Adaptive reuse is a wonderful thing.
When a building has outlived its usefulness, a select few among us with vision and a can-do attitude will reshape it into something very different. The key to good adaptive reuse, however, is to allow the building to “wear” its original purpose as a sort of undergarment so it can continue to tell its story.
While this is an easy feat (and now commonplace) with larger hard loft developments – bits of old machinery can be installed as sculpture along with old photographs in the common areas – it takes a higher level of commitment to do something similar with a much smaller building.
Take, for example, the 1964 Chatham Township Municipal Hall in the hamlet of Eberts, Ont. Located north of the city of Chatham-Kent, the fan-shaped, single-storey, 1,900-square-foot building was certainly the right size for a single-family dwelling, but its utilitarian features – a wide open council chambers with a raised stage for council members, large cloakroom areas, a curved hallway leading to men’s and women’s washrooms (each with a water fountain outside), and a tiny, enclosed “coffee kitchen” – did not scream domesticity to the average person.
Thank goodness Roni Brown is not the average person.
When she was tipped off about the sale of the building in 1994, she immediately drove from her “ordinary” ranch-style home in Chatham the short 10 minutes into the country to see it: “I was peeking in the windows,” she remembers, “and I thought, ‘Oh my God this place is awesome’ and all the possibilities [were] in my head.”
It helped, of course, that Ms. Brown was already an adaptive reuser: a savvy antique hunter, retailer, interior decorator and midcentury modern aficionado, she was accustomed to seeing beauty where others did not. So, it wasn’t a stretch to purchase the building, have it rezoned (an easy process in a small community), and turn the men’s washroom into her first bedroom while she renovated. She didn’t blink at taking garden hose showers in the 5,600-square-foot outbuilding – formerly the municipal garage – for the first few months, or at preparing meals in the cramped kitchen for her two young children for the first five years.
“That’s how dedicated I was,” laughs the tall, soft-spoken blonde. She also put up with a few privacy invasions: “Within the first couple of years we were living here, there was an election,” she remembers. “We were sitting down at supper and a couple of people came to the door and walked right in.”
Her first priority was a real bathroom, which she had contractors create in the old women’s washroom. Next was window replacement, especially the almost-floor-to-ceiling pair of front windows, which – although she says were “beautiful,” were also single-pane and drafty – had the budget allowed, she would have explored ways of retaining or recreating them.
Other projects followed, such as the creation of a second bedroom in the former meeting room between the washrooms, and another by raising a few walls along one side of the large council chambers when a third child came along. Here and there, openings through the foot-thick cinderblock walls were widened to achieve better flow, and the two side entrance “porch” areas (the building is perfectly symmetrical) were filled in to create a formal foyer on one side, and an informal mudroom on the other. The building’s lone corridor was so wide, Ms. Brown was able to “borrow” space to create a large closet; behind the clothes is a brass plaque listing those responsible for the building’s creation, including the architect, A. Douglas Hanley, who once worked in the offices of Chatham’s most famous modernist architect, Joseph W. Storey.
Speaking of Mr. Hanley, Ms. Brown was so dedicated to her new home she got in touch with the retired architect and was rewarded with a set of the original drawings, which proved a great help during renovations. “So that was awesome,” she says.
What’s equally awesome is the care Ms. Brown took with original features. By keeping the raised stage of the council chambers, she enjoys both an upper, carpeted living room and a lower one on the original chevron-patterned VCT flooring. Also original are pot lights, a super-groovy round exit sign and acoustic tile on portions of the 12.5-foot ceiling.
Outside the council chambers, in addition to one water fountain in the corridor (the other was sacrificed for custom kitchen shelving and cabinetry), there are very period-specific brass fixtures with pinholes, the “Women” and “Men” plaques on the doors and a centennial plaque outside her daughter’s bedroom (the former meeting room).
The Chatham Township Municipal Hall is a wonderful and rare example of small scale adaptive reuse done right. It’s even more special because of Ms. Brown’s well-curated decorating style, which has turned the building into a welcoming and cozy home. Which makes it even harder to say goodbye: After 18 years, Ms. Brown is selling the two-acre property – which includes both the municipal hall and the enormous garage building behind it – for $244,900, due to partner Jeff Blunt’s job transfer.
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