Some things are worth preserving. Books. Symphonies. Great Buildings. In times like these, when civil discourse is rare, when reality television portrays us at our worst, things of beauty from our past can sometimes provide a little rationale for the continuance of the human species.
That may sound a bit high-minded, but it’s as good an explanation as any for why this brick Tower in New Orleans has been brought back to life.
When Bill Batherson and his wife moved into a converted condo in the old warehouse attached to the Tower, he felt himself drawn to its ghostly interior. Long-neglected, it seemed to speak to him.
‘I loved it the first time I saw it,” recalls Batherson. “It just had a sense of safety and serenity. Spaces affect your mood, your sense of well being. There’s a certain energy you can’t really explain.”
Without that emotional bond, it’s likely the Clock Tower would have been demolished. Instead, three years of sandblasting, hand-carving, engineering, design and redesign went into this reborn building.
“The whole concept was to save all of the old stuff,” Batherson explains. “To reuse everything we could—to marry the old form with contemporary.”
“I owned the condo on the other side of the building,” notes Batherson, “but not the Tower. The building owners offered to lease it to me for 100 years—then they lost their tax abatement on it and decided to sell it to me outright.”
After acquiring the property, he recalls, one of the first steps was to button up the exterior. No small task, it meant replacing the original 150-year-old slate on the roof, four stories up, and creating suitable custom replicas to fill ancient window openings.
But his timing for the exterior work could have been better.
“We actually had the scaffolding up when Katrina hit,” he recalls. “It stayed in place, but the seals failed on all of the new windows, and we had to replace them all.”
That was just one of many setbacks. Repairing the Tower had to stay with strict historic standards. The previous owner of the building (the condo building owner) signed off on the Tower’s historic facade in exchange for big tax credits.
But repairing the exterior probably was just a taste of what the interior makeover would entail.
“At times, I wanted to lean more toward the contemporary side,” Batherson says. “But I feel now that we struck the right balance. It’s not too contemporary. Instead we managed to marry the old and the new.”
The Drawing Board
Early in the renovation, the project stalled. The design didn’t seem to be working. At that point, Ron Jones, our own Green Builder Media president, happened to be in New Orleans. He learned about the project from the remodeling contractor on the job, and met with Batherson and his wife to look over their plans.
“They had a good engineer, but the architectural drawings were lousy,” recalls Jones. “The sequence was all out of order. “For example, they carved out a big area for plumbing on one level, and had done some ridiculous preliminary work, strung some band joists around and put in some i-joists for the floor that the ceiling above was too low. It felt like a teepee.”
Jones, an experienced designer and custom home builder, drew them some new sketches. He also suggested that they try to acquire the adjacent condo if possible. To everyone’s good fortune, that opportunity arrived. The adjacent space became available.
“He was able to buy the other unit,” Jones recalls, “and even though that meant starting over with the design, it added 500 square feet for us to work with, so I encouraged Bill to grab it.”
“Once we acquired that other condo,” Batherson adds, “we were able to lay out a catwalk that tied the loft of that new unit to the second floor of the Clock Tower. So everything now integrated much better.”
Together, Jones and Batherson came up with innovative solutions to the restrictive ClockTower space. Sometimes by necessity, sometimes by design.
“We originally tried to have one spiral go all the way to the top of the Tower,” Batherson recalls, “but because of the pitch of roof we had to reconfigure so it goes only from the third to the fourth floor.”
Rather than give up on the stainless steel spiral staircase theme, however, they added another section of the metal stair to the newly acquired condo unit, where it became a key design element that links the condo spaces to the Tower psychologically.
Another key to the outstanding fit and finish of this product was Batherson’s decision to hire a master carpenter from Ukraine. Ivan Voloshyn spent two years away from his home and family, personally overseeing the job.
Batherson recalls, “He was here for 33 months. I remember walking down the street and looking up and seeing him hanging out the window of the top floor of the Tower. He had tied a rope around his waist and was peeling off the slate, all while he was hanging upside down. There isn’t anything he wouldn’t do.”
The custom woodwork became a key to integrating modern elements with the historic look. For example, a wood bar made of curved cypress surrounds the spiral staircase, where it serves both as the safety handrail and a functional bar.
“He even hand-carved the rosettes on the A/C system,” Batherson recalls. “We got him some reclaimed pine, and he made every single rosette.”
Another artist involved in the project was interior designer Patricia Gaylor, who helped design the most flattering mix of lighting for the space, at the same time keeping energy efficiency in mind.
“The condos come with 16 feet of headroom,” Jones says. Enough space that we could create a loft space—but only if we could keep the floor thickness to a minimum. You can imagine, what this structure must have been like in the summer, with no plumbing, no air conditioning, no electricity.
“We were determined not to build chases to run mechanicals in,” he continues, “so we did some innovative things.”
Batherson describes one of those concepts: “In the first floor of the Clock Tower the joists were about 12 inches wide, and taking up too much headroom. So we ripped those out and put in four-inch steel tubing. Then we boxed them in with faux beams.
“The structural engineer wasn’t sure it would work, until he came out and checked it out himself,” he adds. “We staggered boards above it and then butted the 2-inch tongue-in-groove finish flooring. That made it very solid. There’s no bounce.”
Those metal structural tubes provide plenty of run space for wiring, along with a Unico air conditioning system. It’s a high-speed, small diameter air delivery system with special sound baffling.
“That Unico system was outstanding,” Jones says, “The pipes are only like an inch in diameter, so it was just what was called for in this tight space.”
By carefully managing cabinetry details, Voloshyn was able to hide all electrical runs. And the only part of the plumbing that’s visible are three sprinklers, required by code.
Other challenges also called for unorthodox solutions. For example, some parts of the Tower had few (if any) windows for natural daylighting.
“We decided to create glass floor panels on two of the Tower floors,” Batherson recalls. “Not only do they open up the space—you can look up all the way to the peak—but they also turned out to be essential as access panels when it came time to move furniture to the upper floors. It’s three layers of glass laminated together—the same technology used in the glass walkway at the Grand Canyon.
“We certainly chose glass floors in part for their wow factor,” he adds. “We really wanted to be able to see through to the different levels, all the way to the peak.”
Another feature that could have seemed out of place—an elevator--fits in nicely by mimicking elements such as the glass floors, spiral stairs and custom cabinetry.
“We were originally just going to build a normal hoist,” Batherson recalls, “but by customizing it with stainless and glass, it just matched better. That way you’re seeing the exposed brick on one wall, glass on the other, and the back wall is built out of cypress panels.”
Like many warehouses in this part of New Orleans, the condo complex attached to the Clock Tower has a huge, largely under-utilized flat roof. Many units have extended decks and patios onto the roof—and Batherson hasn’t missed his chance.
“We put down two-foot Dominican shellstone pavers as our flooring for the patio area,” Batherson says. It’s somewhat fragile, so we have five hard plastic decking pedestals supporting each piece. We’ve had 60 people on it with no problem.”
Along with that raised floor, he says, he made the patio more livable by adding a misting system and outdoor shelves and cooking gear. The plan is to eventually add plants and possibly a retractable sail system for shade, but there’s no rush.
After five years of on again off again labor and expense in this project, the owner has seen his vision not just achieved, but exceeded. But he also knows it was a once-in-a-lifetime project.
“It’s taken so long, and cost so much,” he sighs, “the constant mess…yet in the end, everything just flows together. We kept the character of the original building, and now I’m just enjoying living in it. I’d like to keep it in the family.”
To view this article as it appears in our February 2012 issue, with addititional photos and sidebars, please visit our Magazine Archive.