When the design team from Patri Merker Architects of San Francisco met with the representatives from Macy's, who were handling the update of its Union Square store, immediate design changes were set in motion. “We showed them how it might look if we re-did a project twice as wide as originally planned,” says Tom Harry, design director with Patri Merker. “We said, ‘Well, if you were to do it all at once, this is what it might look like.’”

The Macy's team studied it “for about five seconds,” Harry says, then asked Harry and his colleagues how quickly they could assemble drawings for approval at higher levels.

What started out as a seismic upgrade in 1997 became Macy's West Coast flagship store two years later.

Long story short, Macy's occupied several diverse buildings on one block in downtown San Francisco. The retailer wanted the side facing Union Square to be safer structurally, and more appealing to customers. “It was a disoriented jumble of buildings,” says Piero Patri, principal. “The store had no main entrance.”

The result is an elegant, glassy make-over that provides a grand entrance to the store, as well as to some live theater to intrigue and attract consumers. Inside the glass curtain wall, pedestrians can see merchandise, escalators, decorations and customers. The muscles and sinews, adding the quake-resisting rigidity a building needs in this part of the country, are right behind the glass.

“We followed the guidelines established by the city and were able to design a store that can change with the fashion of the times,” Harry says.

In a case of the proverbial silk purse and sow's ear, the Patri Merker team discovered it would be cost-prohibitive to alter the structure of one of the two older buildings in order to accommodate the new entrance as it had been drawn. Some feared the change would interfere with the symmetry of the building. In reality, it placed the new entrance exactly in the middle of the block and directly across from access to public transportation, Patri says. And the lack of symmetry creates interest and a pleasing tension.

Returning to perfect

Symmetry is integral to the classical revival style that distinguished the Emporium when it was built in San Francisco in 1896, following a design by local architect Albert Pissis. Repetitive columns and arches give this historic building a solid, formal look.

Likewise, the dome atop the Market Street building is perfect in its proportions: 100 ft. wide and 100 ft. high.

This glass-and-steel engineering marvel will be retained and raised three stories in the Forest City Enterprises retail, entertainment and hotel complex online this summer at the Emporium.

“We will be restoring the Emporium's sandstone facade, bringing it close to its original state while adding contemporary elements to this prime shopping site in a vibrant downtown area,” says Forest City senior vice president Colm Macken.

The project at 835 Market Street is among the most challenging the Cleveland-based company has tackled, Macken says. “The issue of preserving the façade, the dome and a rear interior wall, while adding major mixed-use, including retail, office, entertainment and hotel space, makes it complicated.”

Macken says there are always at least four considerations in breathing new life into old buildings: structural details, lighting, size of storefronts and floor-to-floor heights.

“We are using noble materials to highlight what is urban in this project,” says John Tindall, associate vice president with the Los Angeles office of RTKL Associates Inc., design architects for the retail and entertainment center and the Emporium's Market Street façade.

Tindall says limestone will again distinguish the façade, but it will be 21st century in the way it displays patterns. Instead of cast gypsum, column covers will be of cost stone. “To the touch, they feel as it they've been there for a long time,” he explains.

The finished project, estimated at $400 million, includes some 370,000 sq. ft. for a five-level Bloomingdale's immediately behind the Emporium and accessible from it, plus 850,000 sq. ft. of retail and entertainment on six levels. A high-rise, 450-room hotel and its lobby will be above the Bloomingdale's, which has its main entrance on Mission Street. Bloomingdale's will have a contemporary look, with extensive use of glass that turns the store inside out, Macken says.

The dome atop the Emporium will continue to provide light inside the building, particularly for the office space and the top retail level. It can actually be seen from the ground floor through a series of openings, and its ambient light will filter through.

Jenny King is a Detroit-based writer.

SIDEBAR: A nostalgic alternative

Bryce Turner is principal at Baltimore-based Brown & Craig. Founded in 1969, the firm specializes in high-image, market-oriented design solutions for institutional, retail and interior corporate clients. The multidisciplined professional staff consists of planners, architects, interior designers, renderers, grahic designers and related support personnel.

Q: Why are we seeing more retail activity within historic, urban districts?

A: There are a number of reasons. First, I believe that our fast-paced, high-tech society enjoys a softer, warmer environment for shopping. Historic districts with brick, awnings, new lighting and creative signage offers an entertaining, and perhaps nostalgic, alternative to suburban malls. There also has been a significant trend in a return to city living to avoid traffic and enjoy “urban villages.”

Secondly, the value of historic tax credits has escalated significantly in recent years. Developers can receive federal and state tax credits for preservation costs and building improvements such as new plumbing, finishes, etc. that occur as part of a renovation program.

Lastly, we are in the middle of a retail development trend celebrating Main Street retail and urban village environments even in suburban areas. It is only natural that we return to historic districts such as Charles Street in Baltimore or the Gas Lamp District in San Diego to redevelop great retail districts. Highlands Village Center in Bernardsville, N.J., and Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, are examples of new projects that have recreated Main Street elements.

Q: How do you respect the designs and materials of existing buildings and reflect them, yet create an individuality for a new building or an update of an existing one?

A: There are several great examples of contemporary retail within historic districts. Soho, in New York, probably represents the best use of contemporary merchandising — large glass windows, frameless storefronts, creative signs, banners, flags, new materials — within historic buildings.

Soho's large footprints and Manhattan's captive audiences have allowed retail to occur relatively easily within older buildings.

New buildings can also reflect and approximate the scale and character of an historic district without compromising retail opportunities. I think the design for Charles Plaza in Baltimore does a good job of blending in to historic Charles Street, but also provides for a more festive environment with its small plaza off of the street and its diversified architecture.

Q: Is there a trend towards more “fitting in” of buildings now?

A: Our firm has tried to lead the movement toward allowing traditional design of new buildings within historic districts. I think our success in doing this has been attributable to our association with historic preservationists, and historic commissions. We have attempted to learn what is most important to the preservation community and incorporated it into our proposal. This requires meeting early and often with preservation and neighborhood groups in order to build consensus.

We also have been able to demonstrate successful infill projects within older neighborhoods that have received positive exposure. The St. Ambrose Outreach Center in West Baltimore was an early success based on this philosophy. We are currently completing documents for the renovation of Lexington Market in Baltimore, which was a 1950s nondescript building on a very historic site that has served as a market for more than 200 years. This is an example of designing a building to meet the expectations of visitors anticipating a historically sensitive building.