Adaptive reuse: Breathing new life into old bones
When a historic watchcase factory needed a very specific set of new windows, AIA partner Andersen Windows answered the call
The popularity of adaptive reuse comes from a variety of stimuli. It is a method of protecting historically significant buildings from demolition. It promotes sustainability and counteracts urban sprawl. Best of all, it challenges us to find value in the past and make it not just new again, but different and better.
The Watchcase Factory is an excellent example of both the challenges and rewards of adaptive reuse. The five-story brick structure was an industrial version of a Victorian mill, built in 1881, when electric light was still a novelty. To make the detailed handcrafting of watchcases possible, the factory relied on over 700 windows, each three feet wide and over seven feet high for illumination. The building was abandoned a century later, then lay dormant until 2011.
When developer Cape Advisors began its revitalization of the Watchcase as luxury condominiums, 40 years of neglect had taken their toll. The bricks were crumbling and covered with graffiti; the windows were shattered. This building—in a historic district and on the National Register—had become the eyesore of Sag Harbor, a village known as the jewel of the Hamptons.
But as Arthur Blee, director of design and construction for Cape Advisors, remembers, “I think you could see pretty quickly that the bones were really solid of this building, even though it had been abandoned.”
Keeping the “historic fabric” intact was absolutely essential to the project. So, before the rebuilding began, many of the original building materials had to be reclaimed. Paint was carefully rasped from 20,000 bricks; every window opening was repointed; and inside, the natural patina was restored to the massive pine timbers by blasting them with 400 tons of ground walnut shells. But the windows, which were the property’s most impressive feature and arguably the new building's most important one, had to be manufactured.
Their criteria were extremely demanding. The project would eventually face over 60 public review boards, who made it clear that retaining the original appearance of the windows was crucial—and they had photographs, along with other documentation to use for comparison. The color, the size, the number of divided lights, the proportions of the muntins; virtually everything had to match the originals. At the same time, being just 500 yards from the north Atlantic coast, the windows needed to stand up to salt air while delivering optimum energy efficiency. It was also important that the brand was one which would be recognized and respected by prospective residents. And, of course, the price needed to fit the developer’s budget.
After an extensive review, Cape Advisors chose Andersen E-Series windows. With complete custom capabilities, E-Series windows were able to deliver across the board. They satisfied the review committees’ demands for exterior colors and window proportions, as well as the interior designer’s aesthetics, the code official’s performance requirements, the residents’ peace of mind, and the developer’s bottom line.
For more, watch this video of Arthur Blee and architects of The Watchcase Factory discussing the project.
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Ken Smith Design Photo