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Yesterday's Factories, Today's Apartments

In the heart of quaint Simpsonville, SC lies an old cotton mill built at the turn of the last century. The mill now goes by the telling name of Cotton Mill Apartments and it’s one of the many vintage factories in the U.S. that has been given a new life through adaptive reuse. Going beyond renovation and stepping into adaptive reuse territory, residential conversions like Cotton Mill have become increasingly popular.

The U.S. has its fair share of beautiful old buildings — many of them historical — that are often underused or even abandoned. But, through adaptive reuse, they can be repurposed and converted to residential use. This trend took off in the last decade, when 778 old buildings were transitioned into apartment communities. In total, 1,876 such buildings have been converted into apartments since the 1950s. From abandoned dispensaries to vintage gramophone factories, we dug into Yardi Matrix data to uncover where these projects are most common and what they were in their past lives.

Surge in apartment conversions reaches all-time high in the 2010s

Compared to the 1950s, when adapted apartment buildings were extremely rare, the 2010s saw 55 times more old buildings converted to apartment communities. That’s a leap from just 14 projects in the ’50s to 778 conversions last decade — a number that has been increasing rapidly, especially since the 1990s. The same upward trend is confirmed by the number of apartments in repurposed buildings — from about 2,000 rental units in the ’50s to almost 97,000 units opened in converted structures last decade. In total, there are now more than 240,000 apartments for rent in large converted buildings in the U.S.

Along with changing economic needs and trends, the types of buildings turned into apartments have also changed over time. For instance, from the ’50s through the ’90s, hotels were the most common type of building to be converted into apartments. Then, in the 2000s, it was mostly factories that became apartments. Finally, in the 2010s, offices were the most common structures to be turned into rentals.

Meanwhile, in 2017 alone, 119 apartment buildings came to life from adapted structures — the highest annual number ever. This was also the year that the former School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio, was transformed into breathtaking apartments. It’s now called Alumni Lofts, and you can still see the original school chalkboards, marble staircases and mosaic tile in the hallway.

65% of converted buildings aimed at middle- & lower-income renters

A large share of the converted apartment buildings (65%) is on the affordable side. Specifically, as many as 42% of conversions are oriented toward low-income renters, while 23% are accessible to middle-income residents.

In these last decades, all kinds of buildings have been transformed into affordable rentals — from offices and banks to churches and old warehouses. But, out of every building type that has been adapted over the years, former hotels made up the largest share of affordable apartments (86%) and were right up there with school buildings.

Similarly, of all the repurposed healthcare buildings — such as hospitals, clinics and dispensaries — 79% are affordable. One example is Eastman Gardens in Rochester, N.Y., which was previously The Eastman Dental Dispensary when it was built in 1917. After the building was left vacant for years, tenants can now enjoy the replicated murals and crafty woodwork in one of Rochester’s most beautifully restored buildings that now serves as an affordable senior living apartment community.

Chicago boasts the highest number of converted apartment buildings

In terms of repurposed apartment buildings, Chicago holds the top spot nationally with 91 (see these projects mapped here). Among them are historical staples like the Victorian-era Pine Grove Manor or the classically revived The Flamingo by Lake Michigan, both of which were previously hotels. In second place is Philadelphia, ahead of both LA and NYC. In fact, the city known as “The Birthplace of America” abounds in historic buildings, 85 of which have been converted into apartment complexes (see these projects mapped here) . These include the history-heavy Sugar Refinery Apartments building, which was originally built in 1792 and is now a perfect example of industrial-chic design.

Cultural hubs LA and NYC are practically tied in third and fourth place, with 74 and 73 conversions each, respectively. In these cross-country metros, iconic repurposed structures like LA’s 1889 Boyle Hotel represents the city’s turn-of-the-century transition, while NYC’s Westbeth Artists’ Housing has been a symbol for supporting struggling artists for almost two centuries.

Likewise, former 19th-century hospital St. Vincent, which was turned into Castle Park Apartments, is just one of St. Louis’ 62 repurposed buildings. Still flaunting its renaissance revival towers, the massive building is truly worthy of its new name.

Conversions have reshaped and beautified neighborhoods in historic areas as well as in industrial hubs. New York City surpasses all other cities in terms of the highest number of apartments created through adaptive reuse — close to 18,500 (see all projects mapped here). Next in line are Chicago (14,167), Philadelphia (11,266), Los Angeles (10,569) and St. Louis, MO with more than 7,000.

Factories were the most popular conversions over the past 7 decades

Since the ’50s, factory conversions have given new life to 442 apartment buildings nationally. That’s because manufacturing structures, foundries, mills and even vintage breweries incorporate the open space floor plan that both developers and residents so crave. The 2000s, in particular, saw the potential that old factories had to offer, resulting in 122 residential buildings, including The Victor in Camden, N.J. Once a symbol of recorded sound in America, the building is a true time capsule that proudly displays memorabilia, and still treasures its grand piano and antique gramophone.

With 434 apartment buildings created, hotels are the second-most popular building type to be turned into residential living. In fact, hotel-to-apartment conversions dominated the second half of the last century, increasing from 13 in the 1950s to 65 in the 1990s. One reason for this uptick is the easy transition from hotel rooms to apartments and the conversion from reception to concierge. Another obvious aspect is the alluring charm of living in what used to be a vintage hotel. Historic hotels like Boston’s St. James Hotel turned Franklin Square manage to capture the beauty of the past. Built in 1868, the building still showcases its luxurious dome structure, while also serving as affordable senior housing.

Preferred building type to adapt varies throughout the country

With names like Mattress Factory Lofts in Atlanta, Hydraulics Lofts in Buffalo, NY, or Shoe Factory Lofts in Milwaukee, the origin of some apartment buildings is pretty clear. These three cities have favored converting older factories, as did Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston and Richmond, VA.

In other parts of the country, hotels are more prevalent. For example, hotels are Seattle’s preferred building type to turn residential, among them The Tuscany. Similarly, most conversions in Chicago, NYC, LA, Denver, San Francisco and Portland, OR also used to be hotels.

With the likes of The Plaza in Detroit, former office buildings claimed as apartments are the norm. Notably, the iconic Equitable Building is Baltimore’s first skyscraper and used to be the largest office space south of NYC in the 1890s. Other cities that favor converted office buildings are Pittsburgh, D.C., Dallas, New Orleans and Cleveland.

Along the same lines, former schools like Indianapolis’ St. Agnes, built in 1908, can make great apartment buildings, too — which is why they’ve become the most popular projects in Indiana’s state capital, as well as in Louisville. Kentucky’s largest city actually has 7 former schools that have been adapted to residential use, one of them being the historic Lourdes Hall. Meanwhile, the name ElseWarehouse tells us everything we need to know about the preferred building type to convert to residential in Minneapolis. Here, 6 residential buildings are the result of warehouse conversions.

Our top 10 favorite unusual building conversions

Some conversion projects find residential potential in the most unusual buildings — be it an ex-funeral home or a Golden Era bomb shelter. But, beyond the squeaky hinges and creaking floorboards, a new home is just waiting to rise from the dust — whether it’s in the form of a former courthouse or a repurposed chocolate factory. Below, we picked our favorite residential conversions:

1. Former chocolate factory built 1902: The Chocolate Works in Philadelphia, PA

You won’t find a community sweeter than the one located in what used to be Confectioners Row at the beginning of the 1900s. Before it became home to Philly’s residents, this solid brick building was home to the world-famous Wilbur Chocolate Company. If you have a chance to visit, be on the lookout for the recognizable exposed timber beams!

2. Former bomb shelter built 1950: Wilmary Apartments in Anderson, SC

3. Former funeral home built 1929: Tudor Square in New Orleans, LA

4. Former Italian embassy built 1925: Modera Sedici in Washington, DC

5. Former asylum built 1878: Bradlee Danvers by HGI in Danvers, MA

6. Former stadium built 1931: Stadium Lofts in Indianapolis, IN

7. Former church built 1929: The Rose on Bond in Oakland, CA

8. Former armory building built 1940: Copper Beech Commons in Syracuse,NY

9. Former air force base built 1937: Grand Lowry Lofts in Denver, CO

10. Former courthouse built 1938: Courthouse Lofts in Kansas City, MO

The federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City has long been an icon of the city. When it was converted, the apartment building took advantage of the huge space that the former courthouse had to offer. Today, its residents enjoy wide open floor plans and huge walk-in closets. And, yes, the three humongous front doors are still in place, ready to welcome you.

There’s just something about old building designs that never goes out of style. This decade, perhaps the shift to remote work will be the trigger for further office-to-apartment conversions. Or, maybe other building types, such as retail space, will give way to rental housing. Adaptive reuse can mean more than just repurposed architecture. It can use existing resources to conserve and even boost historic value, it can impact and beautify entire communities, it can even make us feel at home in the past.

Written by: Alexandra Ciuntu for RentCafe blog


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