January 30, 2013

The Power Plant Renovation: Imagination Becomes Adaptation

  • By: Michael R. Allen

This is part 4 of our guest series on the remarkable transformation of a hospital power plant in St. Louis. Last week covered the plant's closure and deterioration, but today's post shares its exciting rebirth. Read the series to date.

Power Plant exterior after renovation. Credit: Climb So iLL
The Power Plant after renovation.

In 2010, the long-awaited renovation of the Power Plant building began, centered on finding a new use for the purpose-built structure. Developer Chris Goodson of Gilded Age partnered with Environmental Operations, Inc. to complete the renovation, and together they found an ideal match: Climb So iLL, a climbing gym looking for the ultimate home.

The innovative reuse plan came from a team of energetic young minds. Climb So iLL was a partnership of brothers David and Dan Chancellor and their boyhood friend Ian Anderson, who were all longtime climbers. David and Dan had started the climbing gear company, So iLL Holds, in De Soto, Illinois, and later brought Ian into the business.

Construction during renovation. Credit: Climb So iLL
Construction during renovation.

Climb So iLL’s spatial requirements hinged on large open spaces with the potential for installation of tall walls. After over a year of scouting sites for a gym that could offer everything from introductory to advanced climbing, the trio found the power plant. The gym’s partners enthusiastically signed a lease as the first occupant of the Power Plant in 26 years.

After deciding to invest in the city, the group got the county involved, too. Climb So iLL utilized a $30,000 second-place award from the 2011 St. Louis County Economic Council's Business Plan contest to help develop the business side of the project. The project also used state and federal historic credits, brownfields tax incentives, and $4 million in tax increment financing.

Design for the $22 million rehabilitation came from UIC/CDO, a local firm headed by Brent Crittenden and Sara Gibson. The dazzling space required a visually expressive approach to building the walls. Climb So iLL also worked with internationally-acclaimed climbing wall company Walltopia to collaboratively design brightly colored birch plywood shapes that float and rise through the Power Plant without upstaging its dynamic industrial character.

Before and after Climb So iLL's renovation. Credit: Tim Kemple
Before and after Climb So iLL's renovation.

Now, where power plant machinery once stood, there are 10,000 square feet of climbing walls. Wall heights range from 25 to 55 feet, with skill levels from beginner to elite. There are walls shaped like a boulder, an elephant (children’s wall), an eyeball (freestyle unharnessed bouldering wall), and a tulip-of-sorts (beginner wall).

Alongside Climb So iLL’s bright and active gym, the Power Plant will soon offer more casual options for recreation. Two restaurants are planned for the top floor of the three-story building. From inside, diners will have what may be the best view of the Gateway Arch and downtown skyline in the city. Terraces on the west will offer views of the Lafayette Square neighborhood.

In the meantime, Climb So iLL enjoys the unique distinction of saying on its website: "Our facility is part of the historic City Hospital complex and occupies the former Power Plant building. Our neighbors at The Georgian Condominiums, Butler’s Pantry, and The Palladium St. Louis have helped revive this beautiful and historic district making it a truly unique, urban destination. Look for the smokestack."

Next week: Learn about other adaptive reuse projects in cities around the world -- and discover why the Power Plant is unique.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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