Richmond City Council member Tom Butt reflected as he applied butter to his dinner roll from a small white ramekin. It had been exactly 40 years since he moved to Richmond, and in that time he’d seen local attitudes towards historic preservation shift dramatically.
“There were people who basically wanted to tear everything down,” Butt said. “I think now we’ve gotten to the point where people realize it’s a good thing. Now it’s just a matter of raising the money.”
Butt, a fierce defender of historic buildings in Richmond, and an architect by trade, was in San Francisco to receive the Legislator of the Year award at the 2013 California Preservation Awards last week.
Butt wasn’t the only winner from Richmond at Friday’s gala event. The Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center at Ford Point also took home a design award in the renovation category.
The visitor center serves to commemorate so-called Rosie the Riveters – female machinists and metal workers who built World War II munitions. The facility is the culmination of an almost 20-year effort to preserve the Ford Assembly plant that also served as one of the biggest military manufacturing centers in American history.
Former City Council member Donna Powers got the ball rolling on the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in the mid-’90s. “When she left she made me promise to make it happen,” Butt said. Butt made good on his promise by writing most of the legislation that made the park possible.
In 2004, Developer Eddie Orton bought the Ford plant from the Richmond Development Agency and began rehabbing the buildings. In the past five years, the historic buildings at Ford Point have hauled in several design awards. The complex has also attracted several new businesses.
“I always pitch historic preservation as an economic issue,” Butt said. And with each success story, saving historic buildings has become more popular in Richmond.
The visitor center, which opened in May 2012, is located in a 12,000-square-foot 1930s oil house. It is adjacent to the sprawling, Albert Kahn-designed Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, which was renovated in 2009.
The design team retained many of the building’s original features, including an elegant steel roof, industrial pendant lamps, and painted steel windows. Workers cut up and removed ten enormous steel fuel tanks so that the existing basement to be converted to habitable space.
The main floor features a gift shop, an information desk and temporary exhibits. The architects subdivided the 5,000-square-foot basement into a theater, a library, a classroom, and a wide hallway that leads to restrooms.
The same design team, contractor and developer behind the 500,000-square-foot assembly plant renovation reunited for the visitor center job. “By the time we got to that building we were really good at working with each other,” said Kent Royle, the Project Manager from Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects.
“Nothing is straightforward in a historic building,” Royle said. But despite the challenges, construction was completed in a little over a year.
The U.S. National Park Service now operates the facility. Through a complex leasing agreement, the park service leases the building from the city of Richmond, and the city leases the building from its owner, Orton Development.
“Until we had the visitor center, we didn’t really have a place where we could tell the story,” Deputy Park Superintendent Tom Leatherman said. “We had a bunch of sites, but there really wasn’t a central location.”
Butt is just happy that other people in Richmond are now seeing the value in saving old buildings. “After you have success after success after success, people stop fighting,” he said.