Yale Steam Laundry Condominiums
John Ronan Architects and BBG-BBGM collaborate to retain the historic character of a 20th-century commercial building complex.
Cut off from the Capital’s downtown area by the sprawling Washington Convention Center, the 12-block span that makes up the Mount Vernon Square Historic District exemplifies typical urban woes: poorly planned projects, abandoned buildings, and worn streetscapes. It also displays signs of an architectural and commercial revival.
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Rich with a history that reflects D.C.’s economic and social development, this working-class neighborhood in Northwest Washington is attracting developers, entrepreneurs, and residents looking to invest in the charms of what is left of its mid-19th- to mid-20th-century building stock — as well as the potential revenue presented by its proximity to the convention center.
When IBG and Greenfield Partners allied to purchase the Yale Steam Laundry property in the early 2000s, the once-thriving commercial establishment — comprising a three-story Italianate, brick-and-limestone structure built in 1902, its 1924 two-story annex, and 1919 garage — had been shuttered for decades. Built to meet the demands of a high-volume service business, the main steel-framed building, by architect Thomas Francis, Jr., featured irregular wood floor joists; thick, glazed white brick interior walls; and a corbeled smokestack. The concrete-framed addition, by A.B. Mullett & Company, had a ground-level dirt floor and ample industrial steel fenestration.
The developers’ intent was to adapt the run-down facility, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as an aesthetic “anchor” for an expansive residential complex. So they enlisted the local office of BBG-BBGM to oversee the project’s preservation and landscaping aspects and to devise a scheme for two 12-story contemporary towers — one for condominiums, the other for rental apartments — that would feature loftlike residences with traditional layouts. However, they sought an architect with an edgy perspective for the interior renovation of the original building and annex, which would connect to the condo tower and house real lofts, as well as owner amenities for both. (The old garage will be merged with the rental tower under separate management.) To cast a wide net, a competition was held. The winning design, by Chicago-based John Ronan Architects, is hip yet mindful of the building’s structural legacy.
“We let the building do the talking,” explains principal John Ronan. Basing spatial configurations on its windows and structural elements, he and his team arranged 14 single-floor and six duplex lofts, all with distinct layouts, into the main section. They isolated mechanicals by devising a central zone in each to accommodate HVAC, plus custom kitchens and baths, leaving the original cleaned but scarred ceilings and brick walls intact. Likewise, they carved an infrastructural hub at the building’s core, and faced the walls in the hall with hot-rolled steel to separate past and present.
“We wanted to leave the patina and character that time conferred on it,” says Ronan. “So the first thing we did when we started construction was walk through with the contractor, telling him what not to do.”
The architects created a double-height entry in the annex, opening it to existing skylights. Then they fit a glass wall into the masonry to reveal the adjacent lobby with its satiny concrete floor, sleek furnishings, and access to the garage and management offices. They inserted a “grand” steel stair and glass-lined bridge leading to the upper gym and recreation area — also daylit by large monitors.
Outside, BBG-BBGM stripped the painted facades, replaced or repaired windows, and rebuilt the smokestack — the project icon.
According to Scott Fuller, IBG executive vice president, “This project was a unique opportunity to marry new towers to a historic building in an area undergoing a rapid renaissance.” With near total occupancy, Ronan’s discreet transformation of the old Yale Steam Laundry clearly fills a niche in a city with few industrial buildings.
Completion Date: April 2008
Gross square footage: 38,000 sq.ft.
Client: IBG Partners/Greenfield Partners
John Ronan Architects
320 W. Ohio Street 4e
Chicago IL 60654
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