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Attention to Detail
Based in Salt Lake City, UT, MJSA's practice has evolved to focus on historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and the
firm has helped save many important buildings in the region.
Specializing in a particular building type may or may not be good business in new design and construction,
but the point is almost moot when it comes to working on traditional architecture. For most firms,
historic building projects extend not only across a spectrum of building sizes and uses, but also construction,
condition and age. How then to define what sets a practice apart? There's no universal answer, but
as MJSA Architects, PC, of Salt Lake City, UT, has found, one way to describe their firm is through
its methodology. "We approach our commissions with a thorough attention to detail," says principal Robert N.
Pett, AIA, LEED AP. "We feel we are selected to work on unique projects because we pay attention to the care
and detailing that's necessary in working with historic structures."
An Unexpected Entrée
While many an architectural firm has residential roots, in the case of MJSA, houses were also a path to historic
preservation work. According to Pett, "When Max J. Smith started the firm around 1973, his primary focus was
residential, and though some of us have personal backgrounds in historic preservation, it was not until the 1980s
that we consciously entered the field as a firm." One of Smith's important, long-term clients owned the David
Keith Mansion, a prominent historic residence near downtown Salt Lake City that had been built in 1898-90 by a
mining magnate. When the mansion caught fire and was heavily damaged, the owner engaged Smith to direct the
restoration. "Max had limited experience working on fire-damaged buildings, let alone historic ones," says Pett,
"but with quick learning and careful planning, the restoration was beautifully done and became a major stepping
stone into the historic preservation world."
By uncanny coincidence, a few years later the Utah Governor's Mansion suffered a similar trauma. Originally
built in 1902 for Thomas Kearns, a U.S. senator as well as mining millionaire, the building was donated to the
state and served as the Governor's residence from 1937 to 1957. In 1993 it was gutted by a fire ignited by a faulty
Christmas tree light. Pett joined the firm in 1993 specifically to work on the Governor's Mansion: "Our experience
on the David Keith mansion directly helped us secure the commission to restore the Governor's Mansion," he says.
"One of the wonderful things about both projects was how they introduced us
to many specialized contractors and artisans not normally associated with newer
structures, or even more typical rehabilitations or adaptive-reuse projects."
Pett notes that at the time of the Governor's Mansion restoration, 70 percent
of the firm's work was residential and the rest commercial, institutional
and adaptive reuse. "Now those proportions are reversed with commercial,
institutional, historic preservation and hospitality constituting the majority
of our work," he says. "We have designed numerous restaurants, often in
conjunction with adaptive reuse projects – such as turning warehouses into
condos with restaurants or shops on the main floor – but we've always aimed
at working on the prime historic buildings in the Salt Lake area."
As Pett puts it, the firm has been blessed with a "somewhat linear" progression
of high-profile projects on which to build a reputation for preservation
distinction. After the Governor's Mansion, for example, MJSA studied
the feasibility of repurposing what remained of the historic Brigham Young
Academy, the precursor to Brigham Young University. Though the 1891
buildings had deteriorated to little more than brick shells, following the firm's
analysis and preservation planning, the 165,000-sq.ft. main building was
restored and expanded with a new concrete-and-steel structure to become
the well-received Provo City Library. "We've found that one of pleasant
aspects of working on historic buildings is how we're asked to keep working
on them as the clients make changes or upgrades," says Pett.
Another event that spurred interest in preservation – for Salt Lake City as well
as MJSA – was the 2002 Winter Olympics.
MJSA vice president Charles M. Shepherd,
RA, recalls that when he joined the firm,
after working on historic government buildings
in Washington, DC, it secured two
Olympics-connected projects back-toback.
"One was the restoration of the
historic downtown Alta Club, a former
men's club; the second was the rehabilitation
of a 1935 Army post theatre (now
under the direction of the University of
Utah) to serve as an entertainment venue
for the athletes during the Olympics."
As it turned out, the Olympics coincided
with something of a sea-change
in the view of historic building stock.
"The 1950s were not kind to historic
architecture in Salt Lake City," says Pett.
"Although the city was founded in 1847,
most of the early structures were quickly
replaced as the city grew, and even good
quality historic buildings from the turn of
the century were frequently demolished
through the 1950s, so community interest
in historic preservation is relatively new."
As an example, Pett describes the Cinderella story of the 1894 Salt Lake
City & County Building downtown. "It's an exceptionally beautiful building
constructed of native Kyune sandstone in the Richardsonian Romanesque style
with unique detailing, but by the 1970s it was at risk of being torn down in
favor of a new structure with underground parking and other modern city amenities."
Fortunately, in the mid-1980s the city decided to restore, rather than
raze, the mammoth building, which had been controversial ever since it was
first constructed. Recalls Pett, "The day the media announced that Salt Lake
City was awarded the Winter Olympics, that historic building's image flashed
around the world as a representation of the city, renewing a sense of pride in its
restoration." MJSA is currently doing a study of remediation and conservation
for a future stone restoration to follow up on the 1989 campaign.
To a Seismic Summit
In a geologically active region like Utah, historic building work and seismic
retrofits often go hand-in-hand. "Seismic upgrades of some degree happen
on almost every preservation project," says Shepherd. According to the architects,
an upgrade can be a huge project driver, or a modest project component,
or the building may not even require a seismic upgrade except when
dictated by a change in use or by owners who feel it is in their best interests.
Whatever the case, Shepherd says, "Our approach has always been to go out
of our way to fully integrate that structural upgrade with the historic building
– primarily to conceal it – so its impact will be as limited as possible on the historic interior or exterior." Adds Pett, "Depending
upon the complexity of the building, we have approached
seismic upgrades at really every level, from basically building
a new shell on the inside of the building, or incorporating
shear walls, to setting the entire structure on base
isolators – greatly reducing its connection to the earth and
Squarely in the "huge driver" category is the Utah
State Capitol, a recently completed $226-million seismic
retrofit and historic renovation that has been MJSA's most
complex project to date. Indeed, the description alone
sketches a Herculean task. The 1913-16 Capitol is a big,
heavy building – over 400 ft. long with a central dome
rising 225 ft. above grade, built of "fire-proof" steelreinforced
concrete, and clad in a thick veneer of Utah
granite with extensive interiors of Georgia marble weighing
nearly 160 million pounds. It also spans some exceptional
open spaces and volumes, such as the barrel-vaulted
atria flanking the 159-ft. tall center rotunda. Structural
engineers determined that, in the case of a seismic event
on a magnitude of the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, the
dome atop the rotunda would move laterally over three
feet relative to the building's foundation – a catastrophic
deflection that could collapse the structure.
To complicate matters, standard retrofit methods were
not attractive options. Domes, cladding and other decorative elements – particularly
those built with brittle historic construction methods – are complex,
and not always possible to protect reliably against seismic events. Moreover,
"To perform a seismic upgrade in the conventional manner of transferring the
lateral loads to the ground via shear walls would have significantly impacted
the historic character and fabric of the building," says Pett. The solution was
a complex replacement of the entire building foundation, placing the entire
building on base isolators, an eight-year project that included a large team
of architects, engineers and contractors (see Traditional Building, April 2008,
and also June 2009, a Palladio winner). "We acted as the design/preservation
architects, one-third of a team that included another Salt Lake firm,
VCBO architecture, and the Columbus, OH, office of Schooley Caldwell
Associates," adds Pett.
Setting up House
Though the firm may do more work today on governmental or institutional
buildings than private dwellings, that doesn't mean it has abandoned
residential design. As Shepherd points out, "Several, usually rather sizeable,
single-family projects still come from MJSA each year, but more typical are
multi-family projects – a number of which have involved the renovation and
reuse of historic warehouses here in Salt Lake." In the early 1980s when the
firm was still being established, the west side of Salt Lake City was a district
of under-utilized, run-down warehouses. "Max was engaged to design and
develop a row of warehouses into live-and-work artist spaces," says Pett, "and
in the course of doing so, he created the current MJSA office – a space we
have been in for 30 years. It was one of the city's first adaptive-reuse warehouse
spaces, and was the primer for the reuse and gentrification of a formerly
'questionable' area that is now thriving."
"There are fewer and fewer buildings available today, but their reuse is
still ongoing – in fact, there are buildings that have gone through a follow-up
cycle or two of reuse," notes Shepherd. A lot of those cycles are residentially
driven. "We've recently completed several large downtown warehouses,
turning them into residential condominium units as people started looking at
less expensive ways to live close to downtown." What's more, the continued
interest in the west side has even spilled into infill construction. "The same
client that we've worked with to create artist live-work studio spaces in three
historic buildings has commissioned a completely new project in a brownfield
location, now successfully completed," says Shepherd.
An adaptive reuse project of a different breed is the O.C. Tanner Jewelry
Store, home to one of Salt Lake City's most venerable merchants. Originally
built in 1906 as Salt Lake City's first public library, it was designed in the
Beaux-Arts style and constructed of sandstone, terra-cotta, and native oolitic
limestone, distinctive for its soft, creamy texture. "At that time, this Sanpete,
Utah limestone was being actively marketed throughout the West," says
Shepherd, "and it ended up on a lot of California structures – Hearst Castle
at S an S imeon being a famous example." Though this limestone stone carves
beautifully, it weathers poorly but, adds Pett, "We've restored a number of
structures constructed with the stone and have learned how to successfully
work with and protect it."
When the library outgrew the building in the 1960s, it was converted into
a planetarium – primarily for school groups and late-night laser rock shows.
In 2003 it fell empty again and in 2006, the city issued an RFP for purchase
and compatible reuse of the building, which brought it into the hands of
the O.C. Tanner Company. Because the project was a change in use, the
building required a significant seismic upgrade. "In the end, and after careful
consideration, we had to remove the seismically deficient interior – a period
in the deconstruction of the building that left everyone quite nervous," says
Pett, "and then insert a complete new inner shell and structural system."
Then the firm designed a contemporary façade on the rear elevation, which
is now a prime entrance. "The O.C. Tanner C ompany has always been exceptionally
philanthropic – primary donors to fine art and other institutions at local
universities, funding community and local causes, and constructing installations
such as fountains that beautify the community," says Shepherd. "Though this
project was not based upon simple financial return, O.C. Tanner undertook an
exceptional renovation. The historic building now functions very successfully
and elegantly as their flagship store – a jewel box actually."
In fact, finding ways to incorporate new structures, technology or uses
without upsetting or destroying historic fabric is part of MJSA's stock-intrade.
"We strive to make any modern changes be very compatible with the
historic building," says Shepherd, "which often allows for nice references
back to historic elements – sometimes as re-creations or adaptations." As a
case in point, Shepherd points to the carriage house behind the Governor's
Mansion. A rchitecturally a complement to the main building, it had seen
many changes since it was built in 1902, including new roles as a security
office and garage. Most incongruous, perhaps, was replacing the historic barntype
doors with an industrial, roll-up overhead door. "With research, good
historic photos, and some careful detailing," Shepherd says, "we were able to
design a handsome new overhead oak door that is a faithful match to the historic
doors, restoring a critical historic element to the front of this building."
As Pett sums up their approach, "Attention to detail is attention to research,
and we take them both very seriously."
Gordon Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant, and lecturer, as well as co-author of the new book The Vintage House (www.vintagehousebook.com).