Ignoring the call of urban shoppers for storefront windows and enticingly clad mannequins decked in the latest fashions, Mitchell/Giurgola Architects built Lafayette Place, a suburban mall in the heart of downtown Boston, during the early 1980s.
From the day it opened its doors until the mall’s closing in 1992, the block-long shopping locale failed to bring in both retailers and shoppers, and was never fully leased.
The failure of Lafayette Place was largely attributed to its architecture, a box design that even modernism’s adoring critics would have shunned. The only solace of the flat façade was an occasional window punched in the masonry. Its lifeless color and design were an unwelcome and obtrusive addition to the street once known as Paper Row. A time-traveler from the early 1900s would have been shocked to see the awnings and architecture signature of this era, replaced with the cold minimal lines of the failed retail center.
A circular courtyard in the center of the building punctuates the three-story, 360,000 square feet at Lafayette Place, like a round hole in a square doughnut. When shoppers entered the facility through the adjacent department store (now Macy’s), they found themselves walking in a circle that led them back to where they started. Originally, the mall had hoped to seduce Bloomingdale’s to be its second anchor, but when these plans went bust, Lafayette Place did not have a Plan B. Constructed with only one entrance through the existing department store to the north, the mall’s exterior walls – void of the revolving doors, stairways, and signage that shoppers had grown used to – seemed to be there more to keep people out than invite them in.
Taking a Risk
Local developers knew all too well of the mall’s lack of success, and were unwilling to take on the risk of failure. Scared away by the stigma associated with the building, it took the insight of an outsider to look beyond the past and see a promising future. Amerimar Enterprises Inc., a Philadelphia-based real estate developer, had previously invested in a nearby building, 600 Washington Street, and watched Lafayette Place struggle from birth to death. Uninfluenced by the building’s cursed history, the company sought financial backing from Angelo, Gordon & Co. and rallied together in a joint venture with Centrum Properties. The building had stood empty for five years before it was added to the Amerimar portfolio in 1997.
“Originally, we were looking at the property, and thinking ‘it’s brick, it’s less than 20 years old, we should keep it,’ but, unfortunately, our perception was that it looked like a prison from the outside,” says Gerald M. Marshall, president and chief operating officer for Amerimar. Rightfully attributing the building’s demise to the uninviting exterior motivated the developer to undertake a massive modernization of the existing structure.
Unsure of how to reposition the building, Amerimar initially contemplated transforming Lafayette Place into an entertainment complex. “As they started to develop that concept, people in the city suggested to them that maybe they should think about office use, because it’s such a good location with public transportation access,” explains Larry Grossman, principal of ADD Inc., the Cambridge, MA-based architectural and engineering firm selected for the renovation. The suggestion was considered – but not seriously – until two large tenants came forward and expressed interest in leasing the space, given that Amerimar would transform Lafayette Place into Lafayette Corporate Center.
As plans began to take shape in this new direction, the prospective office tenants discovered that 300,000 square feet of space would not be enough to fulfill their real estate requirements. Adjusting plans, ADD Inc. determined that three additional stories could be constructed on top of the existing building to accommodate their needs. “The scope grew as they looked at different opportunities and different uses of the building. It went from a renovation of a three-story building, to being a renovation of a three-story building with three levels being added on as well,” says Scott Menard, project executive, Suffolk Construction Co., Boston.
With some storefront glass and entrances from the street, the Amerimar/ADD Inc. team felt sure that a lower level offering of retailers would bring in neighborhood shoppers. Plans were rapidly taking shape. Lafayette Corporate Center, when completed, would house 50,000 square feet of retail space along Washington Street and provide 575,000 rentable square feet of office space in the five stories above.
The project was not without its design challenges, however. According to ADD Inc.’s senior associate principal, B.K. Boley, “From a design point of view, we had to be very conscious of not making this building seem bigger than it was – which I think was the mistake that had been made with the previous building. It was only a three-story building, [yet] everyone seemed to think that it was already a five- or six-story building – it just seemed larger. So our conscious design attempts were to break down the scale and animate the street level.”
Giving depth to the previously flat façade would require massive demolition, saving only the building’s raw steel members and structural support beams. The newly designed skin was destined to change the look of the building – and the neighborhood. Layering materials on the Washington Street façade energized the exterior and created the illusion of depth, further diminishing the scale of the building and making it appear more comprehensible to the eye.
Construction was a delicate process, by which every phase was planned around the schedules, court dates, and (sometimes) working hours of the building’s agencies.
“We did a lot of work after everyone had left for the day – especially demolition and anything that made a lot of noise. We spent a lot of time planning and working other than normal hours,” says Jim Robertson, vice president, Intersteel Inc., Lexington, KY. Housing a district court, court of appeal, bankruptcy court, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office, 12 judges chambers, the Social Security Administration, as well as 17 other federal agencies, the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse is the central hub of the city’s local government, requiring that extreme care be taken during construction so as not to distract the critical work of building occupants.
Driving around the courthouse is an eye-popping experience. The facility’s exterior was greatly enhanced when parking areas were resurfaced and resealed; the facility’s limestone was cleaned, tuck pointed, and waterproofed; the copper roof was repaired; and a new landscaping plan was executed. With its lavish exterior architecture, no observer can argue that the courthouse has great curb appeal. The jaw-dropping experience continues when visitors and employees step into the regal entrance, and are greeted with shiny brass, marble floors, and hand-painted murals by Frank Weathers Long dating from the mid- to late-1930s.
Marrying the best building technology from the 21st century with the architectural and interior aesthetics and detail characteristic of the 1930s has its challenges.
“We maintained the traditional flavor of the building in as many places as we could – at the same time providing the modern upgrades for mechanical/electrical and finish systems,” says senior architect, Stephen B. Cherry, Luckett & Farley Inc., Louisville. Sprinkler systems were cleverly disguised within soffits, while new suspended ceilings in other areas hid fire protection systems and ductwork. Efforts to preserve the building’s features were a key priority: All project team members worked to modernize, add, and upgrade current HVAC, fire, and life-safety systems in ways that were as non-obtrusive as possible.
Practically non-existent prior to the modernization, energy efficiency increased greatly post-renovation, due to the installation and upgrade of some of the following systems and products:
• The chillers and boiler.
• Emergency generators.
• Energy-efficient lighting.
• Energy-efficient air-handlers and variable speed controls.
• A VAV system.
• A building management system.
• Electronic-control flush valves.
• New cooling tower.
• Automatic recall on freight elevators.
The Courthouse’s new and upgraded systems and finishes are now as sophisticated as the building’s neo-classical façade. Tenants who previously were looking at leasing new space elsewhere are pleased with the changes and became interested and enthused in the historic preservation as the project neared completion. In addition to increasing levels of comfort and security, employees are now able to enjoy the snack bar/break room that was enlarged and the new physical fitness center that was added in the building’s lower level.
A piece of the past has been preserved for the future. Details and craftsmanship, traditional style, and neo-classical principles make the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse one of the most dynamic landmarks of Louisville architecture. Perhaps, it’s not “new and sleek” that will inspire the landscape of tomorrow’s cities, but the old and wise, perfected and polished buildings of yesterday, and today – like the old Courthouse on the corner of Broadway and Sixth and Broadway and Seventh.
After all, who says all great buildings have to touch the sky?
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.