Ties to the past
Historic properties offer rewarding opportunities for property managers
Seen as living pieces of a community, historic properties bridge the past to the present. For the public, they’re rich sources of culture, history, design, and architecture. For property managers, they’re spaces to preserve and protect, each with its own special considerations for restoration and everyday management.
“Historic properties require kid gloves,” says Matt Haberling, preservation architect at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE), an architecture and engineering firm specializing in building envelope consulting and structural engineering. “Property managers need to understand how the building is put together, what materials were used in the original construction and in prior repair campaigns, and what it requires to take care of their historically significant property.”
To illustrate the complexities and intricacies of managing historic properties, we can look to examples of two historically significant buildings: the New York Life Building, whose original owner continues to own and preserve the building, and Chicago’s Old Post Office, which was recently rehabbed to tap into its former glory.
The New York Life Building, New York City
Manhattan’s New York Life Building, a 40-floor Gothic Revival tower built in 1928, is unique in that its original owner, New York Life Insurance Company, still owns and occupies the building.
“The company and the building are one and the same,” says Sharon Hart, CPM, RPA, former account director and building asset manager at Cushman & Wakefield, Inc., AMO. “This building is part of the company culture.”
Maintaining a nearly century-old building has its maintenance challenges, but Hart says New York Life was forward-thinking when it sought landmark status years ago.
“It’s pretty rare that you see this, but the exterior is landmarked, and the interior is not,” she says. “New York Life thought of this years ago.”
The exterior of the building is protected as a NYC Landmark and as a National Historic Landmark, designations that result in tax credits. But because the interior is not landmarked, the team can make repairs or updates more easily.
Keeping the interior historically accurate is still a priority, as features such as the lobby are significant contributors to the historic character of the building and treated as such. When something needs replacing, it can be a challenge to find the part. Recently, one of the historic light fixtures needed to be replaced. “They have to be handmade,” Hart says.
“As people in these skilled trades become scarcer, it can be difficult to find items.” Fortunately, they found a lighting company in Iowa that could make the fixtures, and many other original features in the building were built to last. “It’s amazing that almost everything—even elevator mechanicals—still works,” she says.
To keep operations running smoothly, Hart says it’s essential to have a trusted professional partner that specializes in historic properties. The management team partners with WJE.
“It is more expensive to work with a consultant, but it wouldn’t be worth it not to,” she says.
20th and 21st centuries meet
“The building has many long-term tenants, such as law firms and foundations,” Hart says. “This historic property is right up their alley.” While tenants appreciate the history of the building, they aren’t at a loss for contemporary conveniences. “It’s never going to be like a Google building, but it has a fitness center, a cafe, and other modern amenities that today’s market demands.”
To keep up with modern security measures on the exterior of the building, the team has been creative by installing cameras that are modified to look like other fixtures or gargoyles—moves approved by the NYC Landmarks Commission. Junction boxes in the lobby were painted to match their surroundings so that they are almost unnoticeable.
Hart says a highlight of managing this historic property was the unexpected discoveries on the job. About three years ago, while planning a sidewalk repaving project, Hart read that a time capsule had been built into the cornerstone of the building. They were able to retrieve it without damaging the structure and found remnants from the 1920s—newspapers, bottle caps, and even a bond from New York Life.
She says it’s moments like those and knowing that she was contributing to an iconic New York building that made her job so fulfilling.
“It can be costly to take care of these older buildings, but at the end of the day it’s a labor of love,” Hart says.
To address similar issues in the early 1900s, NYC permitted building owners to install metal exterior fire escapes on their buildings. Today, these fire escapes have become a significant part of the streetscape in NYC. When restoring historic buildings, one can count on these exterior stairs as a legal means of egress as part of their emergency evacuation plan even though it is prohibited to build similar stairs on new buildings today. He says that other building code requirements, such as updating signage and lighting, are easier to adapt to and less destructive and costly to implement.
The Old Post Office, Chicago
The approximately 2.5-million-square-foot Old Post Office (OPO) facility in downtown Chicago had been vacant for two decades when real estate development firm The 601W Companies bought the property in 2016 with a plan to restore it. Built in 1921, the OPO was significantly expanded in size in 1932. At its peak, the OPO processed 19 million pieces of mail per day. The United States Postal Service moved to a more modern facility in 1997, and the building stayed vacant until the 601W purchase.
“The Old Post Office is such an iconic building. It’s basically the front door to the city, and it had languished for so long,” says Bryan Oyster, senior vice president and general manager for JLL, which now manages the property.
Because several previous redevelopment plans had fallen through, the city of Chicago was actively involved in the project to ensure its success.
“Through an agreed-upon order with the city, we had stipulations on when and how fast we had to get things done,” Oyster says. When the rehab began, the roof was collapsing, windows were broken, the facade was falling apart, and the building had no security in place. So, the team needed to address those issues immediately.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a Chicago Landmark. To maintain these designations and the tax credits that come with them, the federal and city agencies that administer these programs had to review and approve the project plans. To preserve its original integrity, the building has certain features designated as landmarks that can’t be modified. But, because the building also needs to appeal to 21st-century tenants, the final vision required negotiation and creativity, Oyster says.
For example, the original safes, scales, conveyor belts, and even the postmaster general’s spy tunnel in the ceiling, which was used to keep an eye on operations, couldn’t be removed or altered. For tenants who had these items in their spaces, they had the option of leaving them in place—untouched—or boxing them in with drywall.
Another example is the administration area, which featured long corridors with offices on either side with original transoms above the doors. “Today, people want open floor plans, so we knew no one would want these offices,” Oyster says.
“We negotiated an agreement that allows us to best utilize the space while preserving one floor untouched with the original layout maintained.”
Guiding them along the way was the building’s historic structure report (HSR), which can serve as a roadmap of sorts for property managers. HSRs provide information on the building’s history, condition, and preservation plans, among other details. Any repairs or changes to the structure are noted in the OPO’s HSR.
“An HSR is definitely a living document,” Oyster says. “As we negotiate with the Chicago Landmarks Commission, the report evolves with more information as it’s added.”
A new era
When it was time to find tenants, leasing was not an issue. Most of the building features open floor plans, with high ceilings and ample square footage.
“That was the shocker—we leased 80% within a year. Businesses saw the vision and jumped on board,” Oyster says.
For property managers getting ready to oversee a historic restoration, Oyster has some words of wisdom: Prepare for the unexpected.
“We never anticipated the number of holes that would need to be patched,” he says. “There were holes all over the floors from the equipment that was screwed down. We spent millions of dollars just patching holes.”
Surprises aside, Oyster says working on the project was worth it.
“That experience was life-changing,” he says. “I’m very happy that I and countless other dedicated individuals could do this for a historic Chicago building.”
The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) oversees both the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks. The NRHP is made up of “districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture,” according to the NPS.
To be considered, a site must meet certain criteria regarding significance, age (generally at least 50 years old), and integrity. The National Historic Landmarks designation has similar requirements, and these landmarks are listed on the NRHP. States and local municipalities may also have separate commissions for designating properties as local landmarks. Criteria and incentives differ by location.