Developers are dusting off the buildings of the past for renewed use in the future.
Chris Thorn

With modern culture’s fixation on anything new, the most exciting real estate projects seem to be the ones with the latest groundbreaking. The grandeur captured in the rendering of a new glass office tower or the buzz generated by a new shopping center is tough to match for owners of existing facilities. But some developers are looking past the glitzy flash of new buildings and are instead digging into the elegance of the past. Three major renovations of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are currently underway in Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, Missouri. Whether they are converting old office space into condominiums or updating an architectural classic for modern use, developers are finding that history is worth repeating.

909 Walnut

Dallas-based Simbol Commercial is converting 909 Walnut into a mixed-use building with 159 luxury apartments in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dallas-based Simbol Commercial Inc. has a unique opportunity. The company is redeveloping one of the most distinctive and historically rich buildings in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, without the headaches normally associated with this type of job.

909 Walnut was built in 1931 as the Fidelity National Bank and Trust Building. When the bank went under a year later, the federal government assumed possession for the next 68 years. During that time, the government tore out a lot of the original interior elements, which left very little to be preserved in future redevelopments.

“This is a unique historic redevelopment because the historic features are on the outside of the building,” says Rick Williamson, principal of Simbol Commercial. “We were able to come inside, clean out the building and do pretty much whatever we wanted. We had a blank canvas with which to work.”

And from that blank canvas comes a 34-story mixed-use building with 159 luxury apartments, two high-end condominiums and 55,000 square feet of office space due for completion next September. The luxury condominiums are being built in two separate towers, which make up floors 31 through 34 of the building. In the past, the towers were used as a bell tower and as a clock tower.

The rental apartments will be on floors five though 30, and the units will have finished ceilings, granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. “The apartment market in downtown Kansas City is mostly a loft market,” Williamson says. “There are not a lot of finished apartments. It was a gamble stepping up to that level, but we are unique because we are a rental property with luxury amenities.”

Other amenities unique to downtown include patios on the fifth floor and balconies on the sixth floor. On the fifth floor, where the building’s wide base slims down to a slender tower, a parapet runs along the edge of the building obstructing the views of the apartments on this floor. Simbol is building walls on the fourth-floor roof to create individual patios for the fifth-floor units. The residents on the sixth floor will have balconies built that look out over downtown Kansas City.

The office space, located on the bottom four floors, has its own character. Originally designed as a bank, the lobby has a giant atrium with intricate plasterwork on the ceiling. Simbol is recreating some of the plasterwork that was damaged when the federal government installed air conditioning in the past. “Because it is a combination of a big bank lobby and historic space, we are looking for open-space users,” Williamson says. “The tall office ceilings do not lend themselves to putting up floor-to-ceiling walls.”

909 Walnut’s exterior matches the grandeur and scale of size of its oversized interior lobby. The building is the tallest residential building in Missouri and is one of the signature buildings of the skyline. The dual towers make the building unmistakable to any observer and have helped secure the building’s place in Kansas City history.

But the building’s history with individual Kansas City residents is the biggest attraction to the project.

“Everybody has a story about the building they want to tell,” Williamson says. “Whether they had a relative that worked in the building or went to the bank as a child, they have a story.” When Simbol opened the building for open house tours, the guides often had to stop on certain floors so someone could show his family his old office.

“It is amazing how many people have an emotional connection to this building,” he says.

Sullivan Center

On Chicago’s famed ‘State Street that Great Street,’ Palatine, Illinois-based Joseph Freed and Associates is entering its final phase of renovation of the historic Sullivan Center. The 1 million-square-foot office building, located at 33 South State Street in Chicago, is the home to the Carson Pirie Scott department store and company headquarters. The building is part of the State Street shopping district, with the likes of the Hotel Burnham, department store Marshall Fields, and the infamous proposed mixed-use development at Block 37 (now called 108 North State). During the last few years, Freed has been updating the historic office space to compete with nearby newer office buildings.

Palatine, Illinois-based Joseph Freed and Associates is renovating Sullivan Center, a 1 million-square-foot office building located at 33 South State Street in Chicago.

“This isn’t your typical office building,” says Wayne Shulman, senior vice president with Chicago-based HSA Commercial Real Estate and the leasing agent for the project. The building is far from the typical office space being mass-produced today. Designed by skilled architect Louis Henri Sullivan and completed in 1904, the building has distinct fixtures such as large Chicago windows, cast iron ornamentation, terracotta work and a cylindrical entrance to the department store. In fact, the building’s unique features are what distinguishes it from most of today’s standard space; one look at the circular corner rooms on every floor — including the office space — demonstrates how older buildings hold hidden architectural gems for their tenants.

“That is what appeals to the tenancy,” says Dan Miranda, president with HSA. “This is not a cookie-cutter building where every floor is the same.” The developer prides itself on emphasizing the building’s distinctiveness when compared to surrounding office buildings without the historic appeal of a Louis Sullivan-designed property.

Freed has taken extensive steps to ensure that original details have been preserved wherever feasible. “We had to look at the building’s original paint under a microscope to find a match,” Shulman says.  Freed has paid this much attention to detail throughout the project, even reconstructing a water tower, visible only from surrounding high-rise buildings. Final touches will be added to the façade in 2005; the company is having approximately 600 pieces of terracotta fabricated to be placed on the exterior of the building.

“The kind of detailing that involves paint matching is higher than most standards today,” Miranda says. “You must make sure each component stays true to the original Sullivan design, but that the overlay of modern technology is applied.” For example, Freed has installed a new HVAC system and new elevators and updated the power distribution in the building.

Shulman says the marriage of modern technology with beautiful architecture and the building’s location will be attractive to tenants. “State Street is one of the most amenity-laden portions of the city,” Miranda says. Tenants have access to Millennium Park, The Palmer House Hilton, a 2,300-space parking garage and plenty of shopping and retail.”

Currently, The Illinois Department of Employment Services occupies 250,000 square feet of space in the Sullivan Center. HSA envisions the property filled with institutional tenants like schools, not-for-profits and government users as well as other general office tenants.

“The challenge is getting the word out that there is a viable alternative for office space on State Street and showing the tenant how historic space can be modernized,” Shulman says.

“This is a building with modern conveniences that comes in an architecturally distinct envelope,” Miranda says.

Paul Brown Building

In downtown St. Louis, The Pyramid Companies is nearing completion of a massive renovation of the Paul Brown building. The 330,000-square-foot building, located at 818 Olive Street in the Post Office Square neighborhood, was built in 1925 and has been vacant for almost a decade. The conversion of the former office building into 222 modern loft apartments is part of the natural evolution of downtown.

The Pyramid Companies is converting the 330,000-square-foot Paul Brown building to condominiums from office space in St. Louis.

“There is not another re-use for this property,” says Matthew O’Leary, vice president for commercial development with The Pyramid Companies. “Downtown needs to be converted from being thought of as a central business district and sports venue. There is a lot of demand for housing downtown and this model works with this neighborhood.”

The $54 million rehabilitation, which has involved a mix of preservation, renovation and conversion, has been complicated from a design standpoint. “The challenge for the designer is to work within historic parameters,” says Brian Arnold, vice president with Paric Corporation, the project’s general contractor. “The designer needs to create space for the desired re-use and to do that from an economic standpoint while preserving the historic elements.”

For example, the developer had to replace the windows to match the building’s historic profiles. It also had to maintain the marble floors, wood trim, plaster crown molding and existing entry doors in the corridors. But not all of the elements were in decent condition, and the developer had to clean up problems created during earlier renovations.

“The biggest surprise we encountered was that the previous rehabs were not done in a terribly rational fashion,” O’Leary says. “They hacked through the historic crown molding on many of the floors, causing extensive damage.”

But repairing the past is not the developer’s only focus. With the future in mind, the developer is transforming this vacant architectural antique into a vibrant apartment community. Since part of the project’s finance package includes a low-income housing tax credit, 40 percent of the units will be affordable. The developers hope to attract downtown workers for these units. The market-rate units are being aimed at tenants who are new to the St. Louis area.

The building’s amenities include a pool, fitness area and clubroom on the roof. “The rooftop deck and amenities will have a views of the Gateway Arch and the river, which is what everyone is looking for in St. Louis,” O’Leary says. The project also has 130 parking spaces in the basement and bottom floors.

The first floor, which was built in 1888 and is the oldest part of the building, has streetfront and mezzanine space for retail. The developer is aiming for a retail tenant mix of restaurants and unique and utilitarian retailers to complement residents’ needs and to capture the local foot traffic.

“Post Office Square is going to be the best real estate in St. Louis in 5 to 7 years,” O’Leary says. “And we intend to take advantage of that impending boom.”

©2005 France Publications, Inc. Duplication or reproduction of this article not permitted without authorization from France Publications, Inc. For information on reprints of this article contact Barbara Sherer at (630) 554-6054


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