Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.
Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.
I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.
When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew.
However, this is no suburban office park. It’s nestled in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. There’s a gorgeous river nearby, fascinating architecture to wander through, beautiful gardens and tons of natural light. They’ve done a marvelous job utilizing the space for this completely new purpose, subdividing some areas of the building while leaving other large, open atriums more reminiscent of the Brewery’s previous mass-production function.
Speaking of this cool new office park, my friend Gracen just coincidentally wrote a post on Strong Towns about how to repurpose old office parks. It takes a big project to fill space like this, but she proposed a performing arts center. Grocery stores, schools and indoor markets can also work well. Without a doubt, taking on a project this large requires a considerable amount of money and buy-in, as well as, most importantly, collaboration between different entities (private and sometimes public). But when it’s all finished, it looks and functions marvelously.
Have you ever seen a successful, large-scale repurposement project? What was its original function and how was that transformed to meet 21st century needs?
*True story: My little brother went to preschool in a former gas station.
All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise linked