Giving the Past a New Purpose in Your Showroom

If you’ve ever driven Interstate 84 through Hartford, CT, you’ve probably noticed a large complex of red brick buildings located in what was once the industrial heart of the city. Prominent yellow letters on the side of one of the most distinctive buildings tell you that it’s home to the Factory and Showroom of Lyman Kitchens – the region’s oldest and largest continuously operating kitchen business.

In addition to its own custom cabinetry, the firm offers several stock and semi-custom lines, with full remodeling and countertop fabricating capabilities.

But it’s not just the products or services offered that make this showroom so unique. Indeed, the building itself, with its strong ties to the past, adds beauty and value to the showroom.

“It was the prominence and high visibility of this building that lead us to consider it as an option,” says general manager Brian Lyman. The firm had outgrown the small showroom that housed its cabinet front re-facing business since 1972, and needed more space to respond to a growing customer base and active builder trade.

“The old space was just not end-user friendly,” Lyman explains, noting that parking was limited and difficult for tradespeople with their trucks to access. The company also needed additional room to house the machinery used in the custom milling operation. Building a space large enough to accommodate this expanding business was cost prohibitive, so the firm decided to look into alternative options and hit upon the concept of adaptive reuse of an historic site.

Adaptive reuse and historic restoration projects allow owners to work with an existing building and rework the interior to suit their specific needs. In a typical year, building construction consumes vast quantities of lumber, concrete, steel and other resources. Add to that the shrinking amount of land available for development, and it becomes clear that more environmentally friendly ways to respond to changing business needs must be explored.

Reusing buildings reduces the consumption of raw materials and decreases construction waste from demolition. In addition, the rich detailing, materials and finishes that are too expensive and labor intensive to reproduce by today’s new construction standards are routinely found intact in many older buildings.

A New Lease on Life

Brian Lyman thinks the present building his firm occupies was built in approximately 1890 – as part of the Pope Manufacturing Complex that produced sewing machines, automobile tires and the world-renowned Columbia bicycles. In a photograph from that year, it is easy to identify the building with its distinctive parapet-topped exterior elevator that his company occupies today.

“Purchasing this building in 1995 really allowed us to expand the business in a way that would not have been possible otherwise,” he states. While 19th century engineering methods may have been lacking in sophistication, materials and labor were so cheap that buildings such as these were “overbuilt” to withstand the rigors of heavy manufacturing. This allowed Lyman Kitchens to install heavy milling equipment without having to reinforce the floors or make major structural changes.

Grand New Space

The expansive 16'-high showroom space is flooded with light coming in through large arched windows that line the walls. Mechanical systems have been left exposed in the ceiling, but are now painted black so as not to draw attention away from the displays below. The exposed brick walls have been sandblasted to a soft red color – necessary after a previous tenant in the 1970s had painted them over while the space was used as an office.

Wherever possible, architectural features have been left intact or incorporated into the design of the showroom. Supporting columns serve as dividers in both the display and office areas, and large riveted steel sliding doors, painted a darker red to pop against the brick walls, serve as a backdrop to display hardware and other embellishments.

There are over 25 fully articulated displays subdividing the space into vignettes for customers to wander through. There’s a sense of presence and discovery to the place – the aged patina of the surrounding walls, the grandeur of the large windows and the industrial remnants of its manufacturing history stand in dynamic contrast to the latest designs in kitchen cabinetry, appliances and countertops.

The business utilizes all 40,000 square feet in the five-story building. “Space on this scale is normally beyond the financial reach of a small kitchen dealer,” Lyman notes. Favorable circumstances – including substantial property and corporate business tax incentives offered by the city of Hartford for the first five years, as well as a concentrated effort on the part of the surrounding Parkville community association to clean up the area – allowed Lyman Kitchens to expand the business to the current level of prominence the firm currently enjoys.

Considering Options

So, what lesson can kitchen and bath dealers take from Lyman Kitchens’ story?

When faced with the decision to relocate or expand a kitchen and bath showroom, consider both the advantages and challenges to adaptive reuse:

Advantages:

  1. Availability: Any building not living up to its original use is a candidate for creative reuse. There are typically an abundance of buildings in established neighborhoods, near existing transportation and shopping, with utilities in place.
  2. Financial: Tax incentives or low-interest loans may be available to help offset the cost for your restoration project at the federal, state and local level. And less money spent on the construction of a building means more money is available for interior finishes.
  3. Time Savings: Existing buildings go through a shorter design review process than those built from scratch. Indeed, community or municipality blockages to approval can melt away when they realize that an abandoned or underutilized property will be attractively transformed.
  4. Environmental: Bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction makes the project much more environmentally sustainable than entirely new construction. Check to see if your project qualifies for U.S. Green Building Council’s Green LEED certification

Challenges:

  1. Safety: Because these buildings are typically located in older industrial areas, make sure your customers feel safe and welcome in your facility by providing plenty of well-lit, on-site parking, with security if necessary.
  2. Location: Thoroughly investigating long-term plans for the area will help ensure that the location will work for the life of your business plan.
  3. Space Planning: While the abundance of square footage is certainly one of the advantages, careful space planning will help create an effective traffic flow and divide the space into smaller, more intimate areas, helping to ensure that your customers are not overwhelmed by the space.
  4. Financial: Take the time to investigate and calculate the costs involved in updating or replacing windows, electrical and mechanical systems, and bringing the facility up to modern building codes, to make sure the decision to move forward with your adaptive reuse project is financially sound.

Old buildings connect us to our past, offering the charm of original architecture and detailing, and a priceless, non-institutional character. According to Lyman, “When people come to see us, the age of the building and the way we have re-purposed it intrigues them. It creates an unusual bond with our customers by developing an appreciation for our remodeling capabilities.” This is particularly valuable since so much of the firm’s customer base is drawn from people who already have a respect for the past and are looking to make it work better for their lives today.

Read past columns on Inside Today’s Showroom by Sarah Reep, CKD, ASID, CMG, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto the Kitchen & Bath Design News Web site at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.

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