January 3, 2023

New Year, New Building: 5 Adaptive Reuse Projects for Historic Buildings

  • By: Haley Somolinos

The start of the new year is a perfect time to embark on new transformations. And in the preservation world, there’s no better fresh start for an old building than an adaptive reuse project.

By using the assets that exist, communities unlock the power and potential of older buildings to revitalize their communities and transform places that matter to us. As the famous saying by architect Carl Elefante goes, “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” By repurposing a building that has outlived its original function, cities can preserve architectural and cultural heritage while alleviating disinvestment, igniting social change, and working toward sustainable development.

These old buildings tell a story; they explain our past and serve as the foundation for our future. Here are a few of our favorite examples of successful reuse stories.

Leona Tate in front of McDonogh 19 Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana

photo by: Justen Williams

Leona Tate standing in front of McDonogh 19 Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Tate, Etienne, Prevost (TEP) Center in New Orleans, Louisiana

On November 14, 1960, three Black girls integrated McDonogh No. 19 Public School in New Orleans, attending an otherwise empty elementary school for almost a year in the face of white racism and discrimination to their presence. The three children—Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost—became pioneers of the Civil Rights movement.

Tate spent her life in pursuit of equity and racial justice. She created a nonprofit devoted to finding a way to purchase and restore McDonogh No. 19, which she transformed into the TEP Interpretive Center. It not only serves as a museum for the history of New Orleans public school desegregation, civil rights, and restorative justice, but it is also a home to nonprofits and 25 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors.

This is one example of the critical role preservation plays not only to tell the full American story, but also to build stronger communities—two key priorities of the National Trust. The National Trust has supported their work through a $75,000 grant by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, with improvements to the site’s interior through the HOPE Crew program as part of a partnership with Benjamin Moore.

Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.

Landmark restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl has been one of the oldest continuing operating businesses on D.C.’s U Street since 1958. The building was constructed in 1910 and housed a silent movie theater named Minnehaha from 1913-1920. The arch windows can still be seen under Ben’s sign, a hallmark of the nickelodeon theater.

Since opening in the late ‘50s, Ben’s Chili Bowl has witnessed its share of pendulum swings from thriving times on “Black Broadway” to modern gentrification. Throughout its history, the restaurant lasted because of the fierce devotion of its community. Today, Ben's Chili Bowl is a must-visit restaurant for tourists and boasts its original furnishings, including its counter, booths, and stools. In 2021, in partnership with American Express, the National Trust awarded the family-run restaurant with a Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant to rehabilitate and restore the exterior and electrical work.

photo by: Library of Congress

The iconic Ben's Chili Bowl is in a building that was once a silent movie theater. The arch windows can still be seen under Ben’s sign, a hallmark of the nickelodeon theater.

Courtyard at Cooper Molera

Locals gather in the courtyard outside Cella Restaurant, surrounded by gardens designed by Isabella de Sibert of Stuck in the Mud and maintained in part by volunteers from the Historic Garden League of Monterey.

Cooper Molera in Monterey, California

Dating from 1827, Cooper Molera Adobe is a National Trust Historic Site in Monterey’s Old Town Historic District. Cooper Molera represents the layered history of the families who lived in and built Monterey, from its early years as the political and commercial capital of Mexican Alta California, through the development of the State of California.

The thick, 19th-century adobe wall around the property had long obscured it from the public as it went through different uses as a family home, a series of businesses, storage space, and a museum before undergoing a $6.5 million rehabilitation which was completed in 2018. Today it is a bustling downtown hangout with a cafe, restaurant, and event space.

Cooper Molera includes two adjacent adobe homes, a corner store, an adobe warehouse, a barn complex, and beautiful gardens and grounds. After a period of deferred maintenance, and with extensive engagement with local stakeholders, the National Trust worked with local developer Foothill Partners, Inc. to develop a concept that has brought new life to Cooper Molera. A revived “shared use” model for the property now includes an active program of historic interpretation centered on the Cooper and Diaz Adobes, along with compatible commercial uses appropriate to the historic setting. This reimagination of the traditional house museum model has made the site more financially sustainable and creates new opportunities for the public to experience this unique cultural setting.

The interior of the Swift Factory in Hartford, Ct.

photo by: Julie Bidwell

The interior of the Swift Factory in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Swift Factory in Hartford, Connecticut

A once-prominent but long-shuttered gold leaf factory had become another blight on the city of Hartford, but those in the community saw the Swift Factory as key to the neighborhood’s revitalization. After an extensive community engagement process, the development team planned a rehabbed space that would include commercial food manufacturing, a food business incubator, community space, and nonprofit office space. With plans in place and revitalization efforts underway, the National Trust’s subsidiary, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), helped the project with vital funding. NTCIC supported the financing for the $4.5 million in federal Historic Tax Credits generated by the project and provided $10 million in New Markets Tax Credit allocation.

The project preserves the industrial history of the area, but also creates a community hub for opportunities. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, “We see our old industrial buildings as really important opportunities to preserve our history through reinvention.”

Reinvention at the Swift Factory includes a focus on work, education, and opportunity by being a community hub and business incubator. Three new tenants will include a Hartford Public Library branch, a Head Start preschool program, and a Chase Bank focused on teaching financial literacy. The library branch will also house NextGen Learning Center, which will offer adult education, computer classes, and social services.

West Chester, Pennsylvania Downtown District

With a commitment to preserving the historic character of its downtown center, West Chester, Pennsylvania, has become known for idyllic small-town living. The walkable downtown is lined with a mix of commercial and residential structures built between 1830 and 1930, and the majority are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A brewery has set up in a former Woolworth’s, a Wells Fargo branch is in an 1830s Greek Revival building that once housed the first bank in the county, and a hotel is in the transformed Warner Theatre (The Hotel Warner is a member of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust).

In 2017, Main Street America (a program of the National Trust) recognized the town’s transformation with the Great American Main Street Award, bestowed on communities who are a model of preservation-based commercial district revitalization.

For more great adaptive reuse projects, read about the 2022 winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards—a North Dakota schoolhouse transformed into a fiber arts center, a famous Chicago hospital now a mixed-use hotel and office complex, and an architecturally significant Los Angeles funeral home-turned-affordable housing community.

Downtown West Chester, Pennsylvania.

photo by: Samuel Markey

Haley Somolinos Headshot

Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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