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An important building with an important history, reborn as a community center to serve South LA

Story by Sandi Hemmerlein, photographs by Elizabeth Daniels

After languishing for decades, a Paul Williams-designed YMCA building was recently reborn, and with it, two new facilities for this South LA community: the VCN City of Los Angeles Youth-Source Center, and the 28th Street Apartments, the new affordable housing from Koning Eizenberg and co-developers CRCD and Clifford Beers Housing. On a sunny Saturday about 60 people toured the historic rehabilitation project as part of de LaB’s Making LA series.

The team faced a unique challenge: to preserve and reinstate the original composition of the 1926 building, significant as an African-American YMCA designed by the first African-American member of the AIA (and first licensed west of the Mississippi), situated in an underserved neighborhood near the historic Central Avenue jazz corridor. Financed through tax credits for low income housing and state- and local-level funding, construction took about a year and a half and, despite restoration work on the Spanish-Colonial Revival building that could have been very expensive, the project came in under budget.

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The key here, however, is providing not just a permanent place for residents to live, but also onsite services, including service coordinators and case managers—a tactic that has been proven to ensure their long-term success, and prevent future homelessness. Through a collaborative effort, their adaptive reuse project was able to provide, as described by Julie Eizenberg to the group, “dignified places to live that could improve lives.”

Already nearly at full capacity after having opened for occupancy December 2012, the 28th Street Apartments provides a total of 49 studio-sized single units (24 in the original historic building and 25 in the new annex in the rear), primarily occupied by transition-age youth (including those coming out of foster care), the formerly homeless, and special needs individuals and families. With the addition of the new residential wing, the units are now twice their original size, with their own heating/cooling controls, private bathrooms, and kitchenettes.

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The lobby of the “Y”—now the community center—features original concrete ceilings, an array of Ernest Batchelder tiles (some that required recasting), and a brand new floor. Wood and doors salvaged from elsewhere in the building have been reused for desks and other furniture.

The community gym has been restored into a shiny new recreation space, with a brand new floor reflecting the reused basketball headboards that have hung there since perhaps the 1950s. Paint was stripped from the brick walls to restore them to their original condition.

The original sidewalk from 1926 was broken up as used as paving stones around the corner on Paloma Street by the residential entrance, marked by a perforated metal screen that reflects the relief ornamentation on the existing building.

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Whenever possible, when adding something new, they tried to make it look separate and distinct; when reproducing or replacing, they tried to “get the most integrity out of the existing building,” Eizenberg said.

Because of its restrictively specific guidelines in some cases, the architects decided to forego the tax credits available for historic preservation and instead try to honor the building’s history while serving the community in the most sustainable way possible. Eizenberg said they chose not to build upon the rooftop deck of the original building, as preservation guidelines would have them do, instead using it as a social space to connect the two different residential sections (the new wing rising high above), its painted red color a riff on the original terracotta tiles.

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For further sustainability, the roof houses solar-heated hot water, and cross-ventilating catwalks lead down from it as an additional exterior exits. Because they couldn’t be added to the roof, vertical solar panels were placed onto the south-facing exterior walls of the new wing, creating energy, but also shading (and cooling) that side of the building from southern sun exposure—all contributing to the 28th Street Apartments’ LEED Gold certification.

One of the sacrifices that had to be made during the restoration was the tile swimming pool, which has been encapsulated in poured concrete, now forming the floor of the apartments’ common room and kitchen, where the group stood at the end of the tour, marveling that a pool had occupied the same space. The original tile surrounds the ghostly outline of the pool, and if the concrete is ever removed (which it could be), the tile will have been preserved inside. “The record is there,” Eizenberg said.

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Throughout the process, the architects and developers remained mindful of who the YMCA was originally for (namely, African-American boys and men), while designing for who would be residing in and using the new facility. “We should take more care with people who have less means,” Eizenberg told the group, as she pointed out their choices on the building’s expansive deck. The furniture shouldn’t look institutional. Gardens should be fragrant. Use of space and common areas should encourage social interaction, even the much-used laundry room, which notably, was not relegated to a dark basement, but given a light-filled spot on an upper floor—almost like the heart of the building.

See more photos here.

Sandi Hemmerlein is a writer, marketer and actress living in LA who embarks upon adventures all over the city and chronicles them faithfully at Avoiding Regret.

Elizabeth Daniels is a photographer who captures the newest and hottest Los Angeles architecture, restaurants and nightlife for Curbed, Eater, Racked and many other publications.

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This is the second event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.