KONTEXT breathes new life into Nichols Station

Nichols Station has already undergone a redevelopment before.

The downtown apartments were created in 1983 in what had been the Madison Waterworks building. Now, the 34 apartments at Nichols Station have a new lease on life thanks to a yearlong redevelopment project lead by KONTEXT architects, which will be officially unveiled today in a grand opening celebration.

“I love working on old buildings,” says Amy Hasselman, architect/project manager for KONTEXT architects. “Each of them is such a character, and I enjoy helping them become what they wanted to be when they grew up. So many newer apartments around Madison all look the same — it bores me. There’s nothing about this building that’s the same as everywhere else, and it’s part of what makes Madison unique.”

Hasselman says Nichols Station is far from the first historic redevelopment project KONTEXT has worked on in the Madison area — others include Quivey’s Grove, the Orpheum, the Fess Hotel, the Trademark building on East Washington Ave., the International Harvestor building at 301 S. Blount St., and the UW–Madison chancellor’s residence, to name just a few — but this was different from the firm’s typical redevelopment projects in that it was already converted from its original industrial use into apartments.

“We weren’t changing the use, or even the majority of the layout,” Hasselman notes. “Most of our redevelopment projects, but not all, are a little more of a blank slate within an original shell.”

According to Hasselman, Wisconsin Management (the property owner) came to KONTEXT in early 2013 and said they had this building in a great location, but it had gotten shabby and nobody even noticed it as they drove down Gorham Street. "They said, 'It’s a great building and has a lot of potential that’s not being realized — what can we do to fix that?'" Hasselman explains. "We worked as a team led by Wisconsin Management and their development advisor Urban Apex for two years before construction started to make this happen."

Hasselman says demolition on the $5 million Nichols Station project started late this past winter and the reconstruction is almost done. Apart from landscaping, which won’t be complete until spring 2016, the construction will be complete by year’s end. In fact, the first new tenants have already moved in.

Hasselman says the focus of the redevelopment is on tenant comfort and the integrity of the building.

“We did not change the number or layout of the units, for the most part,” she explains. “On the exterior we restored the masonry and the large exterior windows, and made changes to the site and landscaping for greater accessibility. On the interior we opened up cramped spaces to more light and air, as well as replaced all of the finishes, lighting, kitchens, and baths.

“We improved the insulation and replaced ancient heating and air conditioning units with much more efficient ones,” Hasselman adds. “We also opened up the lobby to the original roof truss structure and added a mezzanine level with laundry and leasing office.”

Hasselman notes the building’s 34 living units feature living options for just about anyone, as they range in size from small one-bedroom studios to three-story townhouses with lake views, fireplaces, and in-unit laundry. No two units are exactly the same. Courtyards and the lobby mezzanine provide both interior and exterior social spaces for residents, and many units have their own patios or decks. Additionally, James Madison Park and Lake Mendota are just across Gorham Street, and the Capitol Square is just a few blocks away.

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Uncovering history

As with any project aimed at redeveloping a historic space that’s seen multiple uses, Nichols Station provided challenges.

“Most of the challenges with any old building have to do with surprises uncovered during demolition and construction,” Hasselman notes. “In this case, we had two layers of challenges — the first layer being the 1983 apartment alterations, and the second layer the original 1917 water pumping station underneath.”

Hasselman says a lot of the infrastructure installed in 1983 was placed in the original equipment spaces and then covered up. As a result, it took plumbers months to find all the water shutoff valves during the most recent construction. Because Nichols Station was previously an industrial building, there were also a lot of areas in the building and site that were just made of solid concrete.

“The excavator who was digging foundations for new the retaining walls, patios, and ramp kept finding huge old pipes and bases of giant tanks,” Hasselman says. “We had to stop to figure out if they were still in use before he could start digging again. Laborers drilling into the floor slab in the basement for new sumps discovered the floor slab was two feet thick!”

Hasselman also notes the new exterior windows were a particular challenge. The original windows were typical big steel warehouse windows. In the 1983 project they were infilled with concrete block, new apartment entry doors, and residential-style double-hung windows.

“We restored the large openings, but at this point they span across floors and include doors they didn’t originally have,” explains Hasselman. “Laying out windows to look like the original warehouse windows, but now including doors, hiding the floor edge, and meeting current energy conservation requirements, and having them accepted by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Park Service for historic preservation tax credits — there were times I didn’t know how we were going to make it happen. The window manufacturer says this is the most complicated project to ever go through their factory, and they do a lot of historic work.”

The extra attention to historic details is worth it, however. Hasselman says all of the exterior walls and window openings have been preserved and restored. One of the original pumps is on display in the lobby and with the new mezzanine level in the lobby you can now see it from above, which wasn’t possible before.

“We exposed more of the original roof structure, the giant steel trusses that spanned the big pump room,” says Hasselman. “Madison Water Utility, the original owner, gave us old photos from when the pumping station was still in use — we’ve used those for artwork and signage around the building. There are a couple of old warehouses in Madison that have been converted for residential use, but none of them have the industrial infrastructure still intact that you can see and touch.

“Communities, like families, are healthiest when there’s the solidity, wisdom, and history of the old combined with the renewal, new life, and evolution of the new, and a mosaic of unique characters combining to make a vibrant whole,” adds Hasselman. “What I love most about my work is the ability to contribute to the vitality of Madison.”

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