The Right Restoration Fit: Balancing heritage requirements with modern fitness club amenities

March 13, 2015

Since the original stairs to the mezzanine had been removed, GoodLife installed an granite and glass staircase in the new Calgary club. All photos © CiJJJ Photography [1]
Since the original stairs to the mezzanine had been removed, GoodLife installed an granite and glass staircase in the new Calgary club.
 All photos © CiJJJ Photography

In the middle of downtown Calgary, the former Bank of Montreal (BMO) building on Stephen Avenue has been given a new life as a GoodLife Fitness centre.

Originally built in 1931, the well-known landmark is supported by Corinthian columns and clad in Manitoba Tyndall limestone and was one of the first bank offices in the country. Its Neoclassical style boasts inlaid marble floors and walls, ornate brass handrails and doors, and lavish gilded plasterwork. Once the home of well-known Calgary music store A&B Sound, it had been vacant for a decade.

With more than 330 fitness clubs across Canada, GoodLife Fitness is constantly expanding and Calgary is one of its target locations. There are already 15 clubs in the city, but founder and CEO David ‘Patch’ Patchell-Evans was searching for the right place to open a flagship downtown club. He recognized the potential of the Stephen Avenue BMO location and the importance of preserving this vital part of Calgary’s heritage—a building symbolizing the origins of the city’s business success.

“Calgary has such a successful economy and vibrant business core,” said Patchell-Evans. “This gorgeous building pays tribute to the city’s heritage and provides an opportunity to bring a truly unique, enjoyable fitness experience to people working and living downtown. This was very different from our typical location, but when I walked through the door, I knew it was the one.”

The GoodLife Fitness design and construction team visualized the possibilities and committed to open a flagship downtown club in the old building. The first step was to restore the structure.

Club designer Lori Ireland of Square Feet Design Group Inc., worked alongside Jeff van Haeren, GoodLife’s director of construction, and Trigon Construction Management to develop plans for the transformation from a 1930s bank to a modern fitness club. This project was unlike the hundreds of previous clubs the team had developed. The Stephen Avenue BMO building offered new opportunities, but also new challenges because of its heritage status.

The original vault doors have been permanently pinned open and one of the vaults is used as a rental locker room.[2]
The original vault doors have been permanently pinned open and one of the vaults is used as a rental locker room.

“As you can imagine, the design process for this location was more challenging than usual,” explained Ireland. “We had to think well outside the box because of the structure and mostly the heritage nature of the building. We applied the planning standards that all clubs get, but this time with a twist.”

The BMO building had many attributes that proved to be significant design and construction considerations. The building’s ground level and mezzanine are 10.6 m (35 ft) tall, complete with columns topped with ornate Corinthian capitals and decorated with gold gilt appliqué. The original chandeliers are intact and operational large solid brass wall sconces were retrofit with light-emitting diode (LED) lamps to improve lighting levels.

The inside walls are adorned with hand-painted Neoclassic panels with decorative mouldings, and the banking hall’s centre has a solid marble floor with inlaid borders. The floor had been covered for many years, but has since been buffed and polished. The original solid marble stairs were also uncovered and restored to reveal an inlaid marble pattern.

Since the original stairs to the mezzanine had been removed, GoodLife installed a granite and glass staircase in a new location that is now a prominent design feature. The original solid marble handrail and spindles were protected from damage during construction, and the GoodLife team developed custom, hand-painted wood spindles and handrails to replace a section that was previously damaged. The ornate brass handrails were also carefully polished and reinstalled.

The entrance vestibule is made of solid brass slabs, which were buffed and polished to remove tarnish accumulating over the years. The original entry—a revolving door system—had been removed by a previous tenant, but GoodLife installed new exterior full-height glass doors, as well as an interior vestibule.

The main entrance boasts a large marble feature wall with a clock and the original BMO coat of arms. The clock was repaired and the crest was hand-polished. The original bank manager’s office is clad with restored detailed wood wall panels and a marble fireplace and mantel. An existing exposed stone exterior wall in the stationary bicycling room has been showcased with accent lighting.

The ground level and mezzanine feature columns topped with ornate Corinthian capitals and decorated with gold gilt applique.[3]
The ground level and mezzanine feature columns topped with ornate Corinthian capitals and decorated with gold gilt applique.

Van Haeren says the team worked closely with the Historic Resources and Management Branch of the Alberta Ministry of Culture and Tourism to maintain the property’s history and character. Meanwhile, they were tasked with having to strengthen and expand the infrastructure of the building for a fitness club. The construction team reinforced the floor’s structural capacity to carry the weight and vibration of the fitness equipment and redesigned the cooling and fresh air systems to provide more air and better circulation. In the process, solid marble inlaid floors were uncovered and cleaned, ornamental plasterwork was restored, and brass doors and handrails were polished.

From the initial site visit to completion took almost three years. According to van Haeren, the main stages were planning, research, and building modernization to meet the fitness facility’s requirements.

“We developed new approaches to meet infrastructure requirements and ensure the heritage elements of the building would be conserved,” he said. “The construction team took great care to rebuild many of the interior historic features and uncovered beautiful decorative elements in the process. One of the washrooms is actually built inside an old bank vault.”

The inside walls are adorned with hand-painted Neoclassic panels and decorative mouldings.[4]
The inside walls are adorned with hand-painted Neoclassic panels and decorative mouldings.

Protecting the marble floors and walls was one of the key building challenges. As a protected heritage building, nothing could be fastened to the original marble floors or walls, hand-painted wall panels, or plaster ceilings and mouldings. This posed a challenge when it came to building typical management offices. Instead, GoodLife invested in a self-supporting wall system that incorporated power and data. The team assembled the club’s management and sales offices using this type of system, including built-in office furnishings like desks and cabinets.

A fitness club requires robust fresh air and cooling systems, but the team found they could not fasten cooling equipment to the original ceiling or walls. Instead, new fan coil units were installed in the existing marble and brass hot-water radiant heater surrounds. Missing pieces of brass were replaced with new custom brass panels that closely matched the building’s character. The team also installed new wall fans resembling the original style. New floor-mount units were installed in the basement area to accommodate the group exercise room and locker rooms while maximizing the ceiling heights.

 

Another challenge was transforming the bank basement to an upscale member area. For this flagship club, the plan was to upgrade the locker rooms, washrooms, and shower areas to provide a more comfortable and upscale private club atmosphere.

The construction team stripped back the old plaster ceilings in some areas of the lower level to expose the original structure, which allowed them to recess the light fixtures and increase the ceiling height. Although the ceilings were not designated as ‘heritage,’ the safes were, so the team was required to get approval before they could start any of the work. They incorporated the vaults into the club’s unique design.

The original vault doors have been permanently pinned in an open position and one of the vaults is now a rental locker room for members to store their personal belongings. The other vault was converted to a men’s washroom. Since its walls, floor, and ceiling are 0.6 m (2-ft) thick, cutting through to make an entrance to a washroom took two weeks. Creating openings in the concrete for the plumbing also proved to be difficult.

Ireland and van Haeren also encountered many challenges as part of the restoration. In many cases, there were delays because of heritage requirements they did not anticipate. Looking back, they say out-of-the-box thinking and teamwork were essential to overcoming issues throughout the project. Their best advice is to do lots of research before embarking on a historic restoration.

Key lessons
Never underestimate the challenges and costs associated with a project of this nature. The restoration process uncovered both opportunities and challenges to be carefully addressed. There was nothing routine or predictable about this heritage building and so the regular rules did not apply.

Sufficient time should be allowed to solve unexpected construction challenges. This includes finding trades that can do custom work, and long lead times to have specialized items delivered.

A longer-than-usual timeframe should be expected to obtain building permits and heritage approvals. When the building is not to current code, extra time is required to develop methods and materials to bring it up to code while maintaining the heritage aspects.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-01-17-cijjj-glf-cgy-stephen-ave-evening-449.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-01-17-cijjj-glf-cgy-stephen-ave-evening-251.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-01-17-cijjj-glf-cgy-stephen-ave-evening-406.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-01-17-cijjj-glf-cgy-stephen-ave-evening-313.jpg

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