Historic Power Plants: A Tricky (But Rewarding) Resource to Adapt

Posted on: February 6th, 2013 by Michael R. Allen 1 Comment

This is the final installment of our guest series on the remarkable transformation of a hospital power plant in St. Louis. This week looks at other American examples of power plant reuse and examines what makes the City Hospital project unique. Read the series to date.

Seaholm Power Plant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Thelonious Gonzo, flickr
Seaholm Power Plant in Austin, Texas.

The Power Plant at City Hospital is the only historic power plant building in the United States that has been reused for a large-volume recreational purpose. Power plants remain difficult buildings to reuse due to their large open volumes, which have to be retained to some extent to qualify for historic tax credits.

A survey of adaptive reuse projects at historic American power plants shows that they tend to be used for office, retail and even residential space. It’s common for floors to be added in these configurations, making it even more significant that the City Hospital Power Plant retained its original space.

In Austin, Texas, a plan to reuse the Seaholm Power Plant may become the nation’s next adaptive reuse project for a power plant building. The plan calls for a 7.8-acre historic power plant becoming a sustainable, mixed-use, adaptive reuse development. The original 1950s Art Deco building will be adapted into commercial, retail, exhibition, and residential space.

Inside Cannon Design's renovated office in the Municipal Service Building power plant. Credit: sean stl, flickr
Inside Cannon Design's renovated office in the Municipal Service Building power plant.

In St. Louis, Cannon Design has adapted the former Municipal Service Building power plant -- a finely detailed Renaissance Revival building designed by the firm of Study & Farrar -- into an impressive office space. Built in 1927, the 19,000 square foot power plant had been vacant 25 years when the $8 million Silver LEED renovation started. (The project also received state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.)

The interior’s four-story open volume, illuminated through large full-height arched steel sash windows, posed a challenge. Cannon’s solution: insert a free-standing block of three floors to handle work space, set back from the outer walls to allow for some sense of volume to remain. The end result is 32,000 square feet of usable office space.

Overlooking the Great Room at the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center. Credit: dharder9475, flickr
Overlooking the Great Room at the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center in Chicago.

Around the same time that Cannon Design’s new office opened, the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center opened in Chicago in a former Sears, Roebuck and Company power plant built in 1905. Completed in 2009, the renovation created classrooms, a learning facility for high school students, and community spaces while retaining the power plant’s historic exterior, including original wooden windows. This project received federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.

An earlier adaptive reuse that has continued to be successful is the Pier Four Power Plant (or Pratt Street Station) in Baltimore developed by Cordish. Built between 1900 and 1909, the power plant served electric street railways. Today, the Pier Four Power Plant is activated with commercial and entertainment tenants. Although an indoor Six Flags was located here from 1985 through 1989, there was no active-use recreational component, and today the interior is carved up by multiple users.

Sunrise over the Pier Four Power Plant in Baltimore. Credit: woodleywonderworks, flickr
Sunrise over the Pier Four Power Plant in Baltimore.

With all these examples in mind, the City Hospital Power Plant stands today as one of only a few American power plants to find adaptive reuse, and the only that has been dedicated to a recreational use. When first built, the power plant embodied a massive federal effort to curb the effects of the Depression. Years of service to a busy public hospital were followed by years of abandonment and neglect. Yet the original purpose of the power plant remains apparent in its indelible design, enhanced and respected through its new use as a recreation and entertainment destination.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Michael R. Allen

Michael R. Allen is the Director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis, which he founded in 2009. Recent activities include learning video editing and naming his cat after Oscar Niemeyer.

Adaptive Reuse, Architecture, Civic, Local Preservationists

One Response

  1. Ron Staley

    February 6, 2013

    Take a look at the major power plant redevelopment in Lansing, Michigan, the Accident Fund Building and a National Trust and ULI award winner.