First Class: The Winners of the 2019 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards
Every year, with the support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the National Trust gathers a group of preservation experts to choose the winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards. The competition is stiff, with outstanding preservation projects from all over the country vying for an award. The 2019 winners—an iconic Massachusetts bridge, an adaptive reuse complex in Providence, Rhode Island, and a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece outside Chicago—represent three of the best historic preservation projects to be completed in recent years. Read on for the details about how each of these places was saved and preserved for future generations.
Historic preservation is replete with examples of once-grand buildings and structures that fall into disrepair because they are forgotten and abandoned. The Longfellow Bridge that connects Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, represents the opposite problem.
Originally built in 1907, the bridge—named after poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—has been in constant use by trains, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists for well over a century. Built higher above the water than was typical for the time, the bridge also attracted non-commuters for its views of the two cities.
But the fact that the bridge was indispensable to the easy movement of people and goods between Boston and Cambridge didn’t save it from deterioration. “The bridge had not been repaired or upgraded since the 1950s,” says Miguel Rosales, president of architecture and engineering firm Rosales + Partners. “I live [nearby] in Beacon Hill and had seen the bridge over the years slowly deteriorating.” Along with engineering firm STV, Rosales + Partners led a $300 million-plus restoration of the Longfellow Bridge that was completed in 2018.
Given just how critical a piece of infrastructure the bridge is, it’s no surprise that the main purpose of the restoration was to address structural problems, upgrade capacity, and bring the entire structure up to modern building codes. But it all had to be accomplished in a way that maintained and enhanced the aesthetic qualities that had made it such an iconic structure. And the bridge had to remain in operation throughout the project. “When you upgrade a bridge like this, you have to do it [so] that the visibility of the additions doesn’t impact the aesthetic value and historic conditions,” says Rosales. “The bridge still has to be recognized from the way people have always remembered it.”
For example, the central span contains four neoclassical granite towers—the inspiration for the nickname the “Salt and Pepper Bridge.” Through the years, the towers had taken on a blackish hue from their exposure to pollution and harsh weather conditions. As part of the rehabilitation, all 515 granite stones that made up each tower were removed and cleaned. Each stone was numbered to ensure it would be reinstalled in the correct location.
While the stones were being cleaned, the towers were reinforced with new concrete liner walls. Then the stones were brought back on barges for reassembly. The bridge’s ornate cast-iron pedestrian railings were restored, while historic light posts and long-missing lamps for the granite towers were replicated.
Though tremendous effort went into preserving or re-creating original design elements, another main challenge of the project was adapting the narrow structure for 21st-century uses. At just 105 feet wide, the bridge had precious little space to share among commuter trains, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. “There was a taskforce formed to discuss how to divide the space, because it couldn’t be expanded,” says Rosales. Ultimately, a compromise was reached that would maintain two lanes for cars going from Cambridge into Boston but only one lane for car traffic heading in the opposite direction. “That allowed for a wider buffer between bike lanes and cars and new sidewalks on one side,” Rosales adds.One upgrade to the bridge had nothing to do with its ability to accommodate multiple modes of transport: A new lighting system was installed that gives it a nighttime glow. “The arches have never been illuminated before. The bridge has never looked this good,” says Rosales. “And now it can stay this way for another 75 years without any major maintenance.”
South Street Landing—Providence, Rhode Island
When the South Street Station opened in 1912, its importance to Providence, Rhode Island, was clear. Located along the Providence River near the city’s then-thriving Jewelry District, the redbrick Classical Revival power station was an obvious symbol of Providence’s move into the 20th century. The first of what would eventually become three connected buildings housed hulking turbines used by the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company to deliver reliable electricity to the city’s homes and businesses.
Over the years, though, the complex of historic buildings that made up the power plant became less critical to the task of providing Providence’s electricity, and the plant was ultimately decommissioned in 1995. Efforts to turn the complex into a museum and a larger, mixed-use development stalled in 2009 and it morphed into exactly the wrong kind of symbol. “The building sitting there, partially demolished, was a great negative on the re-creation of the Jewelry District,” says Rick Kobus, senior principal at Tsoi Kobus Design, the Boston-based architecture firm that designed a recent $177 million redevelopment of the power plant. “It was a visible statement of trying and failing.”
Today, the site sends an entirely different message, this one about a future fueled by collaboration and innovation—much of it taking place within the walls of the historic buildings. It’s an odyssey that began in 2013, when developer CV Properties put together a plan to reimagine the space for use by Brown University, the University of Rhode Island (URI), and Rhode Island College (RIC).
Because URI and RIC are state schools, the plan for them to sign a lease and participate in the project required the approval of the Rhode Island legislature. And the complex financing package included a mix of federal and state historic tax credits, as well as debt and equity funding through capital partner Wexford Science + Technology. The project also required the addition of two new floors to the historic property in order to create enough rentable space for the economics to work. The result is South Street Landing, a 21st-century project grounded in Providence’s history.
A state-of-the-art Nursing Education Center jointly operated by URI and RIC occupies the first three floors of all three buildings. “State-of-the-art” is not hyperbole: The robot-patients used for student training can talk, blink, and exhibit vital signs. Brown University has taken advantage of the upper floors, with their river views, to house administrative offices that were once geographically dispersed.
The existing large, open interior spaces were surprisingly well suited to new uses. Turbine Hall, which housed an overhead crane and five turbine generators, was converted into a lounge area. “We preserved a portion of the Turbine Hall in its full volumetric presence to capture the character of everything the building is about, including the crane and one of the concrete dynamo blocks that held the turbines,” Kobus says. An interior glass curtain wall provides views of the original roof trusses that extend the length of the building. Historically accurate window replicas help provide ample natural light and views of the river and downtown.
The nursing center opened in 2017 and, as hoped, the rehabilitated building has served as a critical linchpin for revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood. An adjacent apartment building catering to students, also part of South Street Landing, opened this past summer. So did a nearby 191,000-square-foot commercial office building occupied by Brown’s School of Professional Studies, the Cambridge Innovation Center, numerous startups, and offices for Johnson & Johnson. A new park and pedestrian bridge connect what had been disparate downtown neighborhoods. “South Street Landing was the catalyst,” says Richard Galvin, president and CEO of CV Properties.Even people who were initially skeptical about the wisdom of using an old power plant as a nursing school have been won over. Early in the design process, a nursing staff member expressed concern about putting an institution devoted to health and hygiene in a dirty industrial building. “We needed to convince people that when the old building was cleaned up, it would be a beautiful statement about the history of Rhode Island and Providence, and a place that was forward-looking,” says Kobus. “Nobody questions that anymore, and they love that history is on display.”
Unity Temple—Oak Park, Illinois
For a writer, research about a building constructed more than 110 years ago doesn’t typically require keeping an eye on breaking news. But such was the case in July of 2019, when UNESCO added eight buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, including Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, to its prestigious World Heritage List as a single “cultural site.”
In Chicago, architect Gunny Harboe was also closely monitoring UNESCO’s proceedings. Harboe had a particular interest in the outcome because he has worked on preservation projects at three of the buildings on the list, including Unity Temple. “I know it has a lot of competition, but it is certainly one of Wright’s greatest works,” says Harboe of the longtime home of Oak Park’s Unitarian Universalist congregation. “Every time I’m in there it blows me away—not just how beautiful it is, but how forward-thinking it was. It was truly revolutionary.”
The concrete, cube-like exterior of the 1908 building resembles a bunker, except for some articulated cast-column elements at the top. “Then, when you get inside, the design reverses on itself and you are sitting in this beautifully serene and contemplative space that is calming and yet intriguing at the same time,” he says. “When you sit in the sanctuary your eye goes everywhere, and the design pulls you into the corners. To me, it has this amazing spatial complexity, and I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
But those and many other aspects of Wright’s architecture were nearly lost in a steady, decades-long deterioration before Harboe and a group of consultants and builders completed a three-year, $25 million effort to restore the church in 2017. Indeed, in 2009 the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Unity Temple on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Long before he began the ambitious restoration of Unity Temple, Harboe knew the peril the building faced. He had worked on smaller restoration projects and long-term plans for the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF), which raises funds to support preservation, upkeep, and programming in the building. “In 2008 a crisis hit and a big chunk of roof came down, and we knew something had to happen. We did some repairs and then scrambled to fund this,” says Harboe. In 2013, the Alphawood Foundation pledged $10 million, which kickstarted the restoration.
Before beginning, though, the design and construction teams spent nearly a year doing research and creating mockups to ensure they could accurately reproduce the building’s original grandeur. The walls had been painted over and fixed with plaster so many times through the years that detective work was necessary to find the original finishes. “There were a few places in the closets and behind radiators where there was relatively little over-painting,” says Harboe.
Similar research was required to restore the building’s concrete exterior in a way that avoided a patchwork effect. The project team also installed new code-compliant plumbing and electrical systems and dug nine geothermal wells in the front yard to allow for the installation of air conditioning without marring the temple’s historic appearance. Now UTRF can plan programming and events that hadn’t been possible in the past because of the stifling summertime heat.
Heidi Ruehle-May, the executive director of UTRF, sees the improvements as key to broadening the appreciation of the building even more. “Now with the World Heritage designation, this is an opportunity to open the eyes of even more people locally and internationally to the significance of the building,” she says. “We are working with community groups to get creative about getting people into the building now that it’s preserved, and to broaden the outreach beyond architecture buffs.”For her part, Ruehle-May understands the building’s universal appeal. “I wander the sanctuary on a beautiful sunny day and the [feeling] I get when I take a moment to pause and sit [there] is stillness,” she says. “Even if you’re not religious, there is a spiritual aspect that was intentional. Wright made this an incredible space.”