Does Preservation Matter?

RoehrSchmitt Architecture was just awarded a 2019 Minneapolis AIA Heritage Preservation Award for the Smyth Lofts Renovation in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood. Our first involvement in the effort to preserve this building began in early 2016 and we’ve spent the last three years steeped in a process that was definitely challenging, never simple, but ultimately extremely rewarding.

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Given the complexity and difficulties involved in modernizing a building that’s over 100 years old--why do we preserve these structures? What about their character is so important that it merits thousands of hours of effort and millions of dollars in investment? Why is it important to save these buildings for the community, the neighborhood, and ultimately the city?

This building, which when we began the project was known as the Campbell Logan Building (or the Inkunabula Building), was originally constructed in 1885 and designed by the architect William C. Whitney. The building is blocks south of the Mississippi River on North 2nd Street and is part of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District--the location of Minneapolis’ earliest mills and the waterfall that powered them.

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The building is fairly typical of the period, with brick exterior walls and wood and concrete structure supporting the floors and roof. It’s main street facade originally had a more detailed stone, brick and cast iron facade, but prior to the renovation that facade was infilled with brick and glass block. Since the 1970’s, the building housed a book binding company and apartments, but had never had a complete renovation. Its condition when we were first introduced to it could fairly be described as poor. Given the economic realities of 2016, the time had come when it finally might make sense to redevelop the building--but getting our arms around what that investment would involve proved to be a challenge.

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There was plenty to love about the building. The wood structure of the front portion had been built with thick douglas fir joists unseen in the construction world for a hundred years, and the arched brick openings in the interior bearing walls were gorgeous where they had not been painted or damaged. The back portion of the building consisted of a concrete structure with massive round columns and mushroom capitals. It had great bones throughout.

There would also be challenges. The building’s mechanical and electrical systems would need to be removed and replaced in their entirety. An existing freight elevator, although still operational, might be best described as dangerous. Making it home to a modern elevator was not easy. The basement, which was being used as a space for handmade papermaking, had a cave like quality and an existing coal boiler set deep below the basement floor was surrounded by a water filled moat.

There was plenty to love about the building. It had great bones throughout.

Over time, the building’s electrical and other infrastructure elements hadn’t been removed as they were replaced, and there was a rat’s nest of conduit, wires and pipes throughout the building. It was a challenge to figure out what was operational and what wasn’t. Interior partitions, floors and ceilings were beyond their usefullness, and in most cases needed to be replaced. Existing doors and windows were also well beyond their expected life cycle and were replaced throughout. Additionally, there were plenty of other issues that wouldn’t be discovered until the project was well into the construction process.

Planning the redevelopment involved understanding the best use for the space and its most likely users. Ideally, there would be retail clients where there had originally been retail clients on the first floor, and the upper floors would be office or residential users. As the design process progressed we explored both options for the upper floors but ultimately the developer determined that multi family rental housing was their best option. Once this course was set, options for the best layout of the residential units were explored, and a final plan began to crystalize. Building amenities such as the rooftop patio, party room and covered parking were studied to understand how they would best serve future tenants. The new systems were designed and coordinated to mesh with the existing building and a clear idea of how the old would relate to the new developed.

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One of the main reasons this building was redeveloped was because of State and Federal Historic Tax credits. Historic Preservation Tax Incentive programs encourage private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings. They create jobs and are one of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs, leveraging over $89 billion in private investment to preserve 43,328 historic properties since 1976.

The building needed to be deemed a “certified historic structure” based upon its importance during a period of significance and its contribution to a registered historic district. We worked closely with the development teams historic consultant Hess Roise to determine what changes could and could not be made to the building, and to negotiate the final design to meet the needs of the project and the requirements of the tax incentive system.

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Some of the items that were ultimately dictated by the system included the number of new openings we could cut into the building to provide additional windows for the residential units, the type of windows that were selected, the location of the modernized elevator to provide vertical access into the building, and the levels of finish that would be required in each space. The goal of the system is to preserve the building in a way that is in keeping with what it might have looked like and functioned during the period of significance. The best possible outcome is a completely modernized building that maintains the character of the original structure while updating it for another hundred years of productive use.

So again, why is it important to preserve historic buildings? Is it because humans have an inherent preference for historic buildings over new ones? Is it the economic and marketplace advantages of maintaining existing buildings instead of building new? Or simply preserving the historic charm of buildings no longer in use?

I believe the fundamental reasons go deeper. Preserving an existing structure, especially when it’s stood for a hundred years or more, is a kind of human time travel. We all have an intrinsic understanding and relationship with buildings, and so a structure from 100 years ago is both easy to comprehend, and yet a little mysterious. Each historic building represents the unknown lives and stories of all of the people who have ever lived and worked within it, and the possibilities of the next generations who will inhabit the building.

The best possible outcome is a completely modernized building that maintains the character of the original structure.

Preservation demonstrates a tangible sense of community because it represents to its neighbors that a risk was worth taking for the building, the neighborhood, and therefore the city.  The history of the building reflects the unique character of the surrounding city--its culture, past, present and future, as well as it’s geography and climate.

When a building has been present in the neighborhood for generations, its restoration demonstrates how to meet the universal and timeless challenges of creating livable cities today, without erasing yesterday. Preservation ultimately makes the statement that our civilized world continues to be worth the effort.