The 2022 Winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards
It takes a certain amount of imagination to pull off an adaptive reuse project. Not everyone can see the potential in a derelict building, mentally removing the wear and tear and filling the empty spaces with people. The visionaries behind the three winners of the 2022 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards—a North Dakota schoolhouse transformed into a fiber arts center, a famous Chicago hospital that’s now a mixed-use hotel and office complex, and an architecturally significant Los Angeles funeral home–turned–affordable housing community—possess the ability to do just that.
“You have to be creative in the decision-making process, and for me the three projects really excelled in that sense,” says Héctor J. Berdecía-Hernández, director-general of the Centro de Conservación y Restauración de Puerto Rico and a juror for this year’s awards program, presented by the National Trust. Everett Fly, a San Antonio–based architect and landscape architect, and Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia in Columbia, South Carolina, also served as jurors. Read on for more about this year’s winners. —Meghan Drueding
Old Cook County Hospital, Chicago
Chicago’s Cook County Hospital has played myriad roles since the 550-foot-long Beaux-Arts building was completed around 1914. Early on, it was known as “Chicago’s Ellis Island,” for its dedication to serving immigrants and poor people. It gained fame in the 1930s as the site of America’s first blood bank, in the 1960s as the first comprehensive trauma unit, and in the 1980s as one of the country’s first AIDS wards. Its busy emergency room inspired the long-running television show ER, and the building appeared in the 1993 Harrison Ford flick The Fugitive. And now, after a $153 million renovation, Cook County Hospital has been transformed into something quite different: two Hyatt hotels, a food hall, 73,000 square feet of office space, a daycare center, and a museum showcasing its exceptional history. The project anchors a multiphase $1 billion, 10-acre redevelopment meant to enliven the Illinois Medical District area with new housing, offices, and restaurants.
Credit Chicago-based Landmarks Illinois with getting preservation efforts underway in the late 1990s after officials announced plans to close the hospital. (The site made the National Trust’s 2004 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.) “From a long-range-planning perspective, the county was not viewing this building as an asset but as a liability,” says Lisa DiChiera, former director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. “But why spend $10 [million] to $20 million on demolition when you can offload the asset to a private developer and create a building that’s producing property tax revenue and retail tax and all other kinds of income?”
That developer turned out to be John T. Murphy, chairman and CEO of Chicago’s Murphy Real Estate Services, whose connection to the project was personal. Murphy’s father, uncle, and grandfather were all doctors and completed their residencies at Cook. His great-uncle, John B. Murphy, was a well-known Victorian-era surgeon who interned and taught at the hospital’s former building.
Employing $27 million in historic tax credits, Murphy’s firm spearheaded a design-build team that included contractor Walsh Construction and architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). MB Real Estate, Plenary Group, and Granite Companies were also involved in what became known as the Civic Health Development Group, the winning bidder for a 2015 Cook County request for proposal that asked for ways to reimagine the building.
Chicago winters had not been kind to the structure, abandoned since 2002. When architects from SOM first saw its interior, they found a building slowly succumbing to nature. Vines and moss grew readily inside. Drooping ceiling tiles, shaky supports, and dust from asbestos-covered pipes made entering the building a risky endeavor. “The fact that we had to wear full hazmat suits with rubber booties and respirators gives you an indication of what kind of terrible shape it was in,” says Adam Semel, a managing partner at the firm. “There had been a big rainstorm the night before and when we went inside the next day, it was still raining inside.”
After contractors spent months clearing debris, the 26-month rehabilitation began. The building’s dramatic eight-story facade, with its fluted Ionic columns and figures of lions and cherubs, was slowly restored under the guidance of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE). More than 4,000 sections of terra cotta had to be repaired or replaced. Inside, workers resurrected terrazzo floors, plasterwork, and marble staircases, while removing walls and dropped ceilings that had been added. Now guests at the hotels check in to a shared lobby that looks very much like the main lobby of the hospital when it was built.
For DiChiera, the finished project was the culmination of more than 20 years spent drafting reuse studies, building partnerships, and giving local politicians an earful. “Local governments like to say, ‘Hey, we’re sustainable.’ But when you throw massive buildings like these into landfills, that’s not sustainability,” she says. “[The Driehaus Foundation Award] is national recognition for this successful project, which can be used as a model for all county and local governments that decide to vacate publicly owned buildings. Get these buildings into private use. Get private dollars invested in them and get new tax revenue into your communities. You’ve kept the architectural element and you’ve been sustainable. It’s just common sense.” —Joe Sugarman
Angelus Funeral Home/Paul R. Williams Apartments, Los Angeles
Paul R. Williams, a prominent Black architect who designed some of Hollywood’s most glamorous houses, brought his unerring sense of elegance to the Angelus Funeral Home in South Los Angeles. Built in 1934, in an era when the funeral home industry did not usually welcome the Black community, the Mediterranean Revival building was ahead of its time. “Funeral homes tended to be very gloomy and somber, and Williams had the exact opposite vision,” says architect John LoCascio at Pasadena, California–based Historic Resources Group, who served as a consultant on the structure’s adaptive reuse. “It’s a very bright and uplifting place. It’s more about life than death.”
The pioneering Black business occupied the building until 1968, when it moved into a new facility, also designed by Williams. By around 2006, the original building had fallen into neglect and was boarded up. At least one redevelopment attempt came to naught. But in 2015, Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (HCHC), an affordable housing developer with experience in rehabilitating historic properties, purchased the site from the city for $1.2 million.
With the support of L.A. city councilmember Curren Price, HCHC also bought two adjoining lots in order to create 41 total units of family housing. The bulk of the $22 million budget came from federal low-income housing tax credits and historic tax credits; the city of Los Angeles provided a $6 million loan. Jury member Everett Fly, a San Antonio, Texas–based architect and landscape architect, commented: “Converting the property from funeral home to affordable housing was a creative and unique piece of problem-solving that addresses quality of life and environmental consciousness.”
The unusual project, now known as the Paul R. Williams Apartments, required a sensitive touch. To fit the required number of housing units, the architects located most of them in a new, 32,800-square-foot addition connected to the existing structure by an underground parking lot. The addition is visually separate from the former funeral home, which helps maintain the 10,100-square-foot, National Register–listed building’s architectural integrity. The new building defers to the old with a similar color scheme, gable form, eaves, and window proportions.
The design team restored the character-defining features of the funeral home, including a grand circular stair—a signature element of Williams’ architecture—along with wood wainscoting and cornices. “It’s a pleasure working with a building that’s not too fancy but has a lot of nice detail,” says architect Thomas Michali of Los Angeles–based M2A Milofsky and Michali Architects, who has since retired. The most complicated part of the rehabilitation was an update to the building’s infrastructure, including a seismic upgrade; new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; and soundproofing, all of which were hidden behind new drywall. The design team also changed the exterior color from its original white to beige to highlight the white trim and underscore a change in use.
The funeral home’s chapel is now a meeting hall that can hold more than 100 people and accommodates large community events for residents of this complex as well as those of the Florence Mills Apartments, another HCHC development across the street. Adjunct spaces were transformed into seven apartments, which have high ceilings and are full of character thanks to their restored period details. “Before we did the project, we wondered whether anybody would feel uncomfortable having their apartment be in a former funeral home, but that turned out to be a complete nonissue,” says Sarah Letts, the executive director of HCHC. “The spaces are really lovely—the building is as graceful as the homes [Williams] designed for wealthy people.”
While best known for his grand houses, Williams was also committed to affordable housing. During his long and prolific career, he designed public housing projects and wrote two books—The Small Home of Tomorrow and New Homes for Today—filled with floor plans for low-cost homes. “He probably wouldn’t have anticipated this outcome, but I hope he would be pleased by what we achieved,” says Letts. “Regardless of your economic means, you should live in housing that is respectful and beautiful.” —Lydia Lee
Nome Schoolhouse, Nome, North Dakota
Like many good ideas do, the notion of buying an old building came to Chris Armbrust and Teresa Perleberg on a road trip. The business partners drove from North Dakota to Montana in 2018 to purchase additional sheep and wool for Shepherd Industries, their fiber mill and fiber-arts education company. “On the drive, I brought up the thought of maybe repurposing an old building [as a mixed-use space],” says Perleberg. “I particularly thought of schools because there’s a lot of them around North Dakota that are sitting empty and just falling apart and are sad to see.”
Two days later they were peeking inside the back door of a 1916 building in Nome, North Dakota, that had once served as a K–12 school. It had been abandoned for nearly 50 years, and as the two North Dakota natives ventured inside, they saw pools of water on the floor and piles of old furniture and clothing on the stairs. “It was so bad, but all the woodwork was untouched,” Armbrust remembers. “As soon as we walked up those old stairs, we said, ‘Yup, this is it; we’re buying this school.’” They did so five days later, spending $32,500 on the 13,000-square-foot building, which included an attached gymnasium dating to 1949.
With help from their husbands and grown children, Armbrust
and Perleberg did much of the initial work on the property themselves. They
spent months just cleaning up, getting rid of junk that had accumulated inside
and taking down trees outside that were growing dangerously close to the
structure. They hired a development and construction management company to
handle major tasks such as replumbing and rewiring, adding onto the back of the
school, and replacing the old roof. But to control costs the pair continued to
take on whatever they could on their own.
“We did a lot of painting and grouting,” Armbrust says. “All the main trim in the school, all we did was clean it and lemon-oil it. It’s still absolutely beautiful.” They salvaged most of the school’s original hardwood flooring with the help of local company Northern Hard Wood Floors. Using the experience and know-how of Armbrust’s husband, Steve, a contractor and home inspector, they added a layer of bricks over the cinder-block interior walls of the gym, which they converted into an event space for weddings, conferences, and other gatherings.
The plan was to finish the gym first so it could be used to generate income to support the rest of the project. It opened in July of 2020—not an ideal time for event rentals, given the pandemic. But Armbrust and Perleberg pressed on. After being turned down by eight banks, they’d gotten a construction loan from Ron Anderson, a North Dakota businessman who had attended the school. “He was willing to be the risk taker, basically,” says Armbrust. The loan enabled them to continue with the work, which ultimately cost $4.6 million. In July of 2021 the newly rehabilitated and expanded Nome Schoolhouse held its grand opening.
Since then, dozens of weddings, corporate retreats and conferences, needle-felting workshops, and other events have taken place at the site. Antiques fill the 11 hotel rooms, and many guests are repeat customers. On the lower level of the 17,800-square-foot addition, a fiber processing mill hums away. Artifacts from the school and the town, donated by locals, are on display throughout the building. “[With this project], not only are you restoring an old building and preserving the history of the community, but you’re also making that building an asset [where] people can learn artisan crafts,” says Puerto Rico–based preservationist Héctor J. Berdecía-Hernández, one of the awards jurors.
Armbrust and Perleberg’s weekly “EweTube” videos about their multifaceted business have helped make the Schoolhouse known within the fiber arts community. Neighbors provide space for their 10 sheep and two alpacas to live while they work on a long-term plan to keep animals on the property. The Schoolhouse is very much a family business: Perleberg’s daughter, Libbie, serves as chef and caretaker, while Armbrust’s daughter, Katie, leads wedding planning. The historic building anchors the whole endeavor, thanks to that fateful road trip. “It’s got so much more character than you would ever get [in a new building],” says Perleberg. —Meghan Drueding
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