WINNER: The Commerce Trust Building, Kansas City, MO
A famous Chicago architect. A construction company whose list of jobs includes New York City’s Flatiron Building. A president who worked inside its walls. Only one facility can boast such an extraordinary past – the Commerce Trust Building in downtown Kansas City.
Kansas City is fortunate enough to be blessed with three buildings designed by architect Jarvis Hunt – one of which, the Commerce Trust Building, was built in 1907. At the time, it towered over other downtown buildings, even at its nominal height of 15 stories. Renovated to keep up with the agile future of the banking industry, its transformation preserved the best of the past, while adding all the comfort and safety of today’s modern offices.
Constructed by George A. Fuller Construction Co. of New York City, the Commerce Trust Building is steel construction with a façade of both red granite and white terra cotta tiles. Having been built for Commerce Bank at the beginning of the century, the building has remained a part of its business for more than 90 years. “We employ over a thousand people in downtown Kansas City and this building has always been at the heart of where we do our work,” says Jonathan M. Kemper, chairman, Commerce Bank of Kansas City, and great-great-grandson of Dr. William S. Woods who oversaw the construction of the building.
While the design was praised for its ability to maximize ventilation and daylight, the square-donut shape did not lend itself to today’s open office space planning preferences. The light court (or donut hole) penetrated all but the lowest three floors of the building. Although revolutionary in its time, the design minimized floorplates.
Feasibility studies were conducted to search for a way to make the building more efficient, increase life safety and comfort, as well as meet stringent code requirements. “This is not the first time it’s been renovated, although it’s by far the most extensive renovation,” Kemper explains. Once the project was approved for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Commerce Trust could take advantage of state and federal tax credits, helping to reduce the cost of this preservation/modernization project.
The Necessity of Modernization
Previous modernizations sought to transform the building from traditional to sleek and contemporary. A glass ceiling over the bank lobby was covered with a suspension ceiling, a large flower-shaped chandelier was removed, and an escalator was added. “Over the years, time had taken its toll on the building,” says Dan Ellerman, vice president, construction, Tower Properties, Kansas City, MO. The building’s historical features, while still present, were not being emphasized. Project team members walked a fine line between modernizing and preserving and met often with the National Park Service to review plans for the project.
In order to fulfill Commerce Bank’s desire for an open, column-free floorplate, it was determined that the building’s light court from the fourth to 15th floors would have to be filled. A partial infill was necessary to add a second fire-rated stairwell, but an entire infill would ensure the large expanses the Bank was eager for. Although this decision greatly altered the design of the building, it was still necessary to retain the historic nature of the original structure. “The compromise that was arrived at was that the end walls of the interior court were maintained and are exposed into the tenant space and the brick, stone, and terra cotta and the windows were cleaned and maintained. But the long sidewalls were removed so that as you move across the narrow axis of the building – from long wall to long wall – it’s essentially a wide open space,” Jim van Eman, project architect, Gastinger Walker Harden Architects, Kansas City, explains. “The National Park Service did require that we maintain the north and south endwalls,” adds Donna Buck, project manager, Gastinger Walker Harden Architects.
An existing window opening was turned into a passageway, leading visitors and employees to an entirely new floor, which was previously open air. “By infilling from essentially the fourth through 15th floor, we were able to add a little less than 5,000 square feet per floor of usable, workable space,” Ellerman says.
Construction on the shell and core was completed in 18 months, a small timeframe considering the logistical challenges of transporting steel beams amid a busy downtown. “One of the biggest problems we had was trying to figure out how we would get the structural steel beams delivered down on the street level and then hoisted up and over the top of the building,” says Mike Pfau, senior project manager, J.E. Dunn Construction, Kansas City, MO. The solution was to utilize one of the buildings’ cooling towers (planned for removal later) as a base for the crane. “We erected the tower crane on top of the building,” Mike explains. The steel was hoisted over the building from the street, and lowered into the light court.
While some of the floors of the Commerce Trust Building had air-conditioning and all had been updated with sprinkler systems, bringing the building into the 21st century had many obstacles. “The basement and mechanical systems were in pretty bad shape,” says Pfau. In order to offer maximum comfort and modern technology, it was necessary to completely gut and replace all of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. A mechanical shaft penetrating the floors was located in the light court.
Especially challenging was the minimal floor-to-floor height. “The construction of the floor is out of structural clay tile, which means the thickness of the floor is about 18 inches, so that leaves us with a 10-foot, 6-inch clearance from floor to underside of structure. And then when you have to add ductwork, sprinkler piping, and light fixtures and your owner wants high ceilings and indirect lighting, it was a bit of challenge,” says Buck. The coordination of all the trades was essential in order to optimize as much floor-to-ceiling room as possible.
When the bank decided to centralize its data processing operations, the modernization project incorporated a server farm on the fifth floor. To ensure reliable data processing operations, back-up power was necessary. “We had to bring in redundant electrical power generators. We set two auxiliary generators in the basement of the building, which meant that we had to dig up 10th Street,” says Ellerman. Space was tight in the basement and the question of how to allow sufficient air volume for the generators posed an interesting dilemma. “We ended up getting an easement underneath the sidewalk and radiators for the generators literally set out underneath the sidewalk. We have a remote cooling location for those generators, which let us NOT cut large holes in the side of the building,” comments Ellerman.
A Walk Back in Time
When Harry Truman, the 33rd President and a past employee, greeted customers in the bank lobby years ago, around him were marble floors and columns, an ornate glass ceiling, and bronze teller cages. Today, visitors are greeted by the same finishes when they enter the bank’s Walnut Lobby. “A lot of people enjoy the traditional look of a bank lobby. They say, ‘This is how a bank should look,’” says Kemper of the restoration. This very public part of the bank was piece by piece transformed to reflect the classic style of the original building. “All of the architects started out designing off the pictures from the 1900s,” says Pfau.
A Kansas City company, Dimensional Innovations, was asked to recreate the ornate flower-shaped chandelier, and lighting designers were tasked to find a way to illuminate the lobby’s glass ceiling to replicate natural sunlight. Craftsman carefully recreated plaster molding in the lobby to revive original detailing. Every decision was scrutinized to ensure that the building’s modernization would emphasize its original glory. “When the demolition was occurring, the decision was made to salvage every bit of marble that could be taken off the walls so that it could be reused. Believe it or not, by the time we got to the end, we’d used almost everything,” says van Eman. Employees and customers might wonder if they’ve walked back in time, were it not for the employees’ dress and carefully placed surveillance cameras.
The modernization of the Commerce Trust Building is a bold statement about the company’s commitment to the Kansas City area and the preservation of the building at the heart of its business. The dedication of building team members to bring the building up to today’s modern standards was not marred by the intent to preserve its unique features and classic style. The Commerce Trust Building now has more than a unique history … it also has a promising future.
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.