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Anatomy of a renovation

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The exterior of the John Briggs House in downtown Harrisburg.
The exterior of the John Briggs House in downtown Harrisburg. - (Photo / )

When the opportunity to acquire the Briggs House in Harrisburg presented itself, I had a mix of feelings. I was afraid of buying into a headache.

But my heart is here in the city, and before me was a unique project with which I could feel myself falling in love.

I decided to go for it. About 15 months later, the renovation wrapped up and the first residents started moving in.

John H. Briggs built his house in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. It was built to impress — from the ornate brownstone façade and 10-foot- tall windows, to the prime location.

Briggs was a civic leader of his generation. No doubt the timing and construction of his house were, in part, a statement of confidence in the future.

The Briggs House is located at 17 N. Front St. in the heart of downtown Harrisburg. It has great views, great neighbors and on-site parking. Since the middle of the 20th century, it had been used as an office building.

RELATED: Vartan Group unveiling historic renovation today on North Front Street

To convert it to a luxury apartment building, we would have to demolish the office finishes and adapt the floor plan to a residential configuration. This was the easiest part of the project — in a funny way, the building told you how it wanted to be configured.

We submitted our plans for historic preservation certification, which were approved. This made the project eligible for federal tax credits.

Parallel to that we filed a land development plan application with the city. Notwithstanding it is an existing building, the conversion from office to apartment use triggered a requirement for an approved land development plan under the city’s old zoning code.

The application was reviewed at three public hearings and then approved by city council. Three days later, we had a building permit.

As an office, the building had been totally carpeted. As soon as the carpet came up, we found asbestos floor tile throughout most of the building. It took about 10 days to remediate all the asbestos, during which time no other activities were permissible on-site. It cost about $7,600.

By the same token, all the layers of carpet and asbestos helped preserve the antique, 150-year-old hardwood floors. We restored the hardwood flooring and closely matched the original stain. This was very expensive — about $6.50 per square foot.

To create a loft apartment, we had to engineer and install a metal joist. This cost about $6,000, but I was happy with the result — one of the coolest apartments in downtown Harrisburg.

We preserved and reused all the surviving historic doors and architectural woodwork. Some of the doors are 8 feet tall; some of the three-piece base trim is 14 inches tall.

Because of the change in use, the city’s building codes require an automatic sprinkler system for the entire building. For this project, that entailed not only all the piping and sprinkler heads, but a new water line, tapped off the main located in the middle of Front Street.

This was the biggest challenge with the renovation. The system cost about $7,000 per apartment and the ongoing annual cost is $3,000.

The city’s building codes also require a fire escape, but fortunately there was one already in place.

The beauty of the surviving historic finishes dictated the quality of the new finishes that would be going in. Not only did all the new lighting and plumbing fixtures, cabinets, countertops and appliances have to be luxurious, they also had to be tasteful in the context of this special building.

There was a spirit of teamwork and cooperation with our subcontractors on the project as the finishes were tweaked and re-tweaked even as the project was well underway. We openly spoke of this being a labor of love.

Some of the more mundane aspects of the renovation include an integrated fire detection and alarm, thermal insulation, weatherproofing and joint sealants, re-roofing, exterior painting and even figuring out where to locate the mailbox.

The residents in the new building are all new to the city. Some relocated to the area for work, while others are moving from the suburbs. Some signed up sight unseen.

Harrisburg must attract many more new residents than just one building conversion can accommodate in order to achieve its full potential as vibrant city. Along with my project team, I certainly take pride in this small accomplishment toward that goal.

H. Ralph Vartan is the CEO of Susquehanna Township-based Vartan Group Inc.

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