Adaptive reuse allows the spirit and character of a space to shine through new interpretations.
By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor
Adaptive reuse, particularly in the case of restaurants, offers an opportunity to create a new, authentic experience while conserving a structure’s architectural and historic character and spirit.
Creating something fresh from a structure that has particular architectural significance, of course, is gratifying, but with a little vision, many routine reuse projects present one-of-a-kind opportunities as well. In addition, adaptive reuse is a sustainable approach and a cost-effective way to deliver a distinctive, iconic venue.
The approaches several architects took to the special challenges and opportunities of adaptive reuse are illustrated in the following vignettes.
Sugarcane Dumbo, New York
“There is tremendous value and possibility that comes with creating a restaurant within a space converted from other uses. For one, adaptive reuse offers an opportunity to design authentic, compelling, and new experiences that draw from the spirit and heritage of the existing structure,” according to Nancy J. Ruddy, co-founding principal and executive director of interior design, CetraRuddy Architecture, New York.
As an example, CetraRuddy recently reinvented an interior space within an historic 19th-century warehouse complex in Brooklyn’s lively Dumbo neighborhood, for the first New York outpost of acclaimed Miami restaurant Sugarcane. “Tapping into the building’s character allowed us to create an atmosphere that expresses the vibrant, international, and social spirit of the Sugarcane brand, while also feeling authentic to New York and capturing the city’s unique energy. The key is to let the original spirit of the building shine through,” she said.
Restoring or repurposing existing and found building elements—such as Sugarcane’s arched iron gates and wood beams that became light fixtures and communal table— offers the benefit of authenticity and a connection to local context, Ruddy related. “For Sugarcane’s 11,000-sq.-ft. interior restaurant space and 2,000-sq.-ft. terrace, we meticulously cleaned and restored original finishes while adding steel, concrete, light wood, and terra-cotta elements. Playing off of the simple yet handsome solidity of structural elements like original schist walls, wood rafters, and exposed aged brick, new furnishings and finishes add vibrancy, such as banquettes and a bar in bright color ensembles and a glowing blue open kitchen. Any new design elements should enhance the existing spirit and heritage of the space, while maximizing functionality for the new use,” she said.
There are always challenges that come from working within an existing landmarked or historic structure, especially if the building has been vacant. “At Sugarcane,” Ruddy related, “we made it our mission to allow the existing structure to speak and to be the centerpiece of the design. The unique setting of this monumental warehouse structure forms the connecting fabric, and the combination of an historic space with contemporary energy is what makes Sugarcane into a magnetic new culinary destination.”
“Adaptive reuse presents challenges for restaurant projects, the biggest being the unknown, those hidden conditions such as hazardous materials or non-code-compliant plumbing or exhaust systems that can delay or derail completion and opening,” cautioned Brent Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, president and director of design, Dyer Brown, Boston. “But these projects also present unique opportunities for showcasing the venue’s architectural and historic character to create a unique experiential concept,” he continued. “Converting an old school might inspire the use of green chalkboard menus, for example, or adapting a decommissioned mill might include reusing grinding stones as tables.”
Dyer Brown was selected to adapt a former music venue in Boston for a married pair of local restaurateurs. The venue had two separate performance spaces, which allowed the project to develop into the dual-concept restaurant Tapestry, with each room and its menu inspired by the tastes and preferences of one of the two owners.
“The result is its own kind of marriage, each half offering an aesthetic inspired by its menu,” Zeigler said. The Expo Kitchen combines a seaside theme and an open kitchen in a casual atmosphere for guests enjoying small plates and Neapolitan pizza. Meanwhile, guests dining on stuffed pumpkin and grilled octopus in the Club Room experience a Havana-inspired lounge vibe furnished in a luxurious mix of textile, leather, and velvet, warmed by a four-sided glass fireplace and surrounded by rainforest-themed wallcoverings, gold trim, and palm trees.
Laduree Soho, New York
For the design of the store and restaurant Ladurée Soho, Spacesmith, New York, worked closely with the French bakery and sweets-maker Ladurée, Marcq-en-Baroeul, France, and their in-house design team Panetude on the 9,000-sq.-ft. buildout of this new location in New York’s historic Soho district. The existing space required significant renovations and upgrades after the previous restaurant had vacated the site.
For this historic setting, the team faced the challenge of implementing the French brand’s signature design in a landmarked-protected building with special local code requirements to meet the standards of the Department of Buildings and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In keeping with the Ladurée’s own historic reputation, the main dining area is adorned with crown molding and a large chandelier illuminating the gold and blue tones of the walls and curtains. Much of the décor for the Soho space was shipped from France and installed according to its unique craftsmanship. Sculptures throughout, for example, are authentic 19th-century pieces, retrieved from old warehouses, castles, and private residences. The sourced materials include applied plaster cornice, marble floor slabs, wood flooring, and marble countertop and fascia. The wood molding, all custom cut, required specialized craftsmen for installation.
The restaurant layout clearly divides the space into four zones—a pastry shop, a tea room, a fine dining room, and an outdoor patio—each with its own, distinct character. In order to best represent the Ladurée brand, their colorful desserts are the focal point of this space, supported by the white, custom-made shop display at the front of the store, imported from France. The space opens into the tea room, reflecting a traditional French parlor. A slanted fabric ceiling and cove lighting contribute to the intimate atmosphere. The full-service dining area, toward the back, looks out onto an outdoor garden behind the building.
Perhaps the project’s most complex element is its custom-kitchen installation in the cellar to support pastry prep and cooking labs, which are particularly sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. Providing the mechanical infrastructure within the existing cellar space proved particularly challenging. In total there are two custom kitchens in the cellar, each requiring different equipment, prep, and storage spaces: one is for pastries, and the other for the dinner menu.
Prime + Proper, Detroit
The 11-story Capitol Park Building, built in 1912 by Leonard B. Willeke, blends Chicago School architecture with Beaux-Arts decorative designs. It was originally home to a butcher, grocer, and a variety of tenants throughout the years, including the White Room Studios where musicians Aretha Franklin, Kid Rock, and Bob Seger recorded their hits. As Detroit experienced an economic downturn, tenants left the building and the structure became increasingly vacant. By 2009, the last business, a liquor store on the first floor, was gone and the building was sealed up and abandoned.
In 2016, the building was purchased by Grand Rapids, MI, developer Richard Karp and work crews began renovating the structure into the Capitol Park Lofts, a 63-unit residential complex. The project includes the Prime + Proper restaurant on the ground floor and lower level, and a floor of office spaces above.
Prime + Proper features distinguishing ground-floor and lower-level architectural elements that have been preserved and remodeled into distinctive spaces. The restaurant’s main level features a bar area, dining room, open kitchen, chef’s table, butcher counter, raw seafood display, and pastry station, while the lower level includes the dry-aging room, prep kitchen, bathrooms, and private dining room. Patio dining is available outdoors. McIntosh Poris Associates, Birmingham, MI, is responsible for the architecture, interior design, and custom furniture to create a sophisticated dining atmosphere and modern interpretation of the classic steakhouse.
McIntosh Poris designed Prime + Proper to reinterpret classic steakhouse traditions with modern luxury. Reflecting the proprietor’s concept of “prime meats and proper service,” the new establishment is arranged into distinctive spaces within the angular L-shaped interior. The main level features a bar area and a dining room with groups of booths and banquets that create intimate spaces for conversation. The open kitchen showcases a custom-built wood-burning grill, glass-enclosed butcher counter, raw seafood bar, pastry station, and wine displays to allow the cuisine to be part of the décor. The mostly black-and-white décor is accented with bronze details and rich finishes inspired by Art Deco designs of the past century to convey a luxe feeling.
From the street, patrons enter under a new steel canopy supporting metal letters spelling out the name of the restaurant. The canopy and graphics were designed by the architect and approved by city preservationists as compatible with the historic building. New operable storefront windows stretching along the street frontage provide views of Capitol Park from the 140 seats inside and swing out during warmer months to open the interior to the streetscape, where an additional 77 seats are provided outdoors.
Near the entrance, the animal-hide-faced bar features a quartz countertop simulating onyx to complement the marble-tiled floor. The hexagon pattern of the floor tiles in the bar and entryway is based on the Prime + Proper logo and repeated on the entrance-door handles, barstool arms, and steak knives.
In the main dining room, brass tables are topped with porcelain made to simulate marble. The tufted banquettes along the windows are upholstered with distressed leather. The dining room furniture and swing-arm lighting are custom designed by the architect, who referenced vintage pieces with a modern feeling. Graphic black-and-white burnout velvet arm chairs, along with leather, hair-on-hide, and chenille upholstered booths and banquettes are combined with imported ceiling-lighting fixtures, marble tiling, and wood flooring to provide an energetic, glamorous setting.
Historic preservation requirements for the building mandated that the existing columns and ceiling beams remain intact and be expressed in the remodeled space. Inserting the necessary ductwork to heat and cool the space without removing the beams presented a challenge. The architect found a solution by creating large enclosures around the beams to conceal the equipment and emphasize the structure.
Prime + Proper’s two floors are connected by the original, 100-year-old grand marble staircase that was restored along with its bronze railing. The stairs lead to the lower level past original wall panels that were repaired, painted, and fitted with smoked mirrors. A second staircase connecting to an upper floor was closed off, but left in place to provide patrons a place for Instagram moments along the stairs.
The lower level includes a 300-sq.-ft. dry-aging room that features pink Himalayan sea salt-lined walls within a marine-grade stainless-steel enclosure. Diners are welcome to view steaks in this chamber to appreciate the variety and quality of the cuts of meats prepared and served. The special chef’s table is tucked into a nook next to wine storage and arranged with chairs and a leather sofa. This niche is illuminated by a brass chandelier and showcases walls lined with protruding pieces of butcher block, the same wood used to cut the steaks served in the restaurant.
Nomad Pizza, Despaña Princeton, 506 Carnegie Center, Princeton, NJ
“Apart from being a highly sustainable choice for any project, adaptive reuse presents a challenge that architects relish: to create something new from an existing built space. This is especially enjoyable for the designer if the structure has some architecture significance, but all such projects present unique opportunities,” said Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, founding principal, JZA+D, Princeton, NJ. “Benefits of such projects for restaurants include cost-effective delivery of a unique, even iconic venue, and in some instances the preservation of an architectural treasure for the surrounding community.”
This was the case with Nomad Pizza, Princeton, NJ. JZA+D converted a former Amoco station, an elegant example of 1930’s modernism with its bold lines, deep overhangs, and flat roof. The project team started by addressing structural issues, fire safety, and a concrete floor that had been in regular contact with gasoline and motor oil, and had to be replaced. Ultimately, the design updated the exterior with wood cladding and retained the iconic service bays, replacing the rolling garage doors with state-of-the-art insulated models, allowing the dining area to spill out onto the patio in warmer months.
“Of course, architectural significance is not required. Any structure offers opportunities for creative reuse—the challenge is to accept the structure as-is and develop a design and a finish palette that compliments and celebrates the architecture,” Zinder commented. JZA+D’s design for Despaña Princeton evoked New York’s Soho neighborhood in the double-height commercial space by exposing the existing brick walls and steel beams, and finishing the industrial-chic look with ceramic tile, rustic wood flooring, and red pendant lighting for pops of color. The soaring volume also allowed a dramatic entry space that visually connects the first-floor retail deli counter and the dining area upstairs.
The firm applied a similar approach to the renovation of the cafeteria amenity at 506 Carnegie Center, a commercial office building in Princeton. The project redefined the cafeteria and courtyard as a social center and major amenity, emphasizing transparency and natural daylight and a connection between the interior and the patio. Exposing the ceiling, the design celebrates the structure’s volume with a mix of pendant and domed lighting fixtures over a variety of furniture arrangements, including counter-height communal tables built from rough-cut, large-format timber slabs. The patio features two brand-new structures that reference the architectural context: a square bar pavilion for events covered by an overhanging slate roof, and a barbecue kiosk with a wood trellis cover that neatly echoes the exposed floating wood beams overhead in the cafe.
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