A Sense Of Place: The Winners Of The 2021 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards
Philanthropist and investment advisor Richard H. Driehaus understood the emotional resonance of well-designed buildings. “Too many places today are devoid of the uniqueness that lends itself to memory because we have failed as a society to thoughtfully preserve the places that we have inherited and to create new ones that resonate emotionally,” he said in a 2019 Profiles in Catholicism interview.
Driehaus, who was a devout preservationist, died earlier this year. But the awards program he began funding nearly a decade ago continues to recognize the nation’s best historic preservation projects. This year’s Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, presented by the National Trust, show how saving a historic building—whether it’s Beaux-Arts, Victorian Gothic, or Midcentury Modern—fosters a sense of place. Thanks to the exceptional work of many organizations and individuals, these three award winners (listed in alphabetical order) will continue to be part of our architectural heritage and collective legacy.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe helped define modern architecture. Among the Germany-born architect’s pioneering glass-and-steel buildings is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., designed in 1965–'66 and completed in 1972. It is the only library by Mies, whose “less is more” edict continues to resonate throughout the built environment.
Despite its formal elegance, the National Historic Landmark—which serves as the main branch of Washington’s public library system—was not a user-friendly building. At the time it was constructed, libraries were more about storing books and less about providing public gathering places. While Miesian architecture is typically known for transparency, the roughly 420,000-square-foot building was quite impermeable, with daunting enclosed stairwells and brick interior walls that confined staff to windowless offices. “The most pressing issue was the lack of vertical circulation—it felt like four single-story buildings that were pancaked together,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the executive director of DC Public Library (DCPL), the agency in charge of the city’s 26 libraries.
To reconfigure the library around activities for people in addition to storage for books—and do both Mies and Martin Luther King Jr. proud—DCPL selected Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo. In partnership with local firm Martinez + Johnson Architecture (which has since merged with OTJ Architects), the architects opened up the center of the building, reorganizing and augmenting the existing space. Taking advantage of the column-free floor plates, they created a double-height reading room, a 300-seat auditorium, lower-level maker spaces, a cafe, and expanded children’s and teen libraries. They also added a rooftop terrace and park, designed by landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden.
A warm architectural welcome now greets visitors to the library: Two grand, curving interior stairs, on either side of the entrance, encourage exploration. The designers humanized the building with details throughout: The Great Hall now contains wooden stadium seating in addition to Mies’ sleek Barcelona chairs, and a slide in the children’s library whisks riders down a floor. “The library was never designed for Martin Luther King Jr.; it was just named after him,” notes Francine Houben, founder and creative director of Mecanoo. “I thought, ‘Now I can really make it the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and honor his philosophy and social legacy.’ ”
The design team also honored Mies, restoring the minimalist facade to its original crispness. They repainted the exposed steel frame to match the “Detroit Graphite Black” paint that Mies used on this and many other projects. And they found an Austrian source for bronze-tinted glass, much of it laminated for improved energy efficiency and strength but still slim enough to work with the existing window framing. “If you take a Victorian building and you have to remove deteriorated pieces, the essence of the building remains,” says Gary Martinez, partner at OTJ. “But when you come into a Modernist building like this and take down the ceilings and walls, all you’re left with is the steel frame, the concrete floors, and the glass windows. The tolerances are so small that if you change them slightly, it makes a very big difference.”
The $211 million modernization was entirely funded by the city, among other public projects in its capital improvement plan. The centrally located facility, which sits less than a mile from the White House, held its grand opening in September of 2020. In its previous condition, it welcomed 600,000 visitors annually. With its improved facilities and programming that activates the new spaces, Reyes-Gavilan is planning for 1 million guests a year.
“Its rehabilitation is a model for other Midcentury Modern buildings that are threatened around the country,” says awards jury member Eugenia Woo, who is director of preservation services at Historic Seattle. “And it’s important to acknowledge that not all civic buildings are or should be Classical.”
Milwaukee Soldiers Home, Milwaukee
In Milwaukee, local architect Edward Townsend Mix pulled out all the stops when he designed a 117,000-square-foot Victorian Gothic building to house Union Army soldiers who were disabled during their Civil War service. “The central location and elevation of the main building were matched by its scale and stately Victorian architecture. Not only did this building serve the Civil War veterans who first [entered] its doors in 1869, it also made a bold statement: This is how a grateful nation attempts to repay a debt owed to the defenders of the Union,” writes Patricia A. Lynch in her book Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home.
But by 1989, “Old Main” sat vacant. Once the centerpiece of an entire recuperative complex—and one of the original three National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers established by Congress—Old Main and its associated buildings began to decay. When the roof collapsed on one wing of Old Main in 2010, preservation efforts kicked into high gear. The next year, the campus received its National Historic Landmark designation, and was named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America.
In addition to building public awareness, preservation advocates also leveraged federal regulations. Because the site’s owner, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), was seeking to build some long-term-care facilities on the landmarked campus, it was required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to consult with the State Historic Preservation Office, National Park Service, and others before proceeding. In 2011, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, the State Historic Preservation Office, and National Trust representatives negotiated an agreement: The VA could build the new facilities, but it also had to figure out how to preserve those antique buildings. “This project is a great example of how Section 106 [of the NHPA] was given full weight,” says jury member Shanon Miller, historic preservation officer for the city of San Antonio.
Five years later, the VA put out a request for proposals to rehabilitate Old Main and five smaller buildings for permanent supportive housing. Since 1991, the department has worked with developers and local governments to turn historic buildings into housing for homeless and at-risk veterans through its enhanced-use lease program. Madison, Wisconsin-based developer The Alexander Company, which specializes in adaptive reuse projects, presented a plan that would create 101 units for veterans and their families.
The company also made the $44.5 million project pencil out financially by tapping into 13 different funding sources, including low-income-housing tax credits and state and federal historic tax credits. “These properties don’t really produce any income, so you have to find all these creative sources to rehab the building and have a way for it to function,” says president Joseph Alexander.
Today, Old Main has come full circle. Its high-ceilinged foyers and the lounges in its four towers, which have windows on three sides, once again welcome veterans. In addition to its 80 apartments, it has a business center, a fitness center, and offices for caseworkers; women have their own separate and secure wing. “It’s inspiring to see how the building is once again being used in a way that is directly related to its original use,” says Miller.
The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance continues to work on saving the remaining historic buildings on campus, and has commissioned a study on potential uses for the theater, director’s residence, and chapel on the property. “The real value of this project is so much bigger than architecture,” says Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the nonprofit. “Preservation at its best is finding solutions that allow this incredible history to be preserved and make people’s lives better today.”
Moynihan Train Hall, New York
When wrecking balls took down the original 1910 Penn Station to make way for Madison Square Garden, it galvanized New York’s preservation movement, leading to the passage of the city’s Landmarks Law in 1965. The Beaux-Arts building by McKim, Mead & White, with 150-foot-tall ceilings and natural light coming through its glass roof, continues to be mourned, and its underground replacement suffers greatly by contrast. “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat,” Yale architectural historian Vincent J. Scully Jr. famously said of the past and current versions of Penn Station.
Fortunately, McKim, Mead & White had also designed a sister building across the street, the 1914 James A. Farley Building. Today, after a $1.6 billion architectural intervention by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the former post office is now the Moynihan Train Hall—allowing some of the station’s commuters to once again enter the city like gods. “It echoes the long-lost glory of past travel, and reusing the post office was very creative,” says jury member William Bates, adjunct professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and a board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It shows how preservation can be part of the solution for creating more infrastructure.”
Like many major transit projects, the Moynihan Train Hall took decades to realize and involved numerous collaborating designers, engineers, and contractors, including general contractor Skanska. Named for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who proposed repurposing the post office in the 1990s, it, too, had a grand columned exterior and soaring ceilings. Because the mail used to arrive by rail, the train platforms were already in place beneath the post office. And at the center of the 1.4 million-square-foot complex was an enormous mail sorting room.
To bring back a sense of grandeur, the design team reused and exposed the mailroom’s massive steel roof trusses (shown at top). They designed a roof of vaulted skylights and laid the floor with Tennessee marble, creating a concourse level that evokes the original Penn Station as well as historic European train stations. The post office’s original stone façade, copper roof, and windows were carefully restored. The New York State Historic Preservation Office, an early champion of the project, pushed the design team to minimize its impact on the exterior; for instance, above entrances, protective overhangs are made of transparent glass for a lighter touch.
“It is a very humbling experience as an architect to think about changing a McKim, Mead & White building—it is a fabulous building with absolutely beautiful details,” says Marla Gayle, director at SOM. “It’s also a model for sustainable infrastructure. The goal should be to reuse more and more of the buildings that have already been constructed.”
To foot the bill for the transformation, the post office was reimagined as a mixed-use development, combining a 255,000-square-foot transit hub with 730,000 square feet of office space and 120,000 square feet of retail space. In this public-private partnership, developers Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust contributed $630 million for a 99-year lease on the office and retail spaces; the state added $550 million via Empire State Development, and the remaining $417 million came from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and federal grants.
Critics have noted that, as beautiful as the space is, Moynihan Train Hall can only go so far to improve Penn Station itself. While it provides access to most of Penn Station’s platforms and offers nice waiting rooms and places to eat, it was not designed as a replacement. “In many senses, Moynihan [Train Hall] is a catalyst for the overall redevelopment for Penn Station as a whole,” says Matt Bradley, senior project manager at Empire State Development. “It’s an important first step to relieve some of the congestion, and enable all the railroads to start to make improvements and accommodate the long-term growth in ridership that they are expecting.” And the bar for station design has been set high once again.
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