Architects’ Task: Preserve Building Elements

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Historic preservation architect Paul Hagman is in the early phases of assessing what needs to be done at one of his current projects, a renovation of 1009 Bryson St. on Youngstown’s north side.

Purchased last fall by a Cuyahoga Falls resident who plans to relocate here, the owner of the 14-room, 5,066-square-foot distressed structure reached out to Hagman, president of RBF Colab Architecture & Design in Youngstown, about two months ago based on local recommendations.

“We’re just starting to uncover what it is that we want to achieve out of the project,” Hagman says. “What do we want to save? What are the elements that need updated? What’s the structural condition?”

Balancing the desire to retain historic architectural elements with the need to make spaces functional for contemporary use – even without the restrictions involved when a developer is seeking historic preservation tax credits to help fund a project – can be a challenge. Sometimes the challenge is what features qualify as historic.  

A brief tour of the Bryson Street property reveals several distinct elements. There’s a three-season room overlooking a wooded ravine. There are fireplaces in four rooms, including one bookended by what appear to be windows but were in fact doors that opened onto a porch.  

“Every building you look at, you have to look at what significance it holds,” says Annissa Neider, principal architect at A. Neider Architecture LLC, Canfield. “Whether it’s historic or not, there could be elements or things that the client or owner might want to maintain because of the aesthetic quality or historical significance,” such as original decor from a house built in the ’50s or original picture doorways.

The early stages of such projects often involve book research or checking with resources such as libraries or history societies for photographs that might exist, Hagman says. If blueprints are available, architects can determine what building elements have changed over time. The next step is a physical examination of the building.  

“Sometimes we have to come in and do what we call selective demolition,” such as opening up a small area of a wall to understand its construction and determine whether it was an addition or a structural element, he says. “It’s one thing to see it in a photograph. It’s another thing entirely to actually get out there and verify that it’s in place or verify that it’s what we thought it was.”

The Bryson Street property also features remains of an earlier renovation attempt to divide the building into apartments, apparently to serve students at the nearby Youngstown State University.

“Peeling back the renovations that have happened over time can be more difficult because you don’t always know what era the previous renovations were, and what is original and what is an alteration, but what may be an alteration worth saving,” Hagman says. “My job isn’t necessarily to bring [a building] back to the very day it was completed, but to bring it back to an era that’s functional.”

Among other major restorations underway locally is the $4.1 million project at Youngstown’s Stambaugh Auditorium, which will include replacement of the staircase and promenade.

“The goal of the project is to maintain the integrity of the original design,” the architect and project manager, Denise Holt of GPD Group, says. Before work began, architects and engineers had to do geotechnical engineering and substructural investigation. Part of the project will involve adding a ramp to improve access to the building for people with disabilities.

“You have that challenge now of a new element that needs to be incorporated as if it had always been here,” Holt says.   

The $4.1 million renovation of Stambaugh Auditorium’s promenade and staircase will blend the building’s historic look with modern amenities. 

Holt also worked on interior renovations at Stambaugh when she operated her own architectural firm before joining GPD. The columns in the ballroom were repurposed to provide support for theater lighting and other technology. “It allows them a lot of versatility to set stuff up in whatever configuration they need for each event,” she says.

Among the projects that architects at Phillips Sekanick Architects Inc. in Warren have worked on were the renovation of the Kresge building for use as the offices of Brite Energy Innovators and conversion of the former Kinsman Town Hall into the Good Intentions Market & Café.      

Because the developers of the incubator were seeking historic preservation tax credits, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how the building was put together, says architect Bruce Sekanick, secretary-treasurer of the firm.

“As opposed to being one building, like it looks like from the front, it was actually two buildings – an original building plus an addition. So we had to look at the buildings and find out which one was actually contributing to the historic nature of the building,” he says.

They also had to ensure that preserved elements would not only retain the building’s historic nature, but would also meet the incubator’s needs.

The stairs leading to what is now the mezzanine level of the building were an element that needed to be incorporated. Doing so “was going to be a challenge since they were at the opposite end of where the main entry was intended to be,” he says. What the architecture firm eventually did “created a nice flow through the building,” he says.

Many people also don’t realize that the mezzanine goes over Dave Grohl Alley to the warehouse building in the back. “Trying to make that work was an interesting part of the process as well,” he says.   

More recently, Phillips Sekanick worked on the renovation of the decaying former Kinsman Town Hall, in partnership with Gilmore Design in Cortland. “It was going to become a dilapidated building and the owner, Dick Thompson, is very historically minded relative to salvaging some of the facilities in Kinsman,” says architect Kim Phillips, president of Phillips Sekanick.    

The project team maintained the integrity of the entire building, while also bringing it up to code and repairing the elements that needed to be fixed, Phillips says. It also put a new foundation and installed a new floor to replace the dirt one there.

“We repurposed every single element of the building for its new use,” he says. “It was a full restoration.”

Phillips Sekanick was also involved in the 1980s to preserve the Robins Theatre block in downtown Warren for future use, Phillips recalls. In February 2018, Downtown Development Group announced plans to redevelop and reopen the theater in partnership with Sunrise Entertainment.

The condition of the long-vacant theater building wasn’t as bad as many people believed, says Mark Marvin, president of Downtown Development Group. “Overall, the elements were still in place and actually fairly well preserved,” he says.

During the renovation, Marvin’s company removed the art deco elements that were added to the main lobby in the 1950s and found enough of the original elements that could be copied to restore its 1923 appearance, Marvin says. That effort was aided by a former general manager of the theater who possessed the original drawings and donated them.

The crew also made plaster molds of the existing trim and created a mirror image of the ceiling in the back of the theater to replace pieces that had decayed.      

Among Hagman’s other historic preservation projects was the conversion of the Stambaugh Building into the Doubletree by Hilton Downtown Youngstown hotel, which opened in 2018. One of the elements discovered during the research before the renovation began was the use of prismatic glass at the top of the second-floor windows, an element that had been covered by sheet metal decades ago.

Removing the drop ceiling inside revealed that much of the glass was still in place, even though the wood frame had deteriorated because of moisture trapped by the metal. “We weren’t able to save that, but we then knew more about the scale and the configuration of the glass and we were able to replicate that to put it back into place,” he says.

“We found a lot of elements in that building that weren’t even visible at that time,” says Neider, who worked at MS Consultants, the architect of record on the Stambaugh project, before starting her own firm.

Neider’s current workload includes the renovation of the Republic warehouse, 460 E. Federal St., for Penguin City Brewing Co., which is moving its brewery operations and opening a taproom, restaurant and event center in the 32,704-square-foot space. Drawings are complete and work was being bid last month.

The building is historic because of its role in the industrial history of Youngstown. The project’s intent is to play off the existing steel and joists for the final design, Neider says. Because of the need to insulate and ventilate the space for its new uses, the steel panel walls will have to be double skinned on the inside to maintain the steel shell appearance.

Taking on these kinds of projects requires a “special kind of client” who is comfortable with a certain degree of ambiguity and understands there might be a need to pivot during renovation, Hagman says.

“We can assess and get records of everything. And yet there are still surprises, and some of that is a result of construction changes. The plans may reflect one thing. But when it was actually built there may have been last-minute changes in construction,” he says. “As long as those expectations are there, then it’s actually a very fun thing to get into.”

Pictured at top: Paul Hagman stands outside 1009 Bryson St. on Youngstown’s north side.