The Rowell Building’s extraordinary rehabilitation, which should have it being one of the Valley’s most energy efficient buildings, is scheduled to wrap up April 24. Photo by Frank Lopez.
Written by David Castellon
If you had walked into Downtown Fresno’s Rowell Building seven years ago, you might have seen it as a sad, decaying husk of what it used to be 100 years earlier.
Not Scott Beck.
The Los Angeles architect, hired to plan out a top-to-bottom renovation of the six-story office building at the northeast corner of Tulare Street and Van Ness Avenue, said that when he first walked inside in 2013, what he saw was, “Obviously, it was a great old building. It had been here a long time. It had great bones. Inside, it was a little bit jumbled and tired and empty.”
Beck relished the challenge of turning the old building into something modern that still retained its classic 1912 exterior.
That work began about two years ago with a down-to-the studs demolition of the inside that included tearing out most every wall and some floors, adding new elevators and shafts, constructing a new stairwell, removing asbestos and lead paint and installing new windows, along with new plumbing and utility lines.
Once most of that primary work was done about two months ago, crews began building offices and open work spaces — that eventually will be lined with cubicles — to suit the needs of the building’s new tenant, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, which last year agreed to pay $17.3 million over 10 years to lease the building, with an option to buy it after that time.
The renovations done specifically for the DA’s Office include construction on one floor of a waiting area and bathrooms for children, a secure entry area in the lobby and employee break areas on floors two through six.
In addition, plans to make most of the first floor retail spaces were scrapped after the DA’s Office told the developers they would need all the floors as office space to fit the estimated 300 people who would work there, along with police, victims, lawyers and others.
Last week, Beck made another of his frequent trips to Fresno to meet with the developers and construction team, as well as to walk through the building and check on its progress.
He seemed happy with it.
Hard to see
To an outsider, that may be hard to see, as on most every floor work is underway, and the most stylish features — from the lobby’s marble floors to new vintage-style elevators — are covered to prevent damage.
“The building, itself is new, as far as we are concerned — on the inside,” Beck said. “It just needed help coming back into the 21st century.”
He noted that the 100-year-old didn’t meet current standards that office users look for, from the air conditioning to the elevators and size of the stairs.
‘Open it up’
“My idea was let’s open it up, take it to its bones and try to turn it into more of a leasable amount of [space] inside with new amenities, new elevators, new stairs — a building more useful for the tenants of 2020.”
That was the goal in 2013 when then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin invited representatives of Lance Kashian and other developers to come to the Rowell Building “and asking people, particularly Mr. [Ed] Kashian, to come down and get involved in downtown and get private equity to purchase these buildings and to help build up the downtown,” said Tracy Kashian, senior vice president of marketing, and public relations for Fresno’s Lance Kashian & Co.
The commercial developer previously had partnered with other investors to develop and build the River Park shopping center across town, and Swearengin’s effort proved effective, as the developers bought the Rowell Building soon after.
“This was just a beautiful building, and it just sat on that corner at a great location. The were just so many amazing things to it,” which included it being the tallest building in Fresno when completed and being the city’s first steel-frame building, Kashian said.
“We came into this wanting this building to look exactly like it looked back in the day,” she added.
“We tried to preserve everything, including the windows. We couldnt do that, just because they were too old,” though the replacements were chosen to resemble the old ones.
She said the new owners knew a standard construction crew accustomed to working on newer buildings wouldn’t do for this job, so among the workers hired included craftsmen who could work on the Rowell Building’s ornate exterior to preserve its turn-of-the-century features, Kashian said.
“And it took some really amazing people with really high craftsman skills,” she said.
That work included restoring the outside wall on the first floor, which over the decades had its original bricks removed and had a brick façade put on in the 1970s.
The new owners opted to replace the facade with real brick, but instead of just buying new bricks that might not match, “We researched the mix design and found out how they did it back then and talked to the brick companies and came up with a mix. And after a few trial and errors came pretty close,” Beck said.
“They were pretty close to dead on,” Chuck Temple vice president of construction operations for Lance Kashian & Company said, adding that it would be hard to distinguish the new brick now lining the first-floor outer walls from the older bricks above them.
These details to preserve the classic features of the old building added to the renovation costs considerably, though Kashian declined to disclose how much.
Exceeding original scope
“It was volitional acts to make things better, but it definitely was more than what the original scope of the budget was,” Temple added.
Another feature adding to the cost was creating a “penthouse” meeting room on the top floor.
Beck said he had to design electrical and mechanical rooms on the roof for the elevator machinery and other equipment, as well as placing portions of the heating and air conditioning systems up there, so Lance Kashian & Co.
CEO Ed Kashian suggested building what came out to be a 389-square foot meeting room as well.
The most distinct feature of the space isn’t the room itself, but the large wooden deck built around it, allowing DA employees an unobstructed view of downtown.
There are plans to add landscaping to make the area an even more pleasant place to take a break during the workday or to unwind after work.
There is another purpose to the planned landscaping.
Part of the owners’ goal was to make the renovated Rowell Building among the most energy efficient buildings in the area.
They succeeded, with Temple saying that the building is on track to get a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating, the highest awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, which would make it the first historic building in the nation with that top rating, the developers said, adding that the rooftop landscaping will help in achieving that rating.
Going into an old building can be a scary process, particularly in this case, as the paper plans filed with the city were destroyed in a fire years ago, and the family of Dr. Chandler Rowell — the former doctor, Fresno mayor and entrepreneur who developed and built the Rowell Building on the site of his former house — didn’t have a copy.
Going in blind
So, in some ways, the construction crews went in blind, tearing out walls and floors to see exactly how the building was constructed and how that original work was holding up.
“There was some expected hazardous materials we had to abate,” with asbestos removal alone costing about $1 million, the architect said.
“One of the things we found out in a hundred-year-old building was a lot of things didn’t line up with each other. Columns didn’t line up, walls didn’t line up — nothing was quite square. So every time you turned around, something wasn’t where you expected it to be, so we had to deal with that,” he said.
“There was not consistence on any floor, even. For example, hollow columns made to connect pipes and other utility lines from one floor to the next were not built exactly over one another,” though lining those columns up and realigning other things weren’t so problematic, as the steel-framed building with poured concrete walls was built to last, Beck said.
A larger task was reducing the weight of the building to accommodate the added weight of the new roof structures.
“The original walls and ceilings were very heavy plaster reinforced with steel mesh, and I think we took a million pounds out of the building,” Beck said.
The biggest portion of the project was literally reshaping the building, which originally had an “E” shape with windows on all the floors of the indented areas, called “light wells,” to bring in more natural light and let in outside air, which was important in an era before air conditioning.
Those windows looked directly across an alley onto the side of a neighboring building, while windows on the west and north sides offered great views of the city.
The owners decided to make use of that space by making one of the light wells a stairwell stretching from the basement parking garage up to the roof and building new elevator shafts in the other one, allowing workers to tear out and floor over the old elevator shafts to add usable floor space to the building.
In fact, Temple estimated that between the new rooms on the roof, relocating the elevators and other changes, about 6,000 square feet of usable space was added to the now 78,855-square-foot Rowell Building.
Moving in soon
As for the renovations, they’re scheduled to be completed on April 24, and Kashian expects the developers to hand over the keys to the DA’s office on May 1.
After all the work and the costs to make the Rowell Building essentially new again, Kashian said, “This is like a birthday coming up for us.”