Making New Homes from Old Workplaces and More

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Published in the Boston Globe on August 2, 2015
By Marni Elyse Katz, Globe Correspondent

It’s the kind of story that gives you more cachet at cocktail parties. Your home used to be a what?

The adaptive reuse of old buildings sounds like an ecoconscious enterprise, and indeed it is, but homeowners and developers are also motivated by factors beyond material conservation and historic preservation. For individuals or families looking for vast open space, a warehouse or parking garage might be appealing. (Though the challenges they are likely to face might not.) And who in New England hasn’t entertained the idea of living in a lighthouse?

The Boston area boasts about half a dozen churches in the midst of finding new life as town houses, condominiums, and apartments, and don’t forget the transformations of numerous office buildings, a raincoat warehouse, a rubber-shoe mill, and a courthouse/jail. Many will be mixed-use developments, reflecting the current appetite for living, working, eating, and shopping in a single neighborhood.

According to a recent report by Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration, Boston needs to build 53,000 housing units by 2030 to meet the city’s rapid population growth. “There are not enough places zoned to support that kind of urban growth, so rehabilitating underutilized properties as residential ones makes sense,” André Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, said.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at six adaptive-reuse projects in the Boston area that offer insight into how such properties are identified, the challenges they pose, and the benefits they ultimately offer.

IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT

In one of the more dramatic conversions underway in the city, New Boston Ventures, working with Finegold Alexander Architects, plans to build a contemporary eight-story glass-and-steel addition on Holy Trinity German Catholic Church , at 136 Shawmut Ave. in the city’s South End.

The envelope of the Gothic-style puddingstone structure, built in 1877, will remain intact, but inside, the design will be quite sleek. “Once you walk through the door,” said Tony Hsiao, design director, “it will be a completely new building.”

Still, some of the original elements will remain. Lower-story units will have the Gothic-arched window openings, although it will take some finagling to align them with the floors. And the church tower will be part of several condos.

Existing white marble from the walls might be reused as wainscoting in the main lobby, and interior designer Alina Wolhardt might incorporate carved wooden rosettes from the church ceiling as a design element on the charcoal-colored entry doors of all 33 condominiums.

The work won’t be easy. There are the intricacies of removing the roof and constructing the eight-story steel frame, for example, as well as the restoration of the existing stone walls.

But what’s the biggest challenge here? “Making the building evoke still the spirit of its past,” said James Alexander, principal at Finegold Alexander. “That’s why we picked up on the stone piers and the vertical fins reaching to heaven — and why we wanted to complete something on the top of the tower.”

David Goldman of New Boston Ventures said the neighborhood has enthusiastically embraced the conversion. Dennis Kanin, his partner on the project, hopes the development, on which construction should start this fall, will help revitalize Shawmut Avenue, breathing as much new life into it as into the vacant church itself.

Click here to read the full article and see other examples of innovative, adaptive reuse in New England.