by Bill Otwell, FAIA, Otwell Associates Architects
In 1863, Joseph Redfield Walker led a party of explorers up the Hassayampa River drainage and found gold along Granite Creek. When President Abraham Lincoln heard about the gold, he sent the Calvary to the area to establish the territorial capital of Arizona in the new townsite of Prescott. The territorial architecture that was commissioned by mine owners and businessmen over the next five decades is now the basis of our rich stock of rehabilitated and restored buildings.
Local residents and visitors alike take daily pleasure in living and working in the historic buildings of Prescott. Rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of these buildings stimulates a lively downtown. An abandoned train depot becomes a marketplace and offices. A church becomes an office complex and 35 years later becomes a Natural History Institute. A row house becomes an incubator for start-up businesses.
Prescott has long been a proving ground for preservation strategies. Today, preservation combined with sustainable design approaches is making these resources even more valuable. A now famous quote from Carl Elefante, FAIA, offers a simple explanation: “The most sustainable building is the one that already exists.”
There are five advantages to the rehabilitation of historic structures in Prescott:
1. Economic Value
The Historic Preservation Tax Act of 1986 created a tax credit for owners of certified historic properties. A rehabilitation, according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines, can result in a 20 percent tax credit on rehabilitation expenses. This is a strong incentive to repurpose these buildings, and it makes these projects more competitive with new construction. The unique setting of the Courthouse Square with historic buildings on all sides is an economic driver for tourism, helping to pay for services and infrastructure. Historic buildings, in some cases, can be put into service for a lower cost per square foot than new construction.
2. Environmental Impacts
Most of the energy consumed over the lifespan of a structure is in the construction phase. Energy to heat and cool the building is only 30 percent to 40 percent of the total energy and carbon footprint of a building. If the building is saved and reused, the “embodied energy” of the stone, bricks, wood, etc. is saved verses tearing it down and having to fire new bricks, transport materials to the site and use power cranes, tools, etc.
Existing structures can be improved with energy upgrades, including: super insulation, high performance glazing, solar panels, water-harvesting systems, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems and low-energy-use lighting and day-lighting techniques.
3. Defining a Sense of Place
Prescott was founded during the Civil War. President Lincoln established the townsite as Arizona’s territorial capital so the Confederate sympathizers in Tucson would not control the newly found gold. The Governor’s Mansion at Sharlot Hall Museum is of that era. The Octagon House was built by a Civil War surgeon, Dr. Warren E. Day, in 1877. It is the oldest brick building still standing in Arizona. These buildings, in their unique settings, are time capsules. They are the authentic artifacts of our history, right down to the bullet holes in the ceiling of the Palace Bar.
4. Human Scale
People seem to enjoy living and working in historic buildings. The scale is smaller, the details more intimate. This effect is the reason Walt Disney built Disneyland at 7/8 scale. People feel bigger and more comfortable in this environment.
5. Design for Flexibility and Change
Architectural design for reuse of historic buildings must accommodate the new use while preserving historic elements that define the unique character of the resource. This approach leads to making any changes to the structure reversible, which while saving original features, makes the building easier to change for future uses.