- - Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stroll down the hallways of the Lenox School on Capitol Hill, and you won’t hear the sound of youngsters reciting their ABCs or banging erasers out the rear door. Instead, you might see young couples heading off to a busy day or singles arriving home after a long day at the office.

Throughout the District, “no more pencils, no more books” is the mantra of the moment, as increasing numbers of former D.C. public school buildings are being transformed into offices, gallery spaces, gyms and, yes, homes. To be sure, most of these buildings stood abandoned for quite awhile, overshadowed by hulking office buildings never dreamed of in the days of recess and recitation, or forgotten by neighborhoods struggling with new challenges.

And old schools are not the only structures being re-imagined and reinvigorated. From far-flung rural outposts to well within city limits, old warehouses, churches, barns and stores are finding new lives and new purposes for the 21st century.

“There is a lot of historic fabric to incorporate into new buildings,” said Chris Morrison, a principal at Cunningham/Quills Architects in Georgetown and mid-Atlantic regional director of the American Institute of Architects. “A lot of projects have a mix of old and new together.”

Within the District, these old but not old-fashioned spaces have become new anchors for neighborhoods from Georgetown to far Southeast.

“A lot of young people are highly paid professionals,” said Andrew Scallan of Scallan Properties, which developed the 1898 Lenox School into 24 condominium units. “They come to Washington and want to live downtown. So do people who are downsizing; they move back into the city when their children are grown.”

Finding new uses for old buildings is hardly a new idea, but in the past few decades, terms like “repurposing” and “adaptive reuse” have been on the lips of nearly every city official and developer. For preservationists and the historically minded, repurposed old buildings provide a concrete connection with the past while honoring the building’s former function within the neighborhood.

For urban planners and city officials hoping to broaden an area’s economic base, repurposed buildings often allow for mixed-use opportunities and the introduction of residences into neighborhoods that once had little life on evenings and weekends. And for those who live in them, there is the prospect of living in a space that is unlike any other.

“There is definitely a move toward mixed use,” Mr. Scallan said. “Twenty years ago, there was not a lot of living above retail spaces.”

Before World War II, it was typical to find shopkeepers living above their stores or doctors above their offices. One hundred or so years ago, people lived where they could walk to work or the market — and run home for lunch. But all that changed with the advent of the suburbs, Mr. Morrison said.

“There was a suburban exodus,” he said. “Within the city, what you could get for commercial rents outweighed what you could get for housing.”

Suddenly, downtowns were deserted after dark. Urban neighborhoods stagnated as more affluent residents moved away. Businesses folded, nightlife disappeared, and major industries relocated. But suburban sprawl meant people were facing longer and longer commutes, and once they got home, they were isolated in communities with few stores, no nightlife and no entertainment — unless they got in their cars again and drove somewhere.

in a twinkling, those urban centers, with their funky buildings, exciting history and easy access to a wide range of activities, seemed to have a lot of potential. There were the high ceilings associated with old buildings, large windows and proximity to Metro and other amenities. Historic conversions offered tax and other incentives for developers and often brought other business into the area.

Of course, nothing went seamlessly. While there was a renewed commitment to reinvigorating downtown neighborhoods, some of the practices involved were not as sensitive to the past as they could have been. In the late 1970s and well into the ‘80s and ‘90s, a practice known as “facadism” held sway. Developers kept an old building’s front wall but simply demolished the rest of the building.

“It’s not a good solution,” Mr. Morrison said. “It treats the historic fabric as wallpaper. What was acceptable in the ‘80s is no longer acceptable.”

Later projects like the one that saved Adolf Cluss’ Charles Sumner School, built in 1872 at 17th and M streets Northwest, included additional building, either on adjacent property or as an addition to the existing structure. The 1939 Greyhound Bus terminal, probably the best example of art moderne architecture in the city, was completely incorporated into the new office high-rise that surrounds it.

Meanwhile, Douglas Development LLC’s plans for the old Wonder Bread Factory complex on S Street Northwest includes 24,000 feet of office space and preservation of the light, airy feeling of the original building’s interior. (You won’t get to smell the bread baking, though.)

Downtown on G Street Northwest, the 1918 Mather Building is being revitalized to include visual and performing arts spaces, offices, affordable housing for local artists and market-rate condominiums. The old terra-cotta facade has been thoroughly restored in an effort to highlight one of the building’s defining elements, and the interior has been rehabilitated and reconfigured.

Like many buildings downtown, the Mather Building has had a checkered past. Erected as an office building, it later served as academic and studio space for Federal City College, a predecessor of the University of the District of Columbia. Mr. Morrison said when he first walked in, it was a mess.

“There was a bowling alley on the second floor, and projects left in kilns,” he said of the space, which had been used as an arts center but had been abandoned in the early 1990s.

Today, developers are more likely to try to work with all or part of the existing structure, in part because there is some capital in those old interiors.

“The alternative is razing and selling for development,” Mr. Morrison said. “Part of this is about valuing the cultural asset of architecture. It’s imperative that we look for uses for buildings that help create the future of the city.”

Of course, most cities have quite a few aging structures. While the District did not have the industrial base that New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore had, it still has quite a few spaces ready to be turned into loft apartments or retail meccas.

The Maples, on Capitol Hill, for example, was built in 1795-96 by William Lovering for a prominent land speculator. Subsequent owners included Francis Scott Key. Constantino Brumidi, painter of the Capitol frescoes, later decorated the ballroom with his own work.

To repurpose the building, which had spent years as the offices of a social services organization, Cunningham/Quills planned a “strategy of strategic insertions and deletions” that included removing some of the additions from the 1930s and later while reorienting the house as it originally had been planned.

Along the Georgetown waterfront, there are a number of adaptive reuses of industrial spaces that give more than a nod to the neighborhood’s industrial past.

Meanwhile, the small towns and countryside surrounding the District have felt their own versions of time and change, opening up possibilities for adaptive-reuse projects.

In Sykesville, Md., the 1883 railroad depot is now an upscale dining and music venue, Baldwin’s Station, and the anchor for a revitalization that extends to the historic town itself. In Brunswick, Md., gourmet coffee and bakery goods are served in what used to be an old church. And scattered throughout the towns and villages of Greater Washington are old schoolhouses, general stores and stagecoach inns that have been turned into private, comfortable, one-of-a-kind homes.

Then there are the barns. The fact is, the Greater Washington area is full of them, from 18th-century stone buildings to the more familiar red wooden barns and brown tobacco barns.

These days, many barns, with their old wood, solid construction and tangible links to the past are finding new life as residences, workshops and even commercial venues.

“There’s a lot of history of the whole neighborhood in one building,” said Dean Fitzgerald, president and CEO of Heavy Timber Construction in Thurmont, Md., a 20-year-old company that restores and converts old buildings as well as constructing new ones.

For Mr. Fitzgerald, old buildings can be hidden gems, where references to the past abound, and homeowners want those references restored.

“We look for the writing on the walls to read and interpret these old buildings,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “We look for shadows of things that once existed. You just have to take a little time to flip the pages.”

For one project, Mr. Fitzgerald transformed an 1864 structure into a workshop and office space complete with heating and air-conditioning systems. In another, he took a 1788 barn that had burned in 1907, was restored, and turned it into a home.

Why rebuild a barn instead of starting fresh, especially if it might cost more than a bit more than a new build? For Syl Schieber of New Market, Md., the owner of the 1864 structure, (he and his wife live in the 1861 house) the answer has a lot to do with the idea of permanence.

“We actually were looking for something closer in, but all there was was junk,” said Mr. Schieber, who is originally from Chevy Chase. “We were thinking across generations, the way they were thinking when they built the house and the barn.”

Because while you easily can construct a new house, history is harder to manufacture.

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