With the urgent need to conserve our natural resources and to minimize the negative impact of building upon the environment, there is a new focus on the adaptive reuse of existing structures. In North America, the transformation, adaptation and expansion of existing buildings currently comprise approximately 50% of the building volume of the overall US building industry, totaling $50 billion each year.1 Due to these developments, there is a demand for the study of the alterations of existing structures both for professionals in architecture and for a general design population.
The study of adaptive reuse has been a major focus of the Department of Interior Architecture for decades, beginning in 1947 when the name of the department changed from Interior Design to Interior Architecture. This change in nomenclature was a transformative one which brought “an entirely new set of issues and values” 2 influencing the direction of the department through the 21st century. Today the Department offers two graduate programs in Adaptive Reuse: the Master of Design [MDES] in Interior Studies [Adaptive Reuse] and the Master of Art [MA] in Interior Architecture.
With the prerequisite of a first professional degree in Architecture, the Master of Art (MA) in Interior Architecture program provides a clear aesthetic, theoretical, and technological framework for the study of adaptive reuse. With an emphasis
on research, varying aspects of that subject are explored through curricular studies and a demonstration of these explorations in design studio. The Adaptive Reuse Design Studio is the culmination of this year-long degree.
In 2013, through the generous support of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, a family philanthropy dedicated to protecting and preserving the unique characteristics of Aquidneck Island and Newport County, this studio focused on adaptive reuse in the city of Newport. Newport is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. and the many issues of historic buildings and cities in America today are embodied in the structures and infrastructure of this 373-yearold city. With the aim to enhance the reputation of Newport County as an area of national importance, the Foundation supports, in particular, ‘the physical integrity and appropriate adaptive reuse of key historic properties to ensure that they are there for the enjoyment of future generations.’ The objective of this year’s Adaptive Reuse studio, titled soft interventions, is to address the heritage building and its limitations of protected historic features.
2 “A New World: Good taste and good design Ernst Lichtblau in Providence” in Ernst Lichtblau Architect 1883-1963, organized by Otto Wagner Archive, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and curated by August Sarnitz and Samuel B. Frank, Providence, RI 1994, pg.32.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the ongoing trend towards secularization in the Northeast has led to decreasing church attendance. Dwindling congregations have created a common problem for many ecclesiastical structures today and often result in the decommissioning, sale and the adaptive reuse of the abandoned religious structures. The Newport Congregational Church (also known as the United Congregational Church), located at the corner of Spring and Pelham Streets, is not immune to this phenomenon. With a long and interesting ecclesiastical history that is intertwined with the development of Congregationalism on Aquidneck Island in the late 17th century, the congregation remains today as a body of less than 25 members.
Built in 1857, the Newport Congregational Church is an example of the Romanesque Revival in America. Designed by architect Joseph Wells, the use of this style is one that coincides with ‘the sentiment with American Congregationalism to embrace Romanesque architectural forms associated with early Christianity as a component of religious
The present day significance of this building, however, lies with the interior and the work of American artist, John La Farge. In 1879, a generation after the completion of the structure, La Farge was commissioned to execute a ‘mural and stained glass decorative program within the church’s expansive sanctuary.’2 La Farge is attributed with having “invented
a new technology for stained glass” 3 using opalescent glass. The stained glass windows in the Newport Congregational Church are an outstanding example of this technology. La Farge’s work also includes the painted murals on the walls and the ceilings of the sanctuary. These murals are “unprecedented in the history of American art and remain among the most significant manifestations of the American mural movement. More importantly, they vividly reflect a fundamental duality in the late nineteenth-century American thought, merging a desire for affiliation with tradition with a modern respect for empirical, natural fact.” 4
Since the late 19th century, time has weathered many elements of the church. Some of the windows were replaced without regard to their original state, the walls were covered over in a bright shade of blue, the exterior envelope has deteriorated, the organ loft was enclosed. In 1971, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, the La Farge Restoration Foundation was established to oversee the restoration of the sanctuary, with fund raising efforts that continue today. Most recently, in October 2012, the murals and windows of the Newport Congregational Church, the only comprehensive interior of John La Farge, received national landmark designation by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
The church is now the property of the La Farge Restoration Fund, a non-profit 501C3 organization incorporated in the State of Rhode Island, and the Fund operates a memorandum of understanding with the congregation to whit: the congregation continues to worship in the sanctuary, until such point as it is voluntarily deemed no longer viable, or….
The guidelines for rehabilitating and reconstructing historic buildings, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, stipulate specifically that “New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.” The latter clause inspired the idea of “reversibility” in which architectural interventions could be “inserted” and removed, if needed, without leaving a trace on the original structure. This idea of reversibility was adopted by the students as a driving principle of their conceptual work. Analyses of church conversion precedents, categorized into shades of reversibility, in an ascending scale of 1 for irreversible interventions and 5 for reversible ones are presented herein
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