Architecture

A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

by Michele Reeves on March 11, 2014

Post image for A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

During the summer of 2013, my husband and I took a very uncharacteristic vacation to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. I say “uncharacteristic” because a spa in the desert at the height of summer would not normally be at the top of our list of vacation destinations.

But, long story short, we were quite happy to find ourselves, sans children, in this suburban Arizona town in June. (And, may I say, it was a lovely location from which to watch the super moon!)

So, one of the things that jumped out at me about The West’s Most Western Town (yes, that is Scottsdale’s somewhat official nickname), is that the built environment of this relatively new, arterial-focused city is dominated by walls.

Undulating walls…walls made of different materials…short walls, long walls, tall walls, grand walls, pony walls. There are walls with embedded art. There are elaborate walls along freeways. One special wall, my personal favorite, had fish sculptures on it that glowed a deep, blood red in the night.

And I realized something by the end of my stay there: no matter how much you spruce ‘em up, a wall will always tell a story of division, of separation, of disconnection, of hinderance, and of restriction. They certainly lent an air of desolation while driving about the city, and made me rather desperate to penetrate the walls, so I could feel as if I had arrived somewhere.

wall1Wall5Wall10Wall2Wall3

wall4wall6Wall7Wall8Wall9

{ 0 comments }

I Bet You Can’t Guess What this Is!

by Michele Reeves on June 4, 2013

Post image for I Bet You Can’t Guess What this Is!

From the annals of Did an intern design this building?

Can you tell what it is?

I was speaking at a Society for College and University Planning conference in Denver this spring, and walking back from my talk, a few blocks from my hotel, I stood on this corner and looked at this building and thought, What the hell is this monstrosity?

I didn’t understand the huge wall of beige on the side of the building. I didn’t understand why there was absolutely nothing that interacted with the street. I didn’t relate to the dark reflective surfaces on the structure’s outward face, reminiscent of something built for the Land of Mordor.

People thought me a bit batty, standing on the street corner, staring.

I was trying to guess the use. I came up with nothing…office maybe? Finally, I grew tired of my guessing game and walked closer to peruse the sign. It turns out this beauty of a buliding is a Four Seasons — hotel and residences.

To say I was stunned is an understatement. On their website, the Four Seasons states, “Taste is More than a Flavour.” Indeed. There is little that reflects the Four Seasons brand in this building; there is no opulence, no luxury, no taste, no elegance, no style, no presence. There is nothing to set the tone as you reach the corner of their property (pictured above left). It’s just a bad building, with bad site design dominated by parking access, and no discernable entry or street presence. (The main entry is pictured below right — lovely, isn’t it? So inviting.)

fourseasons2

After I took these photos, I was sitting about a block away at a coffeeshop, outdoors on the sidewalk since it was a lovely spring day in Denver. You know the sort, where all the Denverites run around in shorts because it’s sunny, even though it’s still freaking cold outside. So I was sitting there sipping a chai latte and a woman came into view, sprinting up the sidewalk, past the Four Seasons, and stopped in front of us latte sipping sun worshipers. Out of breath, she began scanning the surroundings, swiveling her head to the left and right frantically, obviously late and searching for her destination.

“Where is the Four Seasons?” she finally relented, asking us cafe goers.

“You just ran past it,” we responded, pointing back in the direction she had come.

QED

{ 2 comments }

Hot Lake Springs…The Arkansas of Oregon?

by Michele Reeves on March 30, 2012

Post image for Hot Lake Springs…The Arkansas of Oregon?

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to an intriguing place called Hot Lake Springs, which is located in what felt like the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon. Back in the day, Hot Lake Springs billed itself as the “Arkansas of the West” — after Hot Springs, Arkansas. (The site in its full glory is pictured to the left.)

Hot Lake Springs went from spa darling to decrepit building over the last century, facing the same challenges that are found in many rural historical sites around the nation:

What do you do with a huge building steeped in history that is in a very remote location? What if that building is falling apart? Riddled with lawsuits? Has bankrupted previous owners? What if the entire region has given up hope and assumed the building would decay until it could no longer be saved?

The story of this place is an improbable tale of renewal and adaptive reuse. A tale that requires some back story…

These hot springs had long been a neutral gathering place for various Native American tribes in the area, who came to partake of the spring’s healing qualities, according to the present owners, David and Lee Manuel.

In the early 1800s, it was discovered by what were to be Astorians, and by the middle part of the century (and in the midst of a nearby gold rush) Europeans had taken it over and had erected extensive wooden buildings on the site.

With the advent of the railroad in the early 1900s, passenger loads of visitors were shepherded to a station right in front of the hotel three times a day.

According to an article in USA Today,

The Mayo brothers, of Mayo Clinic fame, were frequent visitors.

Vacationers came to relax, patients to shed a variety of ills.

Hospital director Dr. W.T. Phy believed syphilis could not withstand the repeated hot sulfuric baths in the lake water (it survived just fine) and, in those pre-antibiotic days, dosed his patients accordingly. Arthritis patients were placed in a hot mud bog.

Under Dr. Phy’s stewardship, this became an unlikely major worldwide tourist attraction. It was most frequently reached by rail (nearly 300 miles east of Portland). It had a teaching hospital, a post office, a hotel, a spa, a dance hall…it was really like a self contained little town.

Dr. Phy died in 1931. Three years later, most of the wooden structures on the site burned to the ground in a massive fire, leaving just the large colonial-style brick building that remains today (designed by John V. Bennes).

After the fire, the long, slow, inevitable decline of this historic property began. It operated as a resort, then as a hospital. It also served as a flight school and nurses training center during World War II. Later incarnations included a nursing home, an asylum, a restaurant & nightclub, and a bathhouse.

Then, it languished for well over a decade. The place was looted, vandalized, lost most of its windows, rotted, and lost portions of its roof.

In fact, it was so bad, the hotel was featured on the television show The Scariest Places on Earth in 2001.

Enter Lee and David Manuel.

David is a successful bronze sculptor who specializes in Western art. He typically works for a year on his incredibly detailed pieces, and sells out limited edition runs before he ever finishes them. Lee, his wife, is a former restaurant owner who manages the business end of his art.

In 2003, on a trip with their blended family, they decided, on a whim, to purchase the building and bring it back to life. They disposed of their assets in Joseph, Oregon and put their hearts and souls into renovating this place.

Lee said it took 15 months of her coming every night and working a night crew just to get through clean up. She said they dry camped in the building for several years before all the utilities were functioning.

Now, 9 years later, David’s studios are here. They live here. There is a foundry on site. David’s collection of Native American art, war memorabilia, and historic vehicles has found a home here. They have a multitude of antique fire fighting equipment to view. In fact, antiques are placed throughout the hotel. There is a bronze art exhibit. Taxidermy abounds. And, of course you can partake of the 200 plus degree hot mineral water (cooled down, naturally). And now, most recently, they operate a rather rustic bed & breakfast.

The building is heated entirely with the original radiator system that uses water from the springs. Apparently, it is listed as the first building to use geothermal energy for heating in the country. The gentleman who tends to the radiators said he spends several hours a day just trying to keep the temperature at the correct levels throughout the building, something that is a particular challenge in spring, when the weather fluctuates dramatically.

The model the Manuels use for selling David’s art — only to direct buyers whom they meet face-to-face — dovetails perfectly with them being located in a building that is a living monument to the Wild West, filled with items from the Wild West, located in the Wild West.

Not everyone is enamored though. If you read online reviews, you will find many visitors who are less than impressed with the interior renovation work. Poor lighting fixtures…false ceilings…a horrible faux fireplace and mantle in the circular lobby…plastic spa tubs for a soak in the heated mineral water, and unfortunate carpeting choices are all examples cited. And while these comments are most certainly true, it also is fact that without the Manuels, this building would have decayed beyond repair. They employ many in a rural economy that definitely appreciates the jobs. And, the bronze studio provides a focal point for area artists.

As the Manuels have shown, small artisanal businesses, ones that have a wholesale or production component, are often the key to bringing back historic infrastructure. And in the case of Hot Lake Springs, it seems most important that they saved the building structure, brought life and activity back to the old sanitarium, and that the exterior is being preserved. All of this will allow the interior to live to fight another day!

Has the move been worth it for the Manuels?

According to Lee, her husband David, who is in his early 70s, is doing the best work of his life and is seeing an increase in sales, even during this recession.

His latest piece, which he talked with us about on our visit, will be a Native American couple on horseback, looking up at the moon. He said it is his first piece with a touch of romance and that he wants it to project love and peace.

{ 7 comments }

There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

by Michele Reeves on January 1, 2012

Post image for There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

If I were supernatural, I might choose to be an awning fairy. My mission? Roaming the land, eradicating horrible awnings with the touch of my sparkly magic wand. (By roaming, I mean that I would be flying, of course.)

Sadly, I am coming around to the fact that I won’t be manifesting any special powers in the near future. But, I have not let the dream die entirely. No, I try to do the work of the awning fairy without extraordinary skills. In my war against underperforming mixed-use districts, I do battle with over-awninged places using just my voice, a whole lotta pictures, and field trips.

LEVERAGING HISTORIC DOWNTOWN ENVIRONMENTS

To maximize the economic return on historic infrastructure, it must be highlighted in every possible way, particularly for pedestrians. These renovated buildings in Tacoma, Washington, pictured to the left, are a good example. A visitor on the sidewalk should experience the grandeur and unique character of the building stock when looking down the same side of the street on which they stand, or when gazing across the road.

Interconnected and unique buildings are a huge part of what creates a great ambiance in a downtown or Main Street environment.

In a struggling mixed-use district, there are myriad examples of not leveraging historic infrastructure properly. But today, I want to focus on one particular culprit—the awning, something that is often invisible to stakeholders and which can be particularly difficult to eradicate. In a downtown that lacks vitality, it is very common to view a plethora of awnings that are inappropriate architecturally…a sea of moldy awnings…tons of tattered awnings…and awnings that are so large they take up one third to one half of the vertical face of the building.

In the photos below (please click to enlarge), you can see that instead of this district differentiating itself through its superior historic infrastructure, it has instead been turned into a sort of umbrella corridor, where the sidewalk experience is one highlighting unattractive awnings and the metal infrastructure used to hold them up. Or, the awnings block building and storefront visibility from across the street.

DOWNTOWN DISTRICTS WILL NEVER PROVIDE “RAIN FREE” SHOPPING EXPERIENCES

“But what about the rain, Michele?”

I hear this a lot. And okay, I grant you, many of the communities I work with are in the Pacific Northwest. But really, at the end of the day, no one is making a decision about where to shop based upon whether or not a building has an awning.

This desire to create a rain-free shopping environment is a vestige of the postwar abandonment of downtowns and mixed-use districts for the mall. And, it doesn’t work.

An economically successful downtown has striking buildings and vibrant, engaging storefronts with well lit window displays. It should be an environment that entices visitors to stay, to shop, to grab a cup of coffee, to want to discover what is around the next corner. Any shopper that comes to one particular store, becomes a potential shopper for every other store. The pedestrian is king and they are what drive sales per square foot. These browsers have to go to and from their car. They have to cross the street. They cannot be protected from the rain every single moment they are in a downtown district. So don’t even try to provide this service.

The question I always ask property owners and business owners is this: “If a potential shopper is standing across the street from your building, will they make the journey through traffic to walk to your store?” I want to know if they see anything compelling, because a true test of a district’s health is a walker’s willingness to cross the street to sample wares on the other side of the road.

As these owners contemplate their buildings and businesses (I like to do this literally standing outside, gazing at their property), I follow up with these inquiries, “Do shoppers think, ‘Hey, there’s an awning over there, and it’s huge, so I’m going to go to that store!’ Or, is what really grabs their attention the quality of the building, the visibility and attractiveness of the storefront, and how well the products are merchandised?”

FORM SHOULD FOLLOW FUNCTION—AWNINGS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO ECONOMIC SUCCESS

In a district where all of the buildings have had awnings forever, it is very difficult to get people to change their approach to building and storefront design. They tend to assume the awning will be kept and that all decisions related to appearance will stem from there. This is designing from the awning inward. Instead, owners should be designing from the building/store outward. First, make the building as appealing as possible. Second, draw attention to the storefront and merchandise. Third, come up with an attractive sign and lighting scheme. Then and only then should you contemplate an awning. I can’t tell you how often I have to stress that an awning is an accessory, not the main attraction, and it should be considered last in the design process, not first.

My general rule of thumb is that awnings are useful when they:

  • Do not dominate the vertical facade of a building; and
  • Are defining an outdoor room that is an extension of the storefront, bringing the business out to the sidewalk, engaging pedestrians in street level dialog.

But remember, awnings are difficult to light appropriately, often detract from building appeal, invariably block transom windows, and create dark caves that decrease storefront visibility. So, unless a business is going to aggressively make the area under their awning part of their store or restaurant, then lose it. Just forget about it.

Good examples of awnings that create positive, engaging ground floor environments are shown in the photographs below (please click to enlarge).

A final note on the role of the public sector in regards to awnings: cities should not be in the business of requiring awnings, especially as they are often temporary finishes on existing buildings. Making structures host an awning unnecessarily constrains architectural design for new buildings and puts a huge burden on existing buildings, which must shoulder these appendages even when they literally have no use. Stipulating awnings also has the unintended consequence of ensuring that there will be a plethora of canopies in poor condition because those who don’t really want an awning will refuse to incur the expense of replacing it, so tired old awnings will become the norm.

{ 3 comments }

Tacoma, I Hardly Knew Ya

by Michele Reeves on October 13, 2010

Post image for Tacoma, I Hardly Knew Ya

“Yowza, at some point in the past, this city was giving Seattle a run for its money,” I thought to myself on a recent visit to Tacoma, a city I’ve been to, or through, a zillion times, but have never experienced as a tourist.

This impression arose after perusing the historic industrial district that has been renovated into the University of Washington, Tacoma. All you have to do is look at the 90 foot rotunda (pictured to the left) of the historic Union Station (originally a railroad station, now a Federal courthouse) to realize that this was a very important city on the West coast at the end of the 19th century.

After wandering around the city, I felt the need to do some historical digging when I returned to my hotel room. During said perusal, I learned that Tacoma was the envy of Seattle and Portland in 1873, when it won the race to become the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), which was chartered by Congress in 1864, and broke ground in Minnesota in 1870.

It wouldn’t be until the summer of 1888 though, before the NP’s lines were uninterrupted from the shores of Lake Superior to the Puget Sound, all thanks to the completion of the Stampede Tunnel through the Cascades.

The latter half of the 19th and early 20th century were times of intense political jockeying in Portland and Seattle, with both cities laboring to ensure that they were not left out in the race to be connected to the railroad. For Portland, this was especially problematic due to the plethora of nearby rivers. In 1883, a gigantic rail ferry was put into service, over 300 feet long and 42 feet wide, that could carry the trains across the Columbia River and connect the rail lines here with the service to the north. The ferry was the second largest in the world and had three parallel tracks that could carry all types of train cars, including engines. Rail service between Oregon and the Puget Sound continued in this manner until a permanent bridge was erected across the wild Columbia. The NP Columbia River Bridge, like the Stampede Tunnel, was finished in the summer of 1888.

The gorgeous train depot in Tacoma, Union Station, opened its doors in 1911 and was designed by Reed and Stem, the architects of Grand Central Station. In my opinion, it is far grander than either Portland’s or Seattle’s train stations.

More happy discoveries about Tacoma:

  • There is some real drama borne from the mix of older and newer architectural form.
  • They have a 1.6 mile streetcar/light rail system that is free and runs commuters from transportation hubs and parking to downtown.
  • Their historic buildings throughout the central core are being upgraded and renovated, making for some pretty compelling places.

{ 0 comments }