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transforming historic buildings, converting historic buildings,
converting abandoned warehouses, historic buildings

A Tour of Transformed Historic Buildings

June 20, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
When approached creatively and with a reverence for history, the practice of transforming abandoned or deteriorating structures into new buildings can have astounding results. Around the world, schools, apartments, breweries and other unlikely entities have evolved from the remains of forgotten brick and mortar, breathing new life into old design.

Repurposing an Historic Lighthouse

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In Fall River, Mass., the conversion of an historic lighthouse into a brewery epitomizes an exciting design concept: transforming historic buildings into modern amenities. The challenge for attorney Michael Gabriel, owner of Borden Flats Lighthouse, and for others who undertake like-minded projects, is maintaining and even enhancing the historic character of old buildings.

According to The Herald News, Gabriel will implement a "desalination process similar to the one used on Naval ships" that will produce 300 gallons of potable water per day. Various beers will be made using the water, which Gabriel hopes will finance ongoing maintenance of Borden Flats Lighthouse. He'll decorate with "period pieces" to evoke the past, but use modern construction materials to ultimately achieve "a more livable space," he says. Relatives of his may "eventually live there full-time."

"We're not rebuilding it, we're just restoring it, not reinventing the wheel here," Gabriel explained. "We want to keep it looking like it was in the 1800s, just with a modern twist."

Converting Historic Buildings for Educational Purposes

Historic buildings, once converted and transformed into educational facilities, can lend integrity and incorporate an appreciation for the past. In Los Angeles, several storied structures have been stripped down and restored for educators and learners, as the Los Angeles Conservancy explains.

The art deco Bullocks Wilshire department store, for example, was purchased by Southwestern University in 1994. According to the Conservancy, the university "invested a great deal in restoring the building and adapting it for academic use while maintaining its original character," a process that entailed converting an authentic Tea Room into a dining and gathering area for students and faculty, and creating office space out of old storage and dressing rooms.

The Conservancy made the case for the Los Angeles Unified School District to convert the Ambassador Hotel into a school facility, rather than demolishing it. Suggested transformations included conversion of the hotel's ballroom into "a magnificent school library that could serve the entire community."

But the district ultimately decided to tear down the iconic hotel, and there are now three different schools housed on the property, according to Building Design and Construction. The Ambassador was the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968 and housed the Coconut Grove nightclub, which was featured in various films and carried a celebrity allure. The club is being converted into an auditorium, and the ballroom's ceiling is under reconstruction to house a middle school library.

Abandoned Mills Given New Life

In Burnley, U.K., an area called the Weavers' Triangle will get nearly 2 million pounds (approximately $3 million) from Heritage Lottery Funding for an intriguing project: abandoned mills, including the storied Victoria Mill, will be converted into "a mix of restaurants, bars, flats and offices," according to the BBC. The five-year project will give grants to owners of the historic mills, enabling repairs and restoration of "original architectural features." The U.K. Heritage Lottery Fund was created in 1994 by Parliament "to give grants to a wide range of projects involving the local, regional and national heritage of the United Kingdom."

Converted Warehouse Spaces Increasingly Popular

In 2005, the Gadgetopia blog addressed a trend that is still prevalent today: tech start-ups creating office space in converted warehouses. "It's practically become a cliche," writes blogger Deane. "Hardwood floors, big rollaway fire doors, exposed beams, rock or brick walls, etc." So what's behind this pervasive allure? One theory is that Web-centric companies "deal in very sterile, very digital worlds," while warehouses hark back to simpler times, offering "a juxtaposition against what we do from day-to-day." Additionally, writes Deane, converted warehouses are humbler than massive high rises, reinforcing "the identity of being the revolutionaries out to change the world—like the small bands of rebels that created Apple and Microsoft."

The bare-bones simplicity that characterizes abandoned warehouses isn't appealing to just tech companies, however. Apartment Therapy DC offers a photo slideshow of a former tobacco warehouse in Durham, N.C., that was made into a condominium. With high ceilings, exposed beams and concrete floors, the condo is a study in utilitarian chic, and "preserves the old warehouse features in an environmentally-friendly way."
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