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A retailer's modern approach to historic preservation

Urban Outfitters' headquarters in a historic Philadelphia industrial yard offers novel lessons in adaptive reuse.
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Written by Sun Kim, Contributing Editor on

A lot of attention has been paid to bright and shiny plans for new headquarters of Internet and tech companies. The decision of Urban Outfitters to relocate their headquarters to existing buildings in a historic naval yard deserves a second look.

As the anchor tenant for the Historic Core of the Philadelphia Naval Yards development, Urban Outfitters bought and restored five buildings originally used as naval officer housing and machinery shops. Wherever possible, original flooring and finishes were maintained. But the refreshing approach to historic preservation went further than preserving and reusing materials.

Conversions of industrial buildings into working and living loft spaces usually mean keeping the structure and maybe some brick, but removing all evidence of previous occupants and functions. The strategy of the project's architect, Jeffrey Scherer of MS&R, was to preserve the remnants of how the buildings had originally been used and also traces of the people who had inhabited and worked in them. So found artifacts like amateur artwork (i.e. graffiti), signs, and graphics were restored with just as much care and thought as the buildings' structural bones. Signs of age such as rust and peeling paint were carefully treated and cleaned but not removed. Instead of designing a pristine blank canvas, Scherer wanted to keep the authentic imperfections.

Some of the industrial relics incorporated into the retailer's new campus include beams that were once part of cranes, cast-iron columns, safety signs, and massive doors with naval stars-and-bars graphics.

The Naval Yards is a redevelopment of Philadelphia’s historic navy yard, about three miles south of Philadelphia's Center City District. Decommissioned and vacated by the Navy in 1996 as part of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990, the 1200 acre site was once a mini city complete with a street grid and residential and business zones. In 2004 Robert A.M. Stern completed a mixed use master plan that outlined the first steps in bringing life and business back to the yards.

Today the Naval Yards is home to both new construction and adaptive reuse building projects.The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation hopes the Naval Yards attracts businesses that would otherwise flee to suburban officeparks. Other companies that have already located their offices to the waterfront site include the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, Barthco International, Tasty Baking Company, and, fittingly, the U.S. Navy.

Via: Metropolis, Urban Land Institute

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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