March 7, 2008
Defusing Boomer Building Time Bombs

by Michael J. Crosbie, PhD, AIA
Contributing Editor

Summary: We might be at the dawn of one of the greatest periods of reconstructive surgery ever. I’m not talking here about nose jobs and facelifts. All across the country there are buildings that were designed and constructed sometime between Eisenhower’s first term and Nixon’s final helicopter ride off the South Lawn that are detonating in a dazzling display of self-destruction. These are “Boomer Buildings,” built during the heyday of cheap oil, a bright atomic energy future, and Modern Mannerism. This combination resulted in an architectural climate in which designers generally paid little or no attention to energy consumption, durability, or overall building performance.

Throw-away consumerism was the rage, the American dream that we are now waking from, with a terrible ecological hangover. All around us, Boomer Buildings are crumbling. Many of them are on college campuses, where the pressure to build expediently during the post-war GI-Bill years was the greatest.

Not easy to love . . .
Even on their best days, Boomer Buildings were not easy to love. They had (and in many cases continue to have) substandard heating and air-conditioning systems, poor lighting, minimal chase space, drafty exterior walls, asbestos and other toxic materials, crumbling concrete exposing rusting rebar, not to mention hostile urban manners, contextual indifference, and monumental invulnerability. In a prescient way, student radicals of the 1960s picked up on all of these architectural bad manners. Boomer Buildings were choice candidates for torching.

The sorry state of most Boomer Buildings today comes just at the point when sustainable design and construction have captured the architectural spotlight. Where in another age Boomer Buildings would be torn down, today architects are finding intelligent and sustainable ways to give them new life. As James Kienle, FAIA, noted in a recent AIArchitect article, re-using old buildings is one of the most sustainable things you can do as an architect.

Rehabilitating the Boomers
Some firms, such as Mitchell Giurgola Architects in New York City, have made a specialty of working with Boomer Buildings as an alternative to new construction. For example, one of their first resuscitations was the international headquarters of The Lighthouse, which occupied a vintage 1964 building in midtown Manhattan. The 14-story tower was stripped of its skin back to the structural frame, allowing a new, high-performance envelope to be designed and constructed, which also opened the building up to greater natural light and allowed the headquarters to become a glowing “beacon.” This converges perfectly with the organization’s mission to assist the visually impaired.

On the campus of Queens College in New York, the same architects dealt with a 1950s-era classroom building, an energy hog that contributed little to the campus’s overall architectural flavor. Brick walls were spalling, the fin-tube radiator heating system was substandard, glass curtain walls were un-insulated, and there was neither access for persons with disabilities nor community gathering space in this important campus building. Stripping the building back to its concrete column-and-slab frame allowed a new high-performance envelope to be constructed that would also better relate to the existing campus architecture. There was also an opportunity to transform two dilapidated internal courtyards into verdant landscapes (designed by Thomas Balsley and Associates) that use low-maintenance plant materials, have become a haven for wildlife, and offer soft, green views from the building’s interiors.

On the campus of Keene State College in New Hampshire, Mitchell Giurgola saved a lab building that was woefully inadequate for contemporary science instruction (along with a sub-par HVAC system, the building lacked a centralized pure water system). The architects retrofitted the existing envelope (which had single-pane glass and no insulation) while designing a new wing that would permit the installation of contemporary fume hoods and exhaust systems. In this case, the sins of the Boomer Building were offset with new construction containing generous chase space.

These examples show that there are lots of ways to bring a Boomer Building back from the brink. Institutions, especially colleges, are willing to invest in a facility when the architect can demonstrate that there are more good years possible in a building’s lifespan without resorting to wholesale demolition and starting from scratch.

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Michael J. Crosbie, PhD, AIA, writes extensively about architecture and design and is chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture. He is the editor of the book Boomer Buildings: Mid-Century Architecture Reborn, (Images Publishing, 2005), which profiles the sustainable work of Mitchell Giurgola Architects. He can be reached at

1. and 2. Before and After: The 1964 Lighthouse in midtown Manhattan was stripped of its 14-stories of skin to allow a new, high-performance envelope that also opened the building up to greater natural light and allowed the headquarters to become a glowing “beacon.”

3. and 4. Before and After: On the campus of Queens College in New York, Mitchell Giurgola used the same technique of replacing the façade to turn a 1950s energy hog into a contemporary-use, high-performance building.

The “Before” photos are © Jeff Goldberg/ESTO. The “After” photos are courtesy of Mitchell Giurgola.