Preservation Today

Preservation, Architectural Resources Group, San Francisco, Bay Area, architecture, David Wessel, Charles Chase, Naomi Miroglio
Photo by David Wakely
Photo by David Wakely

A Conversation with David Wessel, Charles Chase, and Naomi Miroglio of Architectural Resources Group.


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rchitectural Resources Group (ARG), a mid-size preservation firm founded by Bruce Judd and Steve Farneth in San Francisco, is celebrating its 35th birthday this year. The firm recently promoted seven new people to principals. This suggests expansion and a new generation of owners. We sat down at ARG’s waterfront office and interviewed three senior principals—David Wessel, Charles Chase and Naomi Miroglio—about the changes in historic preservation and its influence on the real estate industry.

Q: Why seven new principals now?

David Wessel: One of our founding principals, Bruce Judd, retired to Seaside a few years ago and became a consulting principal. Our other founding principal, Steve Farneth, is focusing on a few key clients, so the day-to-day management has become the responsibility of the three of us. We have offices in Los Angeles and Portland in addition to our office on the Embarcadero. Our work is focused on the entire West Coast, although there are projects elsewhere in the United States. This is a result of growth. And a lot of that comes from our younger talent. When the founders established the firm, they deliberately avoided naming it for themselves, because they wanted ARG to be highly collaborative, growing and changing with input from many people.

275 Brannan | Photo by Scott Hargis
275 Brannan | Photo by Scott Hargis

Q: What has changed in 35 years?

Charles Chase: I have spent my 35-year career in preservation, and in the beginning, it was a marginalized endeavor relegated to nationally important sites and highly significant buildings. Now it’s widely accepted by architects, the public, and the real estate community as a means to increase the desirability of development. Historic preservation has expanded as the result of people seeking to retain buildings that reference what is important about their city, and more importantly, specific to their neighborhood and their relationship to it. The movement of not demolishing existing buildings has been with us since the middle of the last century in San Francisco. Today, it continues for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the booming local economy, and for many, a fear of losing a foothold in the city. It also comes from a reevaluation of community values around the environment, sustainability and retention of familiar surroundings in communities that are rapidly changing. It’s about heritage conservation more than historic preservation, resulting in a concerted interest in holding onto resources and making them more viable for contemporary use.

Related to that is a greater appreciation for historic resources, especially by a new generation that does not want to spend their working lives in bland office buildings. They want to work in interesting spaces for interesting companies. One recent example of this is the adaptation of 275 Brannan Street, where we did the exterior rehabilitation and Pfau Long Architects did the reinterpretation of the interior for a new startup company. These kinds of spaces and opportunities are all over the city.

Naomi Miroglio: I think it goes beyond preservation. People are looking for integrity and identity. People are looking for uniqueness in their urban lives, and existing buildings provide that. Beyond authenticity, there is economics. Look at the Alameda Theater. There you have a historic art deco theater that serves as the anchor space for a multiplex and an entire retail district. There was a significant increase in tax revenue for the Park Street Historic District as soon as the theater opened, which happened to coincide with the 2008 crash. Despite the recession, the district experienced a renewal that can be tied to the catalyst impact of a historic building.

Alameda Theater | Photo by David Wakely
Alameda Theater | Photo David Wakely

Q: That goes back to the hunger for an authentic place to go.

David Wessel: BOMA (the Building Owners and Managers Association) now has its own committee of historic building owners and managers. They get together quarterly. These managers love their buildings. We just had a presentation by the city of San Francisco on the Market Street Revitalization and what’s going to happen there. In the legislative update, we heard about a program that was started by San Francisco Heritage, about legacy restaurants. And now there’s legislation by the Mayor’s Office to help out legacy businesses whose rents have been increased dramatically.

Charles Chase: Things like that happen because individuals who have been directly connected to buildings of significance, like the Flood Building as an example, have this sense of ownership because older buildings are unique. It’s not only the workmanship. It’s not only the light fixtures and the marble on the walls. It’s the entire essence, the ambiance that a building from the past provides.

Naomi Miroglio: They’re a brand.

Q: How else has preservation changed?

Naomi Miroglio: There is a lot more diversity among preservationists now, and a growing recognition of nonwhite ethnic groups. What is historic and how that’s conveyed takes in a much broader narrative now. I was thinking of the Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, which has been significant for a long time, but was all about Mr. Cooper, who was an English ship captain. He married Encarnacion Vallejo, sister of General Mariano Vallejo. The National Trust is now spending considerable resources researching her household, her servants, to better understand the Hispanic experience there.

Charles Chase: The number of landmarks does not recognize the percentage of ethnic diversity that this country currently has. Our cities are more diverse because of immigration, because of all of the things that have happened over the long period of history in the United States. Why wouldn’t the recognition of those things that are socially and culturally important to other ethnic groups be recognized too?

David Wessel: That’s why Heritage very consciously hired a community outreach person. And the real reason for the Legacy Bars and Restaurants initiative isn’t for fun or nostalgia. The idea was that the historic sites in the city from underrepresented neighborhoods aren’t necessarily architectural gems, but they’re places of community, and we want to highlight that. Historic preservation as a profession and discipline has just matured to really understand cultural preservation better.

Naomi Miroglio: So far, most of preservation has been focused on buildings, the architectural fabric. Even in Danville, the issue with the Veterans Building wasn’t so much the architectural fabric as honoring the veterans.

Charles Chase: Ultimately, how do we relate to our environment as a community, as a social structure? We relate to people in those bars and restaurants and social gathering points that may not be architecturally significant. But they do have a significant relationship to the people and community that create our neighborhoods.

Danville Veterans Memorial | Photo by David Wakely
Danville Veterans Memorial | Photo by David Wakely

Q: What’s happening in academic campuses?

Naomi Miroglio: When we started working with the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is in San Anselmo, people felt disassociated from the campus. The campus had survived the 1906 earthquake, but then after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the seminary moved out of many of its historic buildings. We were able to show them, with the advent of new technologies, how they could save their historic structures and reuse them. Since then, these landmarks have become the heart of their campus and are even part of their logo. They are now key to their brand.

Q: What are the new challenges in the field? Hasn’t the National Trust made climate change its number one issue?

Charles Chase: Right. And they’re working with the Congress and concerned scientists to help identify how historic resources can mitigate this issue. But how do the regulators begin to understand that that kind of change will have to take place for not only the survival of buildings but their usability? And how do we do that in a way that maintains the character of buildings, but increases their utility?

Pier 70 and all of the port’s assets along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay are a major concern for the city. The city has formed the Climate Adaption Working Group to look at how sea-level rise affects public properties, what needs to be done, and when it needs to be done, because the scientific information is changing. It’s going to be a more rapid rise than thought previously.

Q: As a 35-year-old firm, ARG is known for preservation. But you also design additions and infill projects. 

David Wessel: At the Huntington Library, the client selected Steve Farneth, our founding partner, to design the new Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center because he knew the campus so well through its historic buildings. They didn’t want a historicist building, they wanted a thoughtful one.

Naomi Miroglio: And a few miles away in downtown Pasadena, we are working with the Kimpton Hotel on a significant addition to Julia Morgan’s landmark YWCA, in large part because of the same reasoning. I think it goes back to people embracing historic buildings and then needing to reuse them and add new uses.

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