A historic building that sits empty for ten years is not an untold story in preservation, even if it appears to be in a prime location. The brick armory on Main Street in Burlington, VT sat empty since 2003, leaving passersby to wonder about its fate. What they did not know: this story is different.
Setting the Stage: Woodbury’s Armory
Urban Woodbury built the Armory in 1904 and leased the space to the National Guard. In its storied history, the Armory has served as a car dealership, R.W. Hunt Mill & Mining Company, Sha-Na-Na’s Night Club, and as office space. Circa 2000, a popular local music venue was looking to buy the space, but couldn’t decipher logistics with the City of Burlington. Fire struck in 2003, leaving the building unoccupied and seemingly forgotten after 100 years of use.
Who would want a burned-out, muddled, old building? Most would shy away. Fortunately, not Redstone, a company well known and respected for its historic preservation and rehabilitation of Vermont buildings such as the Chace Mill in Winooski and the Maltex Building in Burlington’s South End. After the fire, Redstone purchased and mothballed the building, and began working on the dilemma of the Armory’s next chapter. Erik Hoekstra, manager of the project, met with me on a surprisingly warm January afternoon for a tour of the building and project talk.
The Big (Block) Picture
The real story is that the building was never forgotten. Like its past, the future of Woodbury’s Armory is part of a bigger picture: the redevelopment of the Main-Pine-King-St. Paul block in the City of Burlington. The block includes TD Bank, Hinds Lofts, a mixed use block (King Street Housing), and a handful of private residences.
In addition to being a part of this block redevelopment, the Armory stands as an important link between Burlington’s successful Church Street pedestrian mall and the popular Lake Champlain Waterfront.
As Hoekstra and Redstone worked to develop a successful plan, the company invested in new windows, new stone sills, brick repointing and a new roof in 2007 for the Armory. Not forgotten, but rather, the building was waiting for a sound, successful plan to germinate. According to Hoekstra, parking and finances were great challenges of this project. Parking is at a premium in the City of Burlington, and a building like the Armory didn’t come with parking. Working with property acquired from TD Bank, Redstone was able redesign the remaining open block space – then a surface parking lot – and provide enough parking. In terms of finances, the Armory could not succeed alone as standalone project. It had to be bigger. It needed the entire block. In the end, there are many funding partners and sources including Vermont State Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits.
As of February 2014, construction is well underway at the Armory. The Main-Pine-King-St. Paul block will soon be home to a new hotel, parking garage, and retail space. Woodbury’s Armory, on the Main Street/Pine Street corner will serve as the hotel lobby for the Hilton Garden Inn. The first floor of the Armory will house the hotel pool and retail space, hopefully a restaurant to add to Burlington’s eclectic mix of eateries. To the south and extending east from Armory will be an addition to house the 2 story parking garage with 4 floors of hotel rooms above. Sensitive to streetscape and the historic context, the garage/hotel addition will have different height elevation on St. Paul Street and Pine Street. Guests will access the lobby from the porte-cochère off Main Street.
Preservationists might ask why a chain hotel? Hoekstra said that although Redstone hoped for a boutique hotel, banks were only agreeable to funding an established, large business with a loyal customer base. The Hilton Garden Inn will be operated under a franchise agreement with Hilton, but will be locally owned by Redstone and partners. Hilton has been amenable in terms of designing a unique space and incorporating the Armory’s historic features into the rehabilitation. The 139 room hotel is set to open by the end of 2014.
Why the Armory & Historic Preservation?
As Erik Hoekstra stated, Redstone prefers preservation and rehabilitation projects because of the challenge and commitment to the community. Sprawl development does not give that same satisfaction of project completion. Urban infill, smart growth, and redevelopment make the job more interesting.
Hoekstra credits his interest in historic buildings and development to growing up in several historic houses, including a Sears Roebuck Catalog house in LaGrange, IL. Hoekstra studied real estate and finance and worked in New York City before coming to Vermont in 2001 to work with Housing Vermont and later Redstone. He studied Real Estate Development in the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
Interested in Hoekstra’s line of work? He advises that there are many roads to working in development and historic preservation. Some include working in construction, property management, finance or a non-profit organization like Housing Vermont. Hoekstra says that no matter the type of company, the process is still the same: Design, permit, finance, legal, construction.
When asked about his favorite part of this project, Hoekstra said that it’s seeing all of the puzzle pieces fit together. And that is always a preservation success story.