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Breathing new life into Rochester’s old buildings

The dining room and bar area in Radio Social has a modern look, but retains some details from the original Stromberg-Carlson facility. (Leah Stacy)

The dining room and bar area in Radio Social has a modern look, but retains some details from the original Stromberg-Carlson facility. (Leah Stacy)

The repurposing trend has grown beyond household objects to encompass the entire house—or rather, warehouse. Old and often abandoned buildings are being upcycled into dynamic new spaces, salvaging a piece of Rochester’s history and giving both a new chapter.

The first step in the process is simple: find the right building for the new need. When Clover Lanes owner Dan Morgenstern was looking for a spot to create a fresh take on the classic bowling alley, he hired Staach Inc. The multidisciplinary design firm concentrates on interior and furniture design, but also manufactures furniture and other components for spaces.

Seth Eshelman

Seth Eshelman

Staach principal and founder Seth Eshelman says his team worked with Morgenstern on “site selection, concept design and test fitting the space, and figuring out how the space will work.” The result was Radio Social, a full-scale bowling and gaming center complete with a bar and a dining area.

“Trying to find a way to reuse old buildings was part of the work we did with them,” Eshelman says. “We were touring other facilities, trying to figure out a way to use these buildings, and when we found (the building on) Carlson Road it seemed to be a natural fit. The space had a really good feel to it.”

The building was the former Stromberg-Carlson manufacturing facility. Among other aspects, the property’s large backyard area fit Morgenstern’s vision for Radio Social as a place where people could hang out and play a variety of games, both indoors and outdoors.

Bringing the outdoors inside was a big factor in architectural and engineering firm Clark Patterson Lee’s transformation of the old Tops Friendly Markets store in Irondequoit into the Rochester Regional Health Reidman Health Center.

“(We made use of) the whole building, but we also added the front to allow for natural light,” principal architect Michelle Trott says. “We did breakthroughs in a couple spots to add natural light to waiting rooms as well.”

Other features that made the Tops store a good site include its proximity to local bus stops and the open floor plan.

Michelle Trott

Michelle Trott

“It’s a prominent site, with great access for patients,” Trott says. “And the building itself was not in bad shape. (Old stores like) Tops or Wal-Marts have these open floors plans that allow us to create what we need.”

With 26 floors of offices, the former Chase Tower had the opposite of an open floor plan. Gallina Development Corp., a commercial real estate firm, gutted it to create The Metropolitan’s residential, retail and commercial spaces—and soon the new offices of Partners + Napier.

Architectural and engineering firm Bergmann is working with Partners + Napier on a “highly dynamic open office area and office interface area,” says Gary Flisnik, principal of Bermann’s Northeast Buildings Division. The floors that will house the new offices originally contained a large dining room, an auditorium and an industrial kitchen.

“There was some large-scale food service equipment that had to be removed, and a lot of exhaust systems and mechanical mezzanines for servicing,” Flisnik says.

And there was one more thing that required removal: asbestos.

“This building was constructed in the ’60s,” Flisnik says. “That building vintage usually signifies there is a high level of asbestos material that needs to be taken care of prior to demolition work, and that was the case here.”

Managing curveballs like this one is by far the biggest challenge of repurposing old buildings, these experts say.

Gary Flisnik

Gary Flisnik

“There is a tendency for a lot more unknowns to occur,” Flisnik explains. “When you’re going in and renovating an existing structure, there may not be any accurate building structure documents you can rely on.”

“You do the best you can to get professionals in to assess the site before you start, but you never know,” Eshelman says. “You’ll rip down a wall, and then it’s like ‘oh, we didn’t expect that.’ You just don’t know until you’re knee deep in it.”

But sometimes those unexpected finds can prove fortuitous. Eshelman and his team discovered a cache of original windows when going through the Stromberg-Carlson building, which they used as a model for the new windows.

“Our goal was to bring some awareness of the building, historically try to bring it back a little bit,” he says. “It really helped to open the space up and bring a lot of natural light in, plus bring some appreciation of what this building was when it was a manufacturing facility.”

Resurrecting a bit of history is arguably one of the most valuable aspects of repurposing older buildings—one that can’t be replicated in a new build.

“I think that it’s a movement to bring back to life some areas that weren’t in use,” Trott says. “Obviously, Tops was vacant for a while and this has helped bring back a useful plaza to Irondequoit where there wasn’t something before. It brings life to the community.”

Flisnik concurs.

“Taking something that has been vacant and bringing it back to life is certainly a real pro,” he says. He adds that while some of these buildings might have historical preservation issues, which may require a little extra work, “the pro part of that is you’re keeping some of that history around.”

“These older spaces have their old story, and we’re able to take that story and fold it into a new narrative,” Eshelman says. “You’re taking these unique, historical buildings from the city’s past and bringing people back into them, and I think that’s a really powerful thing.”

Lisa Granite is the associate editor of the Rochester Business Journal and The Daily Record.

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