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Joe DeScipio, architect of the North Valley Lofts which feature loft apartments, a gym and a patio porch that was once a loading lock to the factory in Olyphant on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Jake Danna Stevens / Staff Photographer
Joe DeScipio, architect of the North Valley Lofts which feature loft apartments, a gym and a patio porch that was once a loading lock to the factory in Olyphant on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Jake Danna Stevens / Staff Photographer
September 14, 2015 7:00 AM CDT

Some masonry buildings finding new life in NEPA

Factory to flats

By

Neither historic nor sexy, concrete block and masonry buildings find new life in Northeast Pennsylvania as homes, offices or gyms, springing out of the region’s industrial past.

Advocates of what is known as “adaptive reuse” say good old cement block is sturdy and after lasting a century, can be reused for another century. Saving and using the masonry shell of a building can also be a cost saver.

The commercial building stock in the region tends to be a century to a century-and-a-half old. The savings potential and desire to preserve buildings that show even traces of charm has made some local architects and builders adept at turning old block and brick into something different.

Elmhurst architect Joseph A. DeScipio has done a number of masonry restorations.

They tend to be low-slung buildings with load-bearing beams, silk mills and former factories being the most common. Timber arches or trusses span the stone or brick walls and those often have to be replaced. But masonry lasts, Mr. DeScipio said. Saving it is always less expensive.

“Wood succumbs to water, so 20-year roof leak will have destroyed a wood-frame building, but a masonry building with a leak could be reused,” Mr. DeScipio said. “The durability of masonry is why we have ruins in Rome and Greece.”

Post-industrial Northeast Pennsylvania is rife with old masonry buildings with the potential for a second or third life.

“Old factories can make terrific condominiums,” said John Cowder, a principal at Moosic-based Quad 3. “We have a lot of buildings like this in our area and finding new uses for them can be exciting.”

Factory to flats

A facility that long ago had pressed records in the Midvalley as a predecessor to recorded media giant WEA Manufacturing is now a 23-unit North Valley Lofts in Olyphant. Developer J. Bass Realty hired Mr. DeScipio to turn the boarded up building, which to untrained eye looked ready for a wrecking ball, into apartments. The building, within walking distance to amenities, was in the right spot.

A freight elevator shaft provided the opening for the new lift. A loading dock became a private terrace for residents. The project wasn’t prohibitively expensive, costing $1.8 million.

These buildings are not architectural treasures. Mr. DeScipio calls the factories and mills the architectural equivalent of machines or workhorses — utilitarian buildings with open-floor plans and oversized windows to let in light.

Every project turns into a bit of archeology. When Mr. DeScipio worked on the third floor of the Carbondale YMCA to convert part of the 100-year-old building into offices, he recognized that the heavy timber trusses with steel rod fasteners were designed similarly to the railroad overpasses common throughout Northeast Pennsylvania.

“There’s no doubt the same guys building train trusses built roofs on some of our older buildings,” he said. Today those trusses offer a natural division of space for ProCare Physical Therapy offices.

Often there’s no hand-carved cornices or gargoyles looking down on a building like the dress factory in East Scranton, which with a new floor plan and covered awning has become an apartment building under the work of ATR Properties, a company headed by developer Art Russo that had restored old buildings to new commercial uses, often with loft apartment on upper floors.

Saving money

People commonly think that rehabbing an existing structure costs more than building new. Mr. DeScipio hasn’t found that with masonry block buildings.

The savings start the moment the decision is made to save the building, because it avoids some of the demolition cost. Then developers save on construction costs, such as digging and pouring a foundation. Typically building reuse means leaving the main portion of the building structure and shell in place while performing what is known in the trade as a “gut rehab,” leaving exterior walls and creating a more modern floor plan. Mr. DeScipio figures when compared to new construction, a gut rehab runs about 20 percent cheaper.

Even if it didn’t cost less, one could still make a case for saving old buildings. They can look better than new buildings. Reusing them keeps construction waste out of landfills and saves the energy and water needed to make new materials.

Windows, floor coverings, partition walls, mechanical systems and plumbing can be replaced and insulation can be added while maintaining the original concrete frame and exterior walls.

Quad 3’s Mr. Cowder isn’t as sold on the savings. Wood supports and beams likely have to be replaced due to rot and decay. Late century buildings are more likely to have steel.

Parapets, with greater exposure to the elements, take a beating and show it. Water is hardly benign to masonry. If rain has found its way into or between bricks or blocks, it can freeze, expand and break up like a Northeast Pennsylvania roadway. Repointing or replacing the mortar between bricks or blocks, may seems like a straightforward process, but Mr. Cowder said it is a true craft, that needs to be done correctly. That costs money.

“Each building varies on how complex the project will be,” he said.

Quad 3 recently worked on a building at 107 South Main St. in Pittston for the Greater Pittston Revitalization Corp. They tightened the building up with new windows, roof and facade restoration.

While he thinks a developer may save money on demolition costs, which would be avoided in an adaptive reuse, Mr. Cowder downplays big savings. Still, sometimes reusing as much of an existing building as possible is just the right thing to do.

Pittston Redevelopment Authority board member and Quad 3 Business Development Director Mike Lombardo said communities in Northeast Pennsylvania face a difficult decision when figuring out what to do with narrow buildings in their business districts.

“These building are part of the fabric of the downtown and you have to walk the balance of what can be done and what is a responsible use of money,” he said.

Letting those narrow structures with shared walls to rot or removing them can be sticky for an old community. Leaving one to decay or removing it could cause structural problems next door. Razing them leaves the block with a very hard-to-develop piece of property. Even if you turn it into a pocket park or garden, you leave the block’s skyline with a gapped-tooth look.

Still, while there are arguments to save those buildings beyond potential economic return, not everything can be saved. As Pittston mayor, Mr. Lombardo tried to save the Borr & Casey building on Main Street. While it looked salvageable, in fact, the interior of the walls were essentially pulverized and the building so compromised that the weight of the heavy roof on the hollowed-out walls caused the building to sway. It had to be razed.

However, Mr. DeScipio was devastated when Haddon Craftsman on Wyoming Avenue in Scranton was razed. It was so solid, he noted, it took forever to tear down. While it would have made a great apartment building, the book bindery sat on land that was better deployed as an athletic field for Scranton Preparatory School, just across the street.

Often, whether a building will be reused remains a matter of location, location, location.


About the Author

David Falchek is a staff writer for The Scranton Times-Tribune. He can be contacted at dfalchek@timesshamrock.com.

This article was originally published in The Scranton Times-Tribune. This content has been republished with the permission of the publisher.

 

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