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9 projects that reimagine old buildings, from factories to firehouses

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What’s old is new again

Adaptive reuse can mean a lot of different things, from reinventing an old school building to repurposing shipping containers as homes. At its core, the concept is about repurposing an old building into something new.

But adaptive reuse differs from renovation in one important way: Not only are buildings transformed, but this second life is drastically different in purpose from the first. Factories are converted into offices, warehouses into shopping markets. And in famous examples like the High Line, old, dilapidated railroads became linear parks that spark a newly revitalized neighborhood.

Adaptive reuse allows cities to take a second look at old spaces, especially those that are abandoned or located along struggling, industrial waterfronts. It can also be a key way to preserve historic spaces and reduce urban sprawl; why build a new office space or hotel in the suburbs when you could breathe new life into an old structure?

To see how different spaces are being repurposed in cities across the U.S., we’ve rounded up nine creative adaptive reuse projects. While in no way comprehensive, this list shows the diversity and architectural possibilities that come from repurposing things like old factories, wharfs, and power plants in new ways.

While we’ve focused on existing projects, we know there are a lot in development (Chicago Main Post Office, we’re looking at you). Have suggestions we should consider? Let us know in the comments.

Foundation Hotel in Detroit

Detroit’s new boutique Foundation Hotel was converted from the old Detroit Fire Department Headquarters.
Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

Built in 1929, this steel-frame, five-story neoclassical building served as the long-time home of Michigan’s oldest fire department. After the fire department moved out in 2013, Aparium Hotel Group redeveloped the structure into a boutique, 100-room hotel.

The transformation maintained much of the fire department aesthetic while adding salvaged wood and lighting from Detroit businesses. View a photo tour of the transformation over here.

Seaholm District in Austin, Texas

Photo of a six-story limestone, glass, and steel building in a downtown setting with an arched truss bridge for pedestrians in the foreground.
The newly completed Central Library in Austin’s Seaholm EcoDistrict.
Courtesy of the Austin Public Library

This multi-use complex boasts residential, office, retail, restaurants, a library, and a hotel, all anchored by Austin’s former electrical power plant. The redevelopment began in 2013 after the Art Deco-styled power plant was dormant for decades, and it’s been a key element in revitalizing a dead spot in Austin’s downtown.

Transforming the former brownfield site has been a work in progress, but just recently the city’s former Green Water Treatment Plant opened as a much-anticipated Central Library designed by by Lake/Flato and Shepley Bulfinch. Curbed Austin calls it a “a well-executed reinvention and a careful exercise in sustainability.”

The Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island

For 100 years, the Providence Iron and Steel Company operated on this section of the Woonasquatucket River in Providence’s “Industrial Valley.” But when the plant closed in 2001, redevelopers transformed the 3.5-acre site’s cranes, rough brick, and metal buildings into an ad hoc community and gathering space for the arts.

The result is an “urban wild” building that hosts art classes and is used as a fabrication space for area artists. The Steel Yard also works with local artists to design and produce custom-made street furniture—think bike racks, fences, and trashcans—for downtown Providence.

Concrete Plant Park in New York City

Concrete Plant Park, opened in 2009, is a seven-acre post-industrial park on the Bronx River.
Photo by Nathan Kensinger for Curbed NY

This seven-acre South Bronx spot is located on the Bronx River, “one of the most blighted, abused waterways in the country,” according to the Times. From the late 1940s through 1987, the Transit-Mix Corporation operated a concrete plant on the site, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the abandoned plant—and all its debris and pollution—was rehabilitated into a public park.

As at Seattle’s Gas Works Park, visitors can see the former concrete equipment alongside a waterfront promenade, chess tables, and bike paths. See more photos of the park, right this way.

Wonder Bread Factory in Washington, D.C.

The former Wonder Bread factory in Washington, D.C., kept the original signs after it was redeveloped into offices.
Douglas Development via Curbed Washington DC

From the early 1900s until the 1980s, this building in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood served as a factory for the iconic Wonder Bread brand. Then the structure sat vacant for almost 20 years before Douglas Development converted the historic building into a four-story, loft-style office development in 2013.

Much of the building’s style was preserved, including the white crosses seen throughout the building’s facade. The crosses look similar to the American Red Cross logo, and were added to the building to help relieve fears that factory-produced bread might be unsafe after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sparked worry that factory food was unsanitary. For a map of Washington, D.C.’s other converted industrial buildings, head over here.

The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia

The Goat Farm in Atlanta.
Wikipedia Commons

Now functioning as a performance and event venue, the 10-acre Goat Farm Arts Center was created out of 19th-century industrial buildings in Atlanta’s West Midtown area. The facility was originally used to make cotton before being revamped in the World War II to produce ammunition and mortars.

Today, the space contains exhibition halls, a cafe, an organic farm, an education center, creative studios for artists, and is one of Atlanta’s most notable adaptive reuse renovations in recent years.

Crescent Park in New Orleans, Louisiana

Crescent Park in New Orleans was repurposed from two old wharves and an industrial waterfront.
Courtesy of Crescent Park New Orleans

This 1.4-mile linear park in New Orleans now functions as a picturesque 20 acres of landscaping, paths, and picnic areas, but it wasn’t always that way.

The city reclaimed the space from two industrial wharves: the Piety Wharf and Mandeville Shed. In addition to the new green space, both wharf structures can now accommodate events and festivals.

The Green Building in Louisville, Kentucky

The Green Building in Louisville was a former dry goods store.
Ted Wathen/Quadrant via Arch Daily

Completed in 2008 by the architecture firm (fer) studio, Louisville’s Green Building was a 115-year-old former dry goods store. It now serves as a 10,175-square-foot mixed-use commercial building with a gallery, an event space, offices, and a conference room.

The building was also the first LEED-certified adaptive reuse project in the state of Kentucky, and has helped to revitalize a newly hip neighborhood now called NuLu, or “New Louisville.”

Seattle Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington

Gas Works Park on a sunny day in Seattle, Washington.

Sitting on the north shore of Lake Union, Seattle’s Gas Works Park originally operated as a gasification plant from 1906 to 1956. The City of Seattle bought the plant in 1962, hired Seattle landscape architect Richard Haag for the design, and eventually converted the land into a public park in 1975.

Much of the old plant remains, including structures that now serve as hulking sculptures visible for miles. But the park also repurposed some of the ruins, like a children’s play barn built inside the plant’s former exhauster-compressor building.