Languishing Landmark YMCA Reborn as Green Housing in South L.A.

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Photos: Koning Eizenberg Architecture/Eric Staudenmaier .

Today, a look at a remarkable adaptive reuse/retrofit project in South Los Angeles that I’m guessing would get an enthusiastic collective thumbs-up — or some other exaggerated form of gesticulation — from a cop, a construction worker, an American Indian chief, a cowboy, a biker get the picture.

Designed by the prolific barrier-shattering architect Paul Williams in 1926, the 28th Street YMCA was listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1996 and, three years later, added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

But, as things tend to go, time hadn’t been too kind to the four-story Spanish Colonial Revival-style building and it despite its landmark status, it had fallen into a serious state of disrepair — a tattered tribute to an architect who bravely paved the way for architects of color. Although Williams, the first African-American to be excepted into the American Institute of Architects (1923), was best known as an architect to the stars (his client list was vast and included Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball), he was also an architect to the community as the 28th Street Y was, at a time when recreational facilities were largely segregated, an institution founded by and for African-Americans where members could swim (there was a pool), work-out (and a gym), eat (and a cafeteria), and, well, have a good time.

But perhaps more crucially, it was a place to stay as like many YMCA’s of yesteryear, the 28th Street YMCA functioned as an SRO with over fifty dorm-style rooms for rent to young Black men who would have been turned away from other overnight lodgings.

After years of neglect, in 2009 the YMCA eventually sold the historically significant building to nonprofit housing organization Clifford Beers Housing, a group that, in collaboration with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, sought to maintain the down-and-out structure’s original purpose, serving the community, while also treating it to an extensive deep green facelift.

From said $11.9 million facelift emerged the 28th Street Apartments, a 33,680-square-foot LEED Gold (pending) housing complex for low-income, chronically homeless, and mentally ill individuals that opened ahead of schedule in December of last year.

The 49-unit development designed by Santa Monica-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture with preservation assistance from Historic Resources Group not only involved not only an extensive —yet historically sensitive — overhaul of the original building but the construction of an additional five-story wing with a green roof and connected to the original Y. The 52 tiny (85- to 110-square-feet) and long-defunct SRO units were converted into 24 decidedly more spacious studios (about 300-square-feet) complete with kitchenettes and baths while 25 additional studios are housed in the new residential wing.

And, yes, the original gym was refurbished, joined by an approximately 7,000-square-feet of community and supportive services space on the ground floor. And then there's the rather stunning roof deck ...

EcoBuilding Pulse recently published a comprehensive overview of the 2013 LA Conservancy Presevation Award-winning projects’s green specs and they’re pretty impressive: A 38.7kW rooftop photovoltaic array that generates 6.6 percent of the buildings energy; a solar thermal system; water-conserving fixtures; drought-tolerant landscaping; high-efficiency HVAC and mechanical systems; and much more. During the historically sensitive retrofitting, 75 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills. All and all, the once-in-serious-disrepair structure along with the new residential wing are 24 percent more efficient than California’s title 24 energy code.

Julie Eizenberg, principal of Koning Eizenberg, explains to EcoBuilding Pulse however rough of shape the building was in pre-restoration, it continued to hold a great amount of significance to the surrounding community:

Whenever I went over there, people would stop in their cars and say, ‘Hey, it’s really great what you’re doing, but be careful about this or that. If people get out of their cars to tell you things, they’re clearly invested in the building’s turnaround. There is a whole lot of history tied up here, so we were very careful and respectful about that. It wasn’t just about providing housing and community programs again, it was about re-establishing the dignity of the building. With our environmental strategy, we always think about how we can get the most social benefit from any move we make. We are making something that builds community.

It's also worth learning more about Paul R. Williams as he's a somewhat obscure figure outside of Southern California. In addition to the 28th Street YMCA, numerous high-profile celebrity commissions, and thousands of private residences, his work is literally everywhere in L.A — courthouses, schools, churches, department stores ... you name it. In fact, one of the first things that visitors see when arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, the spaceship-inspired novelty otherwise known as theTheme Building, was designed by a team that included Williams.

Via [EcoBuilding Pulse], [Arch Record]