Historic, central, and green: Transforming church to library in the southern Adirondacks
Hunter, Susan Sefton
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Declining church attendance has left some U.S. denominations with vacant buildings in search of new uses. The 1859 Methodist Episcopal Church in Stony Creek, New York, the subject of this thesis, is one of more than a dozen nineteenth century churches within a 50 mile radius that have been deconsecrated over the past several decades. Loss of these buildings is not simply a loss of old-fashioned or unwanted building stock—clearing away the dead wood of history—but the loss of valuable examples of our material, cultural, and spiritual history. A repurposed historic building is a living example of sustainability which informs stewardship, responsible adaptation, and a respect for endurance and the positive impact of the maturing forces of time. With all these important reasons for building reuse, why do so many stand empty, subject to continuing deterioration, or fall prey to destructive private adaptation? The answer is complex, but key problems include lack of enlightened community planning and involvement, lack of public investment sufficient to restore and maintain these historic resources, and lack of affordable architectural design assistance to help make civic aspiration a reality. The latter reason is more important than we might suspect. Participation of designers is critical to convert buildings successfully so they surpass pragmatic requirements to fulfill aesthetic aspirations, drawing users to themselves once again. This thesis is the final stage in a two-and-one-half year project to assist a community library board of directors with the challenge of converting a historic structure to a community center and library. It describes the design process and lessons learned in dealing with the community and the State agencies with which it interfaced, as well as the technical aspects of a sustainable and accessible historic preservation project. Communities that would like to retain their historical landmarks are constrained by lack of funding for architectural, engineering, sustainability and accessibility services. This is a useful role for public service by the architectural community, and this thesis provides an example of how a student architect can assist with that process. We can’t stand back and insist on preservation, but we can step forward and act with better conscience as educators, students, and informed public citizens to help communities preserve and revive their vital public spaces. In each stage of the design process, I used architectural drawing and modeling for design investigation and presentation, climate and site analysis techniques, and building energy modeling; structural investigation and photographic documentation of the building; review of zoning and legal documentation; study of SHPO and LEED requirements; LEED analysis; precedents study; design methods for lighting, passive heating and cooling, and mechanicals specification; and library research. In addition, I was able to make good use of community planning, development, presentation, and grant writing skills garnered in prior work experience. Although the context of this thesis was service learning, the goals of this thesis are theoretical as well as practical. While much of the thesis work was directed at refining and expanding prior analyses and design processes, to carry the project forward as far as possible and gain perspective on work already done, I needed to place the practical work in a wider context. The goals of this thesis, therefore, are both progressive and reflective: to move the work forward, applying what I learned in the third year of my architectural education to the problems I confronted in earlier stages of the project, while reflecting on how the process might have been improved.