Old buildings, new appeal

Like Cinderella, older buildings -- once scorned as expendable -- are coming into their own. Among architects, builders, lenders and developers alike, old is beautiful. The buildings are prized for their money-saving construction costs as well as any tax benefits. Too, occupants are ready for the warmth of their nostalgic environments as well as their lower rents and closer-in locations, a boon to drivers.

John Morrison Dixon, editor of Progressive Architecture, addressing building designers here recently, said such successes as Boston's Quincy Market, San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, the Cannery in Monterey, Calif., and other commercial restorations, as well as dwellings, have made lenders receptive and architects eager for recycling and renovation commissions.

"Not too long ago," Mr. Dixon said, "architects considered such assignments purgatories to be endured."

Very much "in" are restorations, such as the Victorian shops and dwellings of the Strand in Galveston, Texas, and the underconstruction Laclede's Landing in St. Louis.

Redone buildings at San Antonio's Riverwalk are prized; and in Dallas an advertisement stating that a projected renewal of an old warehouse district would include refurbished loft living brought a small rush of seekers even before the plans were completed.

Close by, Landmark Center, a conversion to modern-day office spaces from an old General Electric warehouse near a power plant, is a success story of Herman Blum Consulting Engineers, which occupies one floor of the brick-walked and landscaped edifice of an earlier era.

The local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, following a government directive to seek out reused buildings for occupancy when possible, is quartered in Landmark Center.

Years ago the administrative headquarters of Gov. William Clement's Sedco Company, a restored school building, was awarded an architectural prize. Its dark-yellow bricks, pitched roofs, and white-framed windows add charm to the near-downtown scene, even with the modern building that was appended not long ago.

In historic Georgetown, a public-relations firm opened for business in a converted power plant whose address is, literally, The Powerhouse.

On federal, state, and local levels older buildings are being put to governmental uses. In New Orleans, for example, the Custom House, built in the 1840s, when Henry Clay officially laid the cornerstone, is again in use for customs. It was vacant for a while but renovated in 1979 and expanded with additions.

Mr. Dixon dates the preservation trend from the time a kind of public recoil saved the structurally weakened White House from demolition during world War II.

Yet as far back as the 1830s Commodore Uriah Levy saved Thomas Jefferson's Monticello from falling into ruin. In 1923 the house, and part of the acreage, was bought from the commodore's descedant, Jeffersoon Levy, by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered in 1949 to allow for public participation in preservation of "sites, buildings, and objects" significant to American history and culture.

Still, Mr. Dixon says, buildings that should be saved are too often lost to the wrecking ball.

In Dallas two old-time retail-store buildings were defaced by their new owners even before demolition to thwart members of the city's preservation league.That set off a clamor for the city council to establish regulations delaying demolition at least 30 days after permits are issued to give preservationists time to persuade owners to consider building reuse. But regard for a "time that was" need not be the only impetus.

Max Chapman of the architectural firm of Dahl/Braden/Chapman, designers of the Landmark renovation, says: "For many owners renovation is the only way to obtain a dowtown location without the astronomical costs of new construction.

"Urban locations can give more for the money, such as exemption fromparking- space allocation of sites, and the interim financing cost-saving factor of a 'roof over your head' during construction, allowing progress regardless of the weather."

There are financial advantages in moving a building from Class C to Class A. Laura Ahlstrom, an urban planner in Dallas's housing and rehabilitation department, noting the soaring repair permits compared with new construction last year, cites the Revenue Act of 1978, which provides broader tax incentives in the form of investment tax credit to encourage rehabilitation of older buildings.

"And aside from established sewers, streets, and utilities, there's the five-year depreciation allowance rather than the 30-year span of new construction, as well as the allowable one-year component depreciation, such as plumbing, or overall other segments."

Energy conservation can mean less transportation of materials and less power use in construction.

Evaluations of feasibility include consideration of the quality of the neighborhood, accessibility to transportation, and, says Mr. Dixon, "availability of skilled labor for the job."

Right in the shadow of the monolithic new glass-and-concrete towers that are changing the face of dowtown Dallas, Ben Kiker oversees the remodeling of a prime building across the street from Neiman-Marcus, the former 202 South Ervay.

"You have to go with what you find in renovation," he says. "With new, you can lay out, plan, schedule."

What about the bottom line? "Well, you can figure the value of the finished product," Mr. Kiker concludes. "If your acquisition cost, plus renovation, exceeds return, you can't do it ."

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