A Theater Transformed
Across town from Kopp's power house is the old Kim Sing Theatre in the heart of L.A.'s Chinatown. Built in 1926, the building was originally a vaudeville house. After World War II it became a neighborhood haunt, showing Chinese films, but by the 1970s it had deteriorated into screening Kung Fu flicks and porn movies. It was a shuttered relic in 1999 when Willard Ford, a furniture dealer, happened by on his bicycle.
"His first question was, 'Should I buy it?'" remembers Austin Kelly of XTEN Architecture, hired by Ford to transform the theater into a live-work space. "It was a mess. We found rats and bats; the old seats were moldy."
Kelly inserted a central courtyard into the building, bringing in natural light while also helping the building pass stringent residential fire codes. He restored the original neon sign and kept the storefronts on the main facade along Figueroa Street, one of which became Ford-Brady, the owner's contemporary furniture and home accessories store and art gallery. Other shops became a hair salon, a market, and a pizza parlor.
The back of the structure was transformed into two living lofts, one for Ford, the other an "in-law" loft. In the main living areas, expansive loft spaces are capped with graceful original wood trusses. Sealed concrete floors, high-tech fixtures, and Arne Jacobsen chairs lend the feeling of minimalist chic.
"For zoning and permits, we were given 'special case' status and someone helped shepherd us through the process," Kelly says.
Parking was a special concern. Normally the city would require up to 30 parking spaces per retailer — but there was no room on the property to accommodate cars.
"We somehow got grandfathered in and were given parking credits," the architect continues. "But I think the reason is we worked with the locals, and listened to the old-timers' stories. The community really wanted this landmark to be rejuvenated."
Trouble in a Terra Cotta Factory
As an architectural writer, Alastair Gordon has chronicled the homes and gardens of the smart set for many years, including as author of Weekend Utopia, a book on houses of the Hamptons.
But nothing as a journalist could prepare him for his experience converting an old Atlantic Terra Cotta Factory into his family home. Located outside of Princeton, New Jersey, where Gordon grew up, the 1894 factory had been one of a handful that produced the architectural embellishments for Manhattan's Woolworth Building and innumerable other New York landmarks.
"When I first saw it, it had the wonderful feel of a romantic ruin," says Gordon. "It has ten-foot [three-meter] windows and beautiful brickwork." Unable to persuade the owner to sell, Gordon and his wife, Barbara de Vries, negotiated a long-term lease and felt secure sinking their own money into a major renovation, for which they hired New York architect Henry Smith-Miller, veteran of numerous Manhattan loft renovations.
"What Henry did was basically insert a translucent building within the building," Gordon recalls. "The interior volumes are huge. We had to go through all of the antique stores in Philadelphia to find big Victorian pieces that could fill up the space."
But the project soon became like some nightmarish episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Having sunk about $150,000 into the project, the Gordon and de Vries found that the building was intolerably hot in summer and freezing in winter. And they were in a flood plain.
"The real kicker was we had twins," Gordon says. "This is not a kid-friendly building."
Now a resident of Pennsylvania, Gordon said he believes the building is still used as a residence, and that it still generates income from fashion photo shoots. But even that was problematic during his unlucky tenancy.
"The scouting agents said it was being overused," he recalls.
In the Chicago neighborhood of Ravenswood, it was T-shirts, not terra cotta, that had been produced in a small factory acquired by Bruce Doblin in 2000. The neighborhood is a no-nonsense mix of industrial and residential uses, and architect Joe Valerio was hired to transform the building into a residential showplace.
"Not everybody in the neighborhood thought this was a good idea," Valerio says. "Many people said, 'People used to work in that factory.'"
Nonetheless Valerio and Doblin were able to convince skeptical city officials to approve their plan. An entire new steel structure was woven through the site, while existing rough masonry walls were preserved as they were. A central void was carved out and transformed into a private garden.
Along the main facade, twin "scissor doors," if opened at once, seem to expose the entire house to the elements. Bright metal cladding recalls the classic small diners built around the United States during the 1930s. Everywhere, the architect said, there is a purposeful contrast of the rough and industrial with the precise and well-honed.
"It's a concept the Japanese call wabi-sabi. It's finding beauty in the imperfect and in the tension caused by opposites."
Perfect or not, these radically altered residences seem to reflect a common desire to reclaim hard-working structures of the past for everyday use in the present. In their transformation, such buildings seem to slowly yield the secrets of their previous uses and configurations.
This tantalizing prospect of rediscovery lies not in some bucolic Eden, but in the midst of our cities, which are filled with buildings ripe for reinvention and renewal.
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James McCown is a freelance writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts.