous manpower is not necessarily going to be the best fit for a job requiring fine-grain work, such as preserving aged timber or historical finishes,” says Kuhn. “At the same time, a contractor too focused on the details of historical preservation may be taking an approach that will prevent the job from getting done in a timely and satisfying manner.”

Kuhn explains: “Successfully completing a project like Ridgeland Common ultimately rests on the extent to which it connects with and pleases the people it serves. The design for this renovation is great because it acknowledges the facility’s history within the community. Those kinds of abstract benefits, however, only pay off if the contractor is able to succeed in getting the job done well and on the right schedule. Yes, people want a place that feels familiar and reflects the history they know. They also want it to function, open its doors on time, and to be a resource to the community in the present.”

“And,” he continues, “the converse is also true: Yes, people want a place that is nice and new and fully functional, but they don’t want to feel like their heritage was overlooked just so the place can have the new swimming pool ready for summer.” Jan Arnold, Executive Director of the park district, explains, “We wanted to save money, but also wanted to save a piece of history.”

For any facility undertaking a history-referencing, comprehensive renovation like Ridgeland Common’s, Kuhn recommends finding a strong contractor who is fully abreast of current building methods, technology, and requirements, but also has experience with older building techniques and historical preservation. When evaluating contractors, Kuhn says, “Look at what kind of cutting-edge projects the contractor has done, look at what kind of traditional projects the company has completed, and—most importantly—look at its projects which married both competencies.”

Successful Renovation
Against the backdrop of Ridgeland Common’s tightly controlled site and formidable ancestral framework, a massive, multifaceted renovation that affected every aspect of the complex was successfully completed.

The ice rink was expanded to NHL regulation size; de-icing capabilities were added to the entire rink while more than 7 miles of pipe were laid underneath the surface; the rink was also countersunk almost 2 feet into the ground to allow for better sightlines.

For the swimming pool, the familiar shell of the existing main, full-sized pool remained while nearly all of its mechanical systems were replaced, a new entrance to the pool area was created, and a new zero-depth children’s pool was installed.

Ridgeland Common now complies with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. And remarkably, the contractors ensured a high level of sustainability, recycling nearly 80 percent of all the site waste and helping to earn the complex LEED Silver certification.

Residents had clearly been waiting. Before the new complex even opened, the park district had already sold a third more annual passes than in the preceding years. And in June 2014, the new Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex—completed on time and on budget—opened to an eager public. Rigorous attention to mechanics and a careful hand in honoring history have helped ensure a facility where Oak Park can both embrace its past and welcome its future. “The community is proud,” says Jan Arnold, “and recognizes this gem that they have.”   

James Cavicchia is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago, Ill. He can be reached at jamescavicchia@gmail.com.


Questions To Ask A Potential Contractor
What were your biggest projects? What were your smallest projects?

Jan Arnold, Executive Director of the Park District of Oak Park (Ill.) says, “You have to make sure that the firm has a good sense of what the project is, its entire scope.”

Who is the project manager? What is his or her experience on a project of similar magnitude? How will community interaction be handled?

Arnold explains, “Every community is different, but people are always watching, and you’re always going to have interactions on site. You need a manager that has some sensitivity and will represent the team well to the community.” She continues, “When we were choosing our team, the firms were asked to include their superintendents in their presentations, which gave us a chance to see how they might relate.”

On a project of this size, how do you deal with weather delays within a set timeline?

“Weather is always a factor,” says Arnold. “We had a very wet fall and a very cold winter, and that definitely impacted the project.”