Bringing new life to an old building requires a bold vision. But it’s certainly worth the risk.
The old firehouse at the intersection of 32nd Avenue and Erie Street never really had a chance to shine. Built in 1892 for Hose Company No. 5, the building proved unsuccessful because its location on a steep grade meant that horses pulling water pumps struggled to get in and out. By 1909, the fire crew had moved to a better location, and the brick structure sat vacant until it was converted into a speakeasy in the 1920s. Then it was left empty again from 1939 to 1953, before eventually being converted into apartments. But now the story of the old brick firehouse is opening a fresh chapter with a whole new shape and purpose.
Here, Chad Mitchell, founding principal of Denver-based Meridian 105 Architecture, describes the adaptive-reuse strategy his firm devised to bring the vintage firehouse into the 21st century. Designed to meet the needs of a modern city, the updated firehouse features a 9,000-square-foot addition that includes a third-story office level, as well as new space that extends down one side of the old building and connects to a ground-floor restaurant area.
5280 Home: What was the situation when you first approached the project?
Chad Mitchell: The building sits at the edge of an odd five-way intersection in LoHi, where the north-south street grid that runs through the neighborhood meets the diagonally oriented grid of downtown. The surrounding area is a combination of multifamily residential, retail, and restaurant uses with lots of foot traffic and pedestrian energy.
For as far back as our team can remember, the building has been covered in ivy and concealed by overgrown weed trees on both street fronts. The brick façade was painted in a neutral gray color. If you didn’t look closely, the really cool building beneath all of this would have been missed altogether.
What were your goals for the adaptive reuse of the structure?
Meridian 105 approaches every project with the goal of creating a design that integrates the building and its occupants with the neighborhood. Because of the concentration of residential and restaurant tenants around this site, we put a lot of emphasis on the sidewalk experience and creating an interesting circulation zone around the building.
At the high end of the property, a large outdoor patio that will eventually serve the first-floor restaurant tenant faces the intersection and abuts a good stretch of sidewalk along 32nd Avenue. Moving around to the lower side of the building, a separate, narrow balcony serves the same restaurant. And facing Erie Street, an outdoor patio and terraced seating element is constructed into the hillside that circulates up to the Recess Beer Garden. The plan ultimately incorporates outdoor space around 75 percent of the building’s exterior.
Does Meridian 105 follow any guiding principles when it comes to adapting historic structures?
While our firm takes on adaptive-reuse projects (the Edgewater Public Market and Avanti Food & Beverage, for example), we haven’t had a comparable opportunity to the firehouse—a project constructed in the 1800s. The building itself was not a historic landmark, so there were no limits to what we were able to do. But our goal with adaptive reuse is to integrate modern design and function while preserving the building’s story. These projects have a budget of course, so we are limited in what we can accomplish. For the firehouse, the expense to fully restore the building, which would have involved replacement of a large portion of its stone lintels, base course, and other accents, was not feasible. Likewise, the cost to remove the paint, tuck-point, and restore the brick was also very high. Collectively, doing everything we wanted to do just didn’t pencil out. Instead, our approach on these types of projects is to accept the years of wear and imperfection and integrate it as best we can.
What are the various functions the building’s transformation is designed to facilitate?
The adaptation includes two restaurants and two levels of office space. These uses represent a substantial increase in the number of occupants and a much bigger demand on the building’s systems. Both restaurants incorporate full kitchens into their plans and all of the affiliated infrastructure that isn’t readily apparent from the outside. The rooftop is congested with mechanical units but screened from the street with a perforated fence. Subgrade infrastructure was also added.
The original brick structure doesn’t actually bear the weight of the upper building addition. Instead, a steel structural frame works its way down through the center of the original structure. And while the footprint of the building isn’t large, the design had to accommodate a second stair tower. These upgrades all accommodate the intensity of the new uses and the increased demand for safety.
How did you balance historic and contemporary building styles?
Meridian 105 abides by the belief that architecture should be a reflection of its time. Just as the original 1890s structure is reflective of the building practices, materiality, and technology of that time, the adaptation highlights the materials and building methods that are used today. By separating the aesthetic of the addition from the original structure, the 1890s firehouse is allowed to stand on its own. It’s apparent what is old and what is new and the combined design strives for honesty in this regard.
Tell us about the materials that create such a striking contrast between old and new.
Meridian 105’s work places a significant emphasis on the use of minimally processed materials that most closely resemble their natural origins. With this approach, our goal is to convey a sense of authenticity and honesty. When the original structure was built in the 1890s, buildings were constructed primarily of wood, stone, and clay, so this philosophy of using basic materials is baked into the architecture of that time. In my view, this is why historic buildings are so appealing. We selected metal as a cladding material because it is lightweight, contemporary, and fits into this idea of using basic, straightforward materials. More specifically, Corten steel is being used on the façade. The material is designed to rust over time to a rich brown color, which provides a long-term protective coating. We appreciate that the material has a living finish and an inherently imperfect appearance. This is complementary to what is being accomplished in the selective restoration of the original structure, where we are accepting a certain amount of rawness and wear.
What are your hopes for this new version of the old firehouse?
The project was an opportunity to not only design something new, but to highlight a piece of Denver’s history. We hope that the building remains relevant and interesting from year to year. Our hope is also that as each year passes, the metal paneling will continue to change, the façade ivy and other landscaping will continue to fill in, and the neighborhood will patronize the restaurants and outdoor spaces. We don’t want the building to be static; we hope people will discover something new with each visit. Ultimately, we hope the building is well-received and bolsters the demand for more unique and thoughtful projects within Denver’s neighborhoods. If the average passerby feels compelled to take a critical look at the building, then we will be happy.