Kristyn Komarnicki -- Interior Design, 6/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
In 1916, the wartime need for electricity gave rise to a massive power station in Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The 400,000-square-foot beaux arts building featured commanding Doric columns and a 115-foot-high vaulted ceiling. Dazzling skylights illuminated the mammoth coal-powered turbines below.
Abandoned since the 1980's, the Chester property is again a monument to human initiative: a former brownfield rehabilitated by adaptive reuse, thanks in large part to Hillier Architecture. In Õe; 2000, the Pennsylvania Electric Company sold the mothballed landmark for $1 to Preferred Real Estate Investments, which agreed to clean up the asbestos, lead, and other industrial waste. The effort produced 10,000 tons of scrap metal; 20,000 tons of concrete and brick were recycled as fill.
Next, it was time to find an anchor tenant. Synygy, a payroll specialist, signed a lease for 130,000 square feet and hired Hillier to turn the space into a corporate headquarters. "We kept the existing industrial elements as intact as possible, to celebrate them, and left gaps between old and new," associate principal Sonja Bijelic says.
Hillier didn't alter the ceiling, columns, or bronze sconces in the turbine hall, the heart of the building both then and now. The architects also left a 60-ton crane that once serviced the five pulsing turbines—and later proved indispensable during the colossal renovation.
In the middle of the hall stands a structure that looks like a giant light box built of aluminum, steel, glass, and corrugated polycarbonate. (The fluorescent fixtures behind the walls are hooked up to energy-conserving motion sensors.) Inside the box are an employee café, training rooms, and Synygy's main data center, which links offices in the U.S., Romania, and India. "In their time, turbines were very high-tech," Bijelic says. "In a similar way, we put on display the high-tech information management that's the core of Synygy's work."
The top of the box is a carpeted deck, a mezzanine that accommodates up to 800 people for Synygy conferences during the day and non-Synygy parties at night: Taking adaptive reuse one step further, the company has even formed an event-planning offshoot to rent out the venue. Which is why there's not only a row of four large projection screens but also a stage, dance floor, lounge, and bar.
The mezzanine's raised floor is fitted with diffusers that heat and cool to a maximum height of 10 feet—with an interior volume this mammoth, HVAC presented the biggest challenge. To address light issues, the building architect installed low-E insulated glass in the skylights and the 50-foot-high windows. Every workstation in the office area, once the boiler house, enjoys exposure to daylight and views of the Delaware River. Bio-based carpets are used throughout.
The project, which has generated hundreds of much-needed jobs in this former shipbuilding town, won the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia's Grand Jury Award. Where coal fumes once spewed into the sky as a sign of prosperity and power, clean air and a scrubbed facade announce a fresh investment in the future.