As he looks at Heights-area commercial properties as yet restored or renovated (or rescued), real estate developer Gerald Bodzy believes “It may take creative solutions to get things done.”
An example is the recently transformed side-by-side century-old buildings on West 12th at Yale Street, across from the re-purposed Houston Heights Fire Station.
As designed by Gary R. Chandler Architecture & Interiors, the full-scale restoration of the contiguous buildings recently earned a 2017 Community Improvement Award for commercial renovation from Houston Heights Association. The project also involved Brad Dougherty of Insight Structures and builder Blake Kahanek of Kahanek Construction Co.
The third-acre site, located on the border of Houston Heights Historic District East, had been owned by Bodzy’s extended family since the ‘50s. In 2013, he gained control of the property, comprised of a pair of two-story brick buildings sharing an interior wall; the un-dated wooden four-plex next door; and an adjacent, interior lot.
A fire in the ‘90s had left the buildings unused – except by vagrants and graffiti artists, Bodzy says. “They were such a mess. It’s great to be able to take something boarded up and an eyesore and give it value and new use – while preserving the history of the building inside and out.” He believes doing so is “the essence of development.”
Plus, the restoration was a solid business opportunity, he says, one that would bring a viable product to the Heights as well as new businesses and jobs.
Restore Meant Re-engineer
In planning the project, architect Chandler and Bodzy, who also owns Showcase Windows, considered a series of potential iterations — from townhomes or apartments to restaurant and retail use — that met the vision, market conditions, city parking regulations and historic district guidelines.
The outcome was office space over retail, using the back lot for parking and access to a new exterior staircase. It serves the second floor, now occupied by healthcare professionals. Street level space has a plumbing and hardware showroom. Each level has about 5,000 square feet of space.
Though updated, the property’s original cantilevered signage remains, facing Yale Street. Interiors retained most of their original clay tile walls. And an exposed painted message lingers from previous use by a dry cleaners: “We Will Dye for You.”
Efforts to re-use the wooden four-plex, however, were for naught, Bodzy says. It was deemed structurally unsound and demolished in 2017 – after restoration efforts and an estimated $100,000 in related expenses.
Meanwhile, in the brick 1916 and 1921 buildings, the original interiors’ integrity had been seriously affected by disuse, fire damage, and in one, an ill-fitting replacement roof.
Gutting the interiors meant removing everything, including the crumbling foundation. For a time during the project, all that remained of the original brick structures were the perimeter walls — 9 inches thick and 20 feet tall.
To improve the structural integrity, engineer Dougherty developed an interior support system and slab independent of the building shell but sturdily connected to it.
Chandler’s simplified description of the re-engineering feat is “gut the box, fill the box.” He’s quick to credit the skills of the project’s team, which has worked together on other projects: “All parties know their stuff.”
On the back of the historic buildings, the external stairway is a deliberately modern addition and screened by blue panels of semi-transparent resin material. The then-now juxtaposition of style prevents the building having “a static environment held to its 1916 origins,” Chandler says.
“I think if a commercial building is going to be renovated for use another hundred years, it has to have a living dynamic to it.” (An example is at The Louvre in Paris, where architect I.M. Pei’s glass and metal pyramid addition rises in the former palace’s courtyard.)
Equally eye-catching is the exterior’s cohesive finish, inspired by a section of original orange brick mottled by white paint (and time). To achieve that appearance meant painting both buildings orange followed by a mortar slurry.
Bodzy says it would have been far less expensive to build from scratch, though that option was not possible in the historic district.
“But look at what you get” when you preserve what’s there: “historic character combined with 21st c. conveniences — a new lease on life for a 100 year old gem.”
And an award
“I could be tempted to do more of them,” he says, but he suspects “It would be hard to find one this special with so much character to preserve.”
To share your renovation survival tale, contact Cynthia.Lescalleet@gmail.com.