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Preservation Perfectionist

Long before it became fashionable, John G. Waite Associates was focusing exclusively on historic preservation.
By Gordon Bock

With many cultural movements, there are individuals and companies who find they are attracted to an art, science or economic shift once it noticeably gains traction, and there are others who, years before, helped get it underway in the first place. In historic preservation, among the latter are the folks at John G. Waite Associates Architects, who have worked for decades on a wide range of nationally prominent structures and sites, from cozy presidential retreats to state capitols. Headquartered in Albany, NY, with an office in Manhattan, their comprehensive approach to historic preservation extends down to housing the firm in a restored and adapted 19th-century warehouse.

Given its roots, the firm's commitment to historic buildings and depth of expertise is no surprise. The office began before World War II as a general practice architectural firm that, according to principal John G. Waite, FAIA, did very innovative, nationally published, design work – chiefly in schools and residences. However, when Waite joined the firm in 1976, it was already expanding into the reuse of historic buildings, and started to focus more on historic preservation – one of only a handful of firms showing such interest at the time. "I was brought in to develop historic preservation projects," recalls Waite, "and we did a lot of government buildings in New York State, such as county courthouses and city halls. Back then, for a county to restore a historic court house, rather than tear it down, was quite innovative, and we were one of the few firms in a position to do it." All the while, the firm "built up a lot of momentum" doing numerous museum projects, mostly in New York State, while attracting talented people to the office.

Fast forward to 1995, when the three partners of the firm, by then called Mesick Cohen Waite, began discussing where their real interests lay. "The firm wanted to shift direction a bit," recalls principal Clay S. Palazzo, AIA, LEED AP, "and we saw a great opportunity to build a different kind of practice." As a result, two of the partners left and it was redefined as an architectural firm that dealt with the preservation of historic buildings, but also included new buildings.

Says Palazzo, "We see our practice as three-fold: not just preservation but also adaptive reuse and new design in historic contexts. While we do design new buildings, they pretty much always join a series of historic buildings, such as for a college, university or some form of government." Waite adds that people who come to the firm want a new building to either add to or complement their historic building, such as a large addition the firm designed for Louis Sullivan's Farmers and Merchants Union Bank in Columbus, WI. "The challenge was not to mimic the Sullivan building, or pick up a few of its details," Waite explains, "but to restore – literally – its historic setting."

Historic Homework
Part of what sets the practice apart is the two-pronged approach applied to every project. Explains Palazzo, "We work on many different types of buildings, and on all sizes, but always with a very specific methodology that relies first on archival research, and then brings in an understanding of the physical fabric." He says that, whenever possible, they start with a historic structures report before deciding what to do or moving into construction. "Clients may not initially understand how different this approach is," he adds, "but they appreciate the results because we do a lot of repeat work."

Principal Douglas Bucher notes that "A critical aspect of any serious restoration is the investigation carried out prior to the planning and construction phase. The approach should be based on what the evidence reveals – not on pre-conceived romantic notions of what the building should be."

It is hard to find a better example of the JGWA method in practice than at the University of Virginia, where the firm has been working continuously since the 1980s. What began with a historic structure report for Pavilion I, one of several Jefferson-designed buildings on the University Lawn, grew to a series of reports for other buildings, such as the later Stanford White buildings and the Rotunda – Jefferson's centerpiece for the campus. Besides following these studies with extensive construction work, such as roof restorations for several pavilions, JGWA is now involved with recommending the course of the future restoration of the Rotunda – whether or not to return it to an 1826 exterior appearance and how to accommodate modern requirements – as well as addressing much deferred maintenance.

When applying the talents of its own staff, which hovers around 25 people, JGWA is equally thorough. "Generally we manage projects by teams," says Palazzo, "and the core group of people that begin a project are the ones that see it through. We have specialists that come in, do their part, and then leave, but we're not departmentalized such that design is handled by one team, construction documents by another, and construction administration by yet another."

What helps make this practical is the staff's extensive knowledge of traditional building construction. "We know how materials were actually used and put together," says Palazzo, "and we can draw on that to manage a project or know when to bring in people, such as stone conservators."

The value of such knowledge becomes clear on projects like Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton that they are relocating and restoring in conjunction with the National Park Service. Constructed in 1802, but moved and modified in 1888 when owned by a church, the building has seen major changes – even by the NPS, which acquired the house in the 1960s. Explains Principal Nancy A. Rankin AIA, LEED AP, who has worked on the project for several years, "As we perform selective probes or remove later construction, we're able to compare hand-split plaster lath to machine-sawn lath, and understand that the sawn lath suggests a later modification."

In the same way, structural timber framing can reveal changes based upon how the mortise-and-tenon joints are fabricated, and even nails can provide further information depending upon whether they are hand-wrought or machine-made. "Understanding the manufacturing history of building materials ultimately helps us identify what is significant," says Rankin, "that is, which changes over time should be retained and which ones are compromising."

"We don't have any white coat technicians that deal only with narrow technical issues," says Waite. "The leadership of the firm are architects with strong historic preservation backgrounds, but several of us – including Nancy, Doug and myself – obtained our first degrees in building science, then went on to get architectural degrees." According to Waite, the firm does not depend on the sort of preservation technology firms that architects often use – outside consultants that may over-emphasize one particular part of a project – or building materials salespeople. "We have staff, many with national reputations in historic building technology, and that helps maintain balance, control costs and meet schedules."

Masonry conservation, for example, has been a specialty at the firm for 30 years, and is what brought them to the 2001 comprehensive restoration of Tweed Courthouse – one of the largest masonry preservation projects ever undertaken in New York City. The Courthouse is built of an unusual marble from quarries that are no longer open, so a critical question with the exterior repairs was where to find a source for new stone with the same physical and aesthetic characteristics.

According to Rankin, one solution was to salvage damaged stones from the cornice of the building, then re-carve them to install as Dutchmen in other locations. "It was a really fascinating, building-wide process. Some stones had severe deterioration problems and couldn't be salvaged, but then we'd find that, maybe several inches back, we had some very solid material that we were able to reuse."

Such attention to detail goes hand-in-hand with the projects themselves. Says Waite, "Our clients' first priority is the preservation of their buildings; it's not about making as much money as they can as quickly as possible. Therefore our clients tend to be institutions, museums, churches and government agencies." He adds that clients seek the firm when they have a building of exceptional significance; projects are often National Historic Landmarks, and some are World Heritage Sites. "People also come to us who have buildings with complex technical issues and building conservation problems. We're very careful about preserving historic building fabric and using innovative ways to meet functional and code requirements without compromising the building or its safety. And we've helped clients find innovative funding mechanisms for their projects, including grants and tax incentives."

When asked if such in-house depth of experience is good business, Waite replies, "It definitely leads to a better project, and it's much more efficient." He says that because the staff on all of the firm's projects has already worked together – in some cases for 30 years or more – everybody knows what they're supposed to do. "A lot of architectural firms come and go in the preservation field," he explains. "What they've discovered is, if you don't know what you're doing, and you don't work efficiently, historic preservation is a wonderful way to lose money."

A typical example is the large firm where the bulk of the projects are, say, general new construction. "Such a firm might treat historic preservation as an accessory or novelty service," says Waite, "because they want to present themselves as full-service." In such cases, the people actually doing the preservation work are often either junior architects, or staff who have general historic preservation training, but no architectural or engineering training. "They report to conventional architects, who are running the firms and making professional decisions," he explains, "but who may have no training, interest, or experience in historic preservation – and that's how a project gets into trouble."

Balancing Old and New
After decades of working on existing buildings – including adapting them to new uses as well as restoring them to original conditions – the firm seemed the logical place to ask if there are signs that the supply of good historic buildings is dwindling. The answer is not what you might think. "Here in the Northeast we still have a lot of great historic buildings waiting to be reused and restored," observes Waite, "but what we also see is that some of the work coming our way is trying to clean up more recent problems – oftentimes from an earlier adaptive use or restoration."

As he views it, this stems from the assumption that when, say, a 120-year-old factory is re-purposed as office space, this will be the last time the building will change uses and there won't be any further modifications. "As we're finding out, however, after a period of time – and that period may be fairly short – the building has to be redone again to meet yet another use. Though the latest use has become obsolete, often major damage was done to the fabric of the building to accommodate that use, leaving us with a particularly challenging job to straighten it out."

The firm's long-haul understanding of historic building construction and design even pervades their views about integrating sustainable building practices and equipment. "Until about the 1940s, buildings were customarily built with inherent sustainable qualities, such as ample daylighting and natural ventilation," says Rankin. "Sometimes these qualities have been covered up or lost, so we look for opportunities to recapture them." Conversely, the introduction of new systems is a very important concern. "Our goals are to avoid damaging original building materials – for example, we don't want to remove original masonry construction just to accommodate a piece of mechanical equipment – and to thoroughly understand the long-term impacts upon the historic building fabric of any changes, such as introducing insulation or a modern vapor retarder," Rankin says.

She notes how the tangible and financial benefits of energy efficiency have to be balanced with what the new systems might do to the building over time. "Even the latest sustainable systems have lifecycles," adds Rankin, "and we want the building to last beyond whatever systems we're putting in." The reason is, adds Waite, "Our clients really care about their buildings," and that couldn't be clearer than by the preservation architects they choose. TB

 

 

 
 

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