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'The Greenest Building': Sustainability and Economics in Building Reuse

Posted by Katherine Ferguson on Wednesday, March 15, 2017

This St. Paddy’s week, America’s urban areas are crawling with green-clad revelers drinking green-colored beverages. No doubt that many of these merry-makers will be patronizing pubs in historic buildings and main streets that have benefited from historic preservation efforts. They may not be painted green for the occasion (although there may be a few), but these buildings are often considered ‘the greenest buildings,’ a term coined by American architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante (FAIA, LEED AP) when he declared, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”

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Preservationists are quite familiar with ‘the greenest building’ argument for adaptive use of historic buildings. This concept was originally perpetuated during the energy crisis of the 1970s and phrases like “embodied energy” and “carbon footprint” became part of the preservation lexicon. In the 1980s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the famous poster of an old building in the shape of a gas can to convey the idea that building reuse was a good way to conserve energy. It was effective and iconic.

Today, our better understanding of climate change and how our actions contribute to environmental shifts has deepened the issue, linking sustainability with responsibility. The popularity of LEED ratings and energy-efficient materials in building development are the realization of what is marketable, what is socially responsible, and what is financially beneficial over time for developers and end users alike.

Historic preservation and adaptive use are inherently sustainable practices, not only because of the aforementioned embodied energy of the structure but also because of building characteristics that encourage innovative sustainability strategies. “Because many historic buildings were built before climate control was widespread, they showcase great regional climatic adaptation and strategies for passive thermal comfort regulation. Many lessons on how to reduce energy consumption are archived in the historic buildings around us,” says Amalia Leifeste, AIA, assistant professor at the Clemson University/College of Charleston Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. “Sustainable strategies can be gleaned from an understanding of past practices and introduced to new construction or, better yet, capitalized on or re-introduced to existing buildings.”

In addition to being ‘green’ by sustainability standards, there are myriad tools that incentivize reuse and help developers achieve valuable equity for these projects. The federal historic tax credit awards up to 20 percent of qualified rehabilitation expenses for eligible income-producing buildings and at the moment 33 states have historic tax credit programs that mirror or resemble the federal program. Some states and local municipalities utilize tax abatement programs. Cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Petersburg, Florida are using local ordinances to reward developers reusing buildings with shorter and streamlined permitting approvals and relaxing zoning and code requirements that apply to new construction. This is a forward-thinking approach to encouraging the sustainable practice of reuse.

The economic benefits of historic building reuse not only benefit developers but also extend to local business owners, residents, and municipalities themselves. Time and time again, the rehabilitation of a single building – be it a landmark mill or a main street storefront – can be the spark for greater economic development in a community, bringing with it more jobs and tax dollars. The creation of housing, affordable or otherwise, is another common use of historic buildings that can stimulate the economy of a locale.

As American cities turn green this week, look around at the historic buildings and the inherent green they represent for energy, for equity, and for economic development. If you are holding a green beer while you ponder this, all the better.

Topics: adaptive use, Sustainability

Iconic Chicago Buildings Are Now the Hippest Hotels in Town

Posted by MacRostie Historic Advisors on Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Credit: Chicago Athletic Association
Credit: Chicago Athletic Association


In Chicago, everyone is invited to be part of the club.

The first half of 2015 has seen a rash of new boutique hotels open in iconic Chicago buildings that were purpose-built to be exclusive to members and account holders only. Today, you don’t have to be a member to book a room at the Chicago Athletic Club Hotel, the Hampton Inn in the Chicago Motor Club, or Virgin’s first hotel in the Old Dearborn Bank Building.

Accommodating the 21st Century Traveler in 19th and Early-20th Century Buildings

These historic building conversions are part of an international trend towards boutique hotels. As the industry heats up with the economic growth experienced over the last few years, hoteliers are focusing on a new strategy to accommodate a new type of traveler. These consumers prefer authenticity to consistency. They want to Instagram photos of architectural detail and eat among locals in hip and trendy restaurants. And what better marketing tool for hotels than historic buildings that provide a sense of place to their guest?

Chicago hotels are also benefiting from growth in the manufacturing and high-tech sectors and the business travelers attached to them. According to the “World Business Chicago” 2014 Annual Report, the last year saw 21,700 new jobs bolstered by companies like ADM, Braintree, Wanda Group and Yelp, and included $6.8 million in investment.

Tourism is, of course, a major factor in the success of the accommodations sector. According to some estimates, 60 percent of hotel developments have taken place in the north Loop/Michigan Avenue, where millions of tourists visit this area each year drawn by its proximity to Chicago’s Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile shopping area.

Financial Incentives for Hotel Conversions

According to a March 2014 New York Times article, the National Park Service estimates that 4.5 percent of all federal historic tax credits (HTCS) are used for hotel conversions in historic buildings. In Chicago, this 20 percent tax credit can be coupled with the Class “L” Property Tax Incentive that reduces assessment levels for 12 years. (In many other states, the federal HTC can be paired with state HTC programs.)

These financial incentives also provide inherent benefits to the community at-large. In most cases, historic tax credits make these hotel projects feasible for the developer and encourage sensitive preservation of historic landmarks in cities across the country. Hotels, in particular, also provide a mix of economic benefits that include generating substantial sales, room and property taxes and creating direct and indirect jobs.

The Value of Historic Consulting

MacRostie Historic Advisors (MHA) provided historic consulting to many of the most talked-about Chicago hotel conversions in 2015. Among the services provided were:

  • historic research that helped to provide the project teams with photos and documents that allowed for sensitive restorations of architectural detail,
  • federal historic rehabilitation certifications for these hotels that allows for the projects to obtain the federal HTC,
  • and Class “L” eligibility applications that allows for the reduction in property assessment values.

Our MHA Midwest team, based in Chicago, worked closely with our partners to ensure the success of these projects that relied heavily on historic tax credits. 

The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel
12 S. Michigan Ave.

Credit: Nick Fochtman / Curbed Chicago / Chicago Athletic Association Hotel
Credit: Nick Fochtman / Curbed Chicago / Chicago Athletic Association Hotel

This Venetian-Gothic 1893 Henry Ives Cobb creation was home to a private athletic club for men (and in the late 20th century, women) of the Chicago elite until 2007. AJ Capital Partners and Commune Hotels & Resorts took ownership in 2012 and transformed the intricately detailed structure into a 241-room hotel that opened in May. The rehabilitation restored bas-relief woodcarving elements, 19th century stained glass, ornate marble staircases and the terra cotta façade.

Virgin Hotel (OldDearborn Bank Building)
203 N. Wabash Ave.

Credit: Nick Fochtman / Curbed Chicago / Virgin Hotel
Credit: Nick Fochtman / Curbed Chicago / Virgin Hotel

Completed in 1928, architects Rapp and Rapp designed the neoclassical structure to be an office building for the Old Dearborn Bank. Despite the unfortunate timing of opening just before the Great Depression, the 27-story building has survived the greater part of a century and was acquired in 2011 Virgin Hotels (Virgin Group) as the company’s first hotel venture. This contemporary 250-room hotel retains the 1920s oak cigar bar, brass elevator doors in the lobby, and the original tiled ceiling. The crown jewel in the project is undoubtedly the reinstatement of the two-story lobby, the original banking hall that had been divided into two floors in the 1950s to accommodate more office space. Following rehabilitation guidelines that are intrinsic to the historic tax credit process, Virgin was able to creatively weave together modern touches with historic details to create a truly spectacular experience.

The Chicago Motor Club Hampton Inn
68 E. Wacker Place

Credit: chicagoarchitecture.org
Credit: chicagoarchitecture.org

Before the days of AAA, the Chicago Motor Club was a haven for early motorists. This 1928 Art Deco gem was designed by Holabird & Root, and the 17-story building now houses 143 rooms. A great deal of attention was paid the historic aspects of the building, including details in the three-story lobby such as the original John Warner Norton 29 foot wide road map. A 1928 Model A was even installed on a mezzanine as a nod to the year the building opened. Rehabilitation included careful restoration and repair of exterior terra cotta, stone, and limestone. The architecture team at Hartshorne Plunkard created an exquisite LEED certified design throughout that preserved the historic features of the building.

It’s a decidedly good time to be a traveler in Chicago. It is more about the destination than the journey for once, and that is because developers see the value in historic structures, made even more valuable by the generous incentives of historic rehabilitation tax credits. 

Topics: Chicago, MHA Midwest, adaptive use, hotels

SpencerBANK Wins 2015 Silver Hammer Award For Rehab of Worcester Fire Alarm & Telegraph Building

Posted by MacRostie Historic Advisors on Wednesday, June 17, 2015
SpencerBANK in Worchester, MA
SpencerBANK in Worchester, MA (Formerly the Worchester Fire Alarm and Telegraph Building, c. 1925)


MHA congratulates our client SpencerBANK as the winner of a 2015 Silver Hammer Award from the Worcester Chamber of Commerce for its rehabilitation of the former Worcester Fire Alarm and Telegraph Building on Park Avenue in Worcester, MA. The former Fire Alarm and Telegraph Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and had been listed on Preservation Worcester’s “Most Endangered Structures” list.

SpencerBANK renovated the historic structure to create its new Elm Park branch location, along with a community meeting room open to the public. MHA helped the bank navigate the state and federal historic tax credit processes, working closely with project architect Gregory J. O’Connor Associates  and contractor F. W. Madigan Company on this important project.

“I think this is a great example of how a small project can be impactful,” stated Albert Rex,  Partner and Director of MHA Northeast. “The combination of its use as a bank along with public meeting space will bring many people to this long vacant building."

The Fire Alarm and Telegraph Building was constructed in 1925 for the Worcester Fire Department. Local architect, Lucius W. Briggs, designed the picturesque English Tudor Revival Style building with a domestic appearance to fit within the surrounding Elm Park's 60 acres of parkland. Briggs was a prominent New England architect whose local works included Memorial Auditorium, Worcester Boys Trade School, South High School, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The building was, according to Briggs' obituary, a special favorite of his and one of the best examples of his work in the city. It was said that he took "immense joy" from the project, designing and supervising every minute detail.

The original building design, completed for $126,000, included a garage, machine shop, coal room, and boiler room on the first floor, and an operating room, battery room, office, and dormitory on the second floor. The building was later converted to the Grounds, Equipment & Repairs Building for the Worcester School Department at an unknown date.

Preservation Worcester buldingPreservation Worcester bulding

The Bank’s new Elm Park branch features a contemporary, cutting-edge banking environment that maintains the historic integrity of the building’s façade, including the retention of the main facade's historic steel windows. In addition, SpencerBANK constructed a state-of-the-art community meeting room and activity center. Overseen by Preservation Worcester, the room is available to organizations that promote the public use, preservation and stewardship of Elm Park.

Silver Hammer Awards, given by the Chamber at its Annual Awards Ceremony, acknowledge construction or rehabilitation projects that have an extraordinary visual and aesthetic impact on our physical landscape and that have brought new life to some of the region’s most historic assets.

“SpencerBANK is honored to accept this Silver Hammer Award. It symbolizes a unique community effort to restore this historic structure and provide a forum for the preservation and enjoyment of Elm Park. Our new Elm Park branch is up and running and we’re very excited to share it with the community,” said SpencerBANK President & CEO K. Michael Robbins.

post by Megan Lydon

Topics: preservation awards, adaptive use, MHA Northeast