Keeping Historically Accurate: Dye House At Cheney Mills Complex Reborn As Apartments
by ANNE M. HAMILTON, Special to The Hartford Courant. June 18, 2011

Copyright � 2011, Hartford Courant. Reprinted with Permission.

Reclaiming a 100-year-old industrial building in Manchester covered with rust, vines and debris hasn't been easy, but four years after the project began, tenants are moving into the former Dye House at the Cheney Mills site.

The building was part of the huge Cheney Brothers silk mill complex, which employed 4,700 workers in its heyday in the 1920s. The Dye House, built in 1914, contained dyeing vats for the silk manufactured next door. Its 22-foot ceilings and huge windows provided the ventilation needed to dry the silk and clear the air of fumes.

But those very windows, which stretch 18 feet from sill to ceiling, provided some of the greatest challenges to the team renovating the Dye House project. Simon Konover Co. of West Hartford, which bought three buildings in the Cheney Mills complex, wanted to take advantage of financing available for renovations that strictly adhere to state and federal historic-preservation standards. Two of the buildings were restored, and only the Dye House, which has 57 apartments, remained.

The $20 million project will provide housing for low- and middle-income families who earn up to $60,000 for a family of four, with rents ranging from $200, for someone who qualifies for tax credits, to $974. Gas heat and hot water are metered separately. Konover Residential, a division of the Simon Konover Co., still manages the nearby Clocktower* and Velvet Mill* buildings, which provide nearly 400 rental units.

The historic-preservation tax credit programs on which Konover relied have rigid criteria to ensure that old buildings � houses, factories, mills � look as much as possible as they did when they were built. At the same time, today's building codes as well as contemporary tastes often demand something more updated. The conflict between those two standards required planning and negotiation between Konover and the state and federal historic preservation offices.

Federal and state guidelines for historic restoration allow only minimal necessary changes, and the emphasis is on preserving the original structure. Replacement is frowned on, so when the Konover team examined the 12- by 10- by 20-foot fir beams that supported the upper floors and the roof, everyone was pleased to see that some of the beams could be left in place. Those that had deteriorated were milled into floorboards for the hallways.

Windows are architectural features that often present challenges as architects strive to retain the look of the originals while incorporating new environmental features. The National Park Service, which oversees the federal historic standards, and the state Office of Historic Preservation, which must approve all historic-preservation plans, want windows to be kept as close to the original as possible, said project architect William Crosskey. They scrutinize all plans carefully, "and they are very detail oriented," he said.

Crosskey and project manager James Carter of Carter Realty LLC of Hartford faced several challenges as they rescued the old building, which had been vacant for more than 20 years. Fortunately, work began on the project in 2010, because last winter's blizzards likely would have destroyed the building if the already fragile roof had not been replaced.

The construction process itself was more complicated than many because the second floor could not be gutted without having the walls collapse.

"This building had to be disassembled, not demolished. A wrecking ball would have been easier," said Crosskey.

After doing extensive environmental testing and remediation to eliminate any hazards in the building, the engineers and architect examined its "bones" and figured out ways to incorporate them into the design of the new space. One distinctive element involved three rows of steel columns spaced 8 feet apart. They held up the second floor and had to be part of the redesign.

"The trick is taking those design challenges to try to use them in a positive way," Crosskey said. They decided to place the corridor that runs between the townhouses on the first floor, between two rows of columns, and painted them cream on top and a darker color on the bottom to keep the industrial look. A third row of columns was incorporated into the townhouses.

During the process, the construction team discovered a huge pulley system behind some debris used to raise and lower a platform that moved the heavy cartloads of silk between two buildings. They also found the doors to the old loading dock, which the Konover team wanted to replace with windows. The Park Service wanted them retained. Both factory elements were incorporated into the design, with positive results.

"The trick is taking those design challenges and trying to use them in a positive way," said Crosskey. "We've used those unique features you would never have in new construction," said Carter.

The Dye House windows were 17 feet tall on the first floor, had four panels of glass and opened by means of pivots in the center of the top and bottom panes. Boarded up for years, the wood frames had rotted, and most of the single panes were broken. The dimensions were unique, and similar windows were no longer made.

"We needed an innovative solution," said Crosskey.

Duplicating the old windows exactly would not have been practical because insect screens could not work with a window that swung in at the top and out at the bottom, and in any case, the windows had to be made of insulated glass to conform to contemporary environmental standards.

Crosskey found a factory in Pennsylvania that could custom-make replacement windows like the original ones, although they would have an awning-type opening on the bottom window. The frames would be made of metal, not wood, but the muntins, which divide the panes, would be the same size and shape as the originals. After many discussions, Julie Carmelich, historic tax credit administrator for Connecticut, approved the new windows. From the outside, they look identical to the picture of the original Cheney complex that is framed in the Dye House lobby.

In the completed apartments, the immense windows bathe the rooms with light. Vertical blinds provide privacy and shade. The original interior walls of exposed brick needed only to have the paint stripped, and they provide insulation. The heating and air conditioning pipes have exposed silver ductwork near the ceiling, 22 feet up, and ceiling fans blow hot and cold air downward. Each apartment, ranging in size from one- to three-bedroom, has a washer and dryer. The bedrooms in the townhouses are on the newly built second floor, supplied with light by interior windows.

"I think they did a wonderful job," said Carmelich, who is overseeing restoration plans for about a dozen industrial mills around the state. She paid the Dye House project the ultimate compliment in historic restoration: "They maintained the character of the building."

*Ed. Note: For additional information on the Dye House, the Velvet Mill and the Clocktower Mill, please click on the following links, to bring you to their locations in the Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District (CBNHLD) map on this web site:
CBNHLD map    • map: Dye House    • map: Velvet Mill    • map: Clock Tower Mill.

In Addition: There are 2 items in the Selected YouTube Videos page of this web site associated with the Dye House conversion. They can be directly accessed here:
September 19, 2010: Topping Off    The last beam is hoisted, at the Cheney Dye House conversion to moderate-income apartments.
May 20, 2011: Conversion Complete    Dignitaries speak at the completion of the Cheney Dye House conversion to apartments.