Home AEC Looking at the Transformation of a Historic Building in a Changing City

Looking at the Transformation of a Historic Building in a Changing City

Seattle, Martin Selig Real Estate, Perkins+Will, National Register of Historic Places, Early Design Guidance, Federal Reserve Building
Rendering courtesy of Perkins+Will

By Jack Stubbs

In the current era of growth occurring throughout Seattle’s downtown core, much of the attention is on ground up developments that are under way. And although Seattle is a growing city, numerous efforts are also made to preserve the history of the city by transforming existing historic buildings.

Martin Selig Real Estate is one such developer and plans to transform the four-story Federal Reserve Building—located at 1015 2nd Ave. in downtown Seattle—a historic structure custom-built in 1950. Until the bank’s relocation in 2008 to Renton, the sole purpose of the building was to disperse cash from the United States Federal Reserve to private area banks.

Along with architect Perkins+Will, Selig has plans to repurpose the property as an office building, which is set to be completed in the second quarter of 2020. All of the historic features will be incorporated into the new design of the office building, and seven floors will be added onto the existing four floors, totaling 180,000 square feet. Two of the eleven floors will be under the main lobby level and will incorporate 25 parking stalls. The project team plans to break ground on the project in third quarter 2018.

According to Erik Mott, design principal at Perkins+Will, one of the things Seattle as a city is facing is how to honor historic buildings while also recognizing the need for greater density in a growing city—especially in areas like the downtown core. “Seattle is wrestling with and navigating two things simultaneously. One is its definition of history; and the second one is density. That plays into some of the dialogue that is going on,” he said. The difficulties involved in striking this balance was perhaps in part evidenced by the challenges that the project team encountered in getting their initial redevelopment proposal for the project approved. In August 2015, Selig presented plans to add 30 stories onto the existing four-story building, a move that the Landmarks Review Board said would dominate the scale of the existing landmarked structure.

The Federal Reserve Building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013, meaning that the project team had to go in front of both the Landmark Review Board and the city’s design review board to present its project plans. This two-part equation represented a logistical challenge when it came to getting the project approved, according to Jordan Selig, real estate director at Martin Selig Real Estate. “When you want to redevelop a historic property, simultaneously you go through these two processes, and you hope that you don’t get conflicting instructions from the two boards,” she said. Ultimately, the updated project plans—which proposed adding just seven stories to the existing bank—were approved by both of the boards in September 2017.

Throughout the design process, one of the primary challenges involved with the revamping of the mid-20th century building was how to simultaneously preserve the history of the structure while also creating a new addition oriented towards office use, according to brad Hinthorne, managing principal at Perkins+Will. “The first design move was to preserve and restore the original features of the historic building and then look for ways to sensitively create an addition that is compatible with it while also being differentiated,” he said. “We accomplished that by creating a physical and visual separation via setback floor level, studied the proportions of the historic buildings and evaluated a number of different alternatives for an addition.”

Programmatically, the architectural character of the art deco buildings from the 1950s was not entirely fit for the proposed new day-to-day office uses for the building, according to Hinthorne. “The original building was intended to convey solidity and permanence and wasn’t really designed for maximizing daylight. [But] in today’s workplace, you want to have the most available daylight,” he said. One of the primary differences between the original structure and the new addition was the amount of glazing and additional skylights added into the new development.

Another of the challenges involved with the revamping of the building was that the footprint of the original Federal Reserve Building was quite small, and the design team had to maximize efficiency and the FAR (floor-to-area ratio) in the layout of the new addition—and one of the keys to successfully repurposing the historic structure, which was designed in 1948, was to examine clues from its longer history. “One of the things we discovered in our research about the historic building was that it had a plan for expansion and was structurally engineered for that expansion. By uncovering these potentials that had been anticipated when the original building was designed, we were able to exploit those,” Hinthorne added.

One of the noteworthy aspects of the Federal Reserve Building transformation is that, from a design review perspective, the structure represents somewhat of an anachronism in relation to the city’s current design review guidelines, and the building subsequently presents certain programmatic issues, according to Mott. “If the current city design guidelines were applied to the Federal Reserve building, it would not be there due to lack of transparency at the street, view corridors to the water…you can see non-conformities in a historic building, which we are not able to address,” he said.

More generally, projects like the transformation of the Federal Reserve Building speak to a larger objective of creating connections between two structures from different eras, thinks Hinthorne. “We approach these projects with the belief that the old and the new can coexist and that there can be synergies between these structures that are built in different eras. We respect what we find in historic structures but are also willing to be bold and creative about how we might extend the usable space and programs within the structures,” he said. “It’s exciting, because we can continue to maintain what’s important about Seattle’s history and also build for the future.”

In the wider context of Seattle’s evolution as a city, projects like the renovation of the Federal Reserve Building require a deeper investigation into the highest and best use for projects. Hinthorne thinks that, especially with historic structures like the mid-20th century bank, one of the biggest challenges is successfully conducting a cost-benefit analysis about the long-term prospects for the property. “I think one of the things developers are wrestling with now is the unpredictable nature [of these projects]. It’s difficult to determine the short- and long-term value of your asset if you can’t define what you want to do with the project,” he said.

And the Federal Reserve Building–which Martin Selig acquired in an auction for $16 million in 2015—has a long and protracted history. In 1913, American Congress formed the Federal Reserve System to create a more stable and reliable national banking system. And after the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve opened banks in each of the nation’s 12 districts to handle currency for the American Treasury, check clearing and more generally streamline economic data across the country, according to Martin Selig Real Estate’s web site. In the 1940s, the bank did not serve public citizens other than those purchasing U.S. Treasury bonds, meaning that it did not have a clear main entrance and few people knew the specific purpose of the building.

Seattle is by all accounts a city on the move but is still struggling with how to reconcile its rich history with the new development that continues to occur. “There’s some fundamental tension between Seattle, which I always thought of as a forward-looking city, [and] the nation that is very futuristic,” Hinthorne said. “From the World’s Fair [in 1962] to Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and all these companies, Seattle has always been a place of innovation. And yet there is a degree of sentimentality and care for some of these buildings.”

At the end of the day, the successful preservation of historic buildings like the Federal Reserve Bank is something that should be attempted—even in spite of the associated challenges—in order to reflect and maintain to older fabric of the changing city, according to Jordan Selig. “A lot of out-of-town developers are scared of purchasing a historic landmark [building], because they see the process you have to go through of redeveloping it; they see the process as being unpredictable, which is definitely a factor in a city [like] Seattle,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility to maintain and preserve historic structures in Seattle. We do have a very rich architectural history here that is oftentimes undervalued.”