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Firm carves renovation niche

The Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center in York County holds a special spot in Frank Dittenhafer’s heart.

The Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center in York County
holds a special spot in Frank Dittenhafer’s heart.

Dittenhafer co-owns York-based Murphy and Dittenhafer Inc.,
the firm responsible for designing the facility’s vibrant and colorful
transformation about 15 years ago. The space was created from a vacated auto
dealership and service center, he said.

“People at that time didn’t see a lot of potential in it,”
Dittenhafer said. But he and his firm did.

Renovation of buildings is something the company has always
done, but the team developed a niche in the market with its creative reuse of
space, he said.

Another example is the Wheeling Artisan Center in downtown
Wheeling, W.Va. Murphy and Dittenhafer designed the renovation of three
buildings more than 10 years ago that became a complex with an artisan center,
museum and microbrewery, Dittenhafer said. The firm decided to remove the
center building’s floors, add skylights, and create a strong focal point with
cascading stairs and crosswalks connecting the various levels, he said.

“People to this day still come to us when thinking about
buying a building … because they know we’ve been through this,” he said. “We
can look at things with a creative eye towards how you really can do it. It is
a lot different from building or designing a new building.”

Dittenhafer took a few moments to speak with the Business
Journal about his experience in renovating historic buildings.


CPBJ: How do you tackle a significant historic renovation
project? What things need to be kept in mind?

Dittenhafer: I think the key to successfully renovating
existing buildings and older buildings is really finding the way to work with
the building and with the nature of the building and not to fight it to the
point where you’re trying to create a new building within an existing building
in a way that it’s counterproductive. To me, obviously, the key things are
addressing what the building code requirements are (and) structural stabilization.
Many times in an older building, stabilizing the envelope and floors are things
you have to do to take care of business. In my view, it’s seeing what the
qualities of those older buildings are and using as much of that as possible,
while not necessarily trying to cover every imperfection. It’s fine to insert
new things and have the new contrast with the old. That, to me, is the richest
type of experience and project. Understanding what those qualities are, how to
use them, how to work with them as opposed to against them or obscuring them
makes for a very successful project.


What’s appealing about renovation projects?

I think the high point to me is after it’s completed and you
walk through and see the people working there or living there or students
studying there and you see the building alive and being used. That’s when it
really hits home (with) what this process, this effort is all about. To see it
transform and see the people engaged in the activity within the building or
driving by the building or walking by the building — that is almost beyond
words what that feels like and what that means. To hear the comments and
feedback about how it’s really enhanced their life or their experience on a
daily basis, that’s when it really hits home. That’s really at the foundation
of all of these designs, which are visually really interesting and pretty
stimulating, but they have to work well, and I think when the people are there,
that’s the proof that it’s working well.


What was the most challenging renovation project you’ve
worked on?

One was a renovation and an expansion. It was the most
challenging, and I think it was the most satisfying: The Margaret E. Moul Home in York. It’s a residential living facility where residents live there full
time and they have neuromuscular disabilities. We came in, and they had an
existing facility there that was pretty modest and hadn’t really been improved
in 30 years. They had 50 residents living there (with a) lack of storage and
all kinds of needs and a waiting list. We designed an expansion and a
renovation that allowed the residents to continue living there. It was done in
two years over four phases. It added capacity for another 30-plus beds. We
created a living environment and a set of experiences for those now 82 residents
and their staff and their families that gave a tremendous amount of dignity and
functionality and set of experiences that enriched the lives of those people.
It was very challenging in terms of budgeting and the site and occupancy, and
it probably was the most fulfilling dollar for dollar, square foot for square
foot what it provided for all of the people in that project.


Would you say that people have become more interested in
renovating historic buildings? If so, why, and how has that helped your

I think it’s definitely grown in the last five years. I
think one of the factors (is that) the greenest thing you can do is to reuse a
building. So there is a lot more emphasis and interest on (that). There is a
lot that people are seeing now that you can do that we’ve done, and that other
people and architects have done. That, coupled with the economic times that
we’re in, has meant in many cases (that) the prices have dropped in terms of
properties that are for sale. There’s a little bit more interest if you happen
to have the resources to buy, acquire and renovate buildings. … I think there
have been two or three reasons that have contributed to more interest in
renovating historic buildings. People are really trying to be more responsible
in terms of energy use and not having to hop in your car to drive everywhere.
Trying to be more urbane about all of these things is appealing to a greater
growing sector of our population in all aspects of living, working and
entertainment. There are a lot of interesting things happening in regards to
building renovations.


What is the most interesting renovation project you are
working on at the moment?

The Fraternal Order of the Eagles building at 37 W.
Philadelphia St. in York was recently bought by the York County Industrial
Development Authority. We have been working with them and evaluating options to
renovate the building. A number of the uses in various areas of the building
would and could relate to the visual arts. … Inside, it has a series of spaces.
One space that is just phenomenal is this large third-floor meeting room that
is about 100 feet long and under 30 feet wide that has three domes in the
ceiling and this elaborate painted environment. It’s one of the hidden
treasures, in terms of rooms and buildings, in the city of York. This could be
a very exciting project and undertaking if it comes to fruition. 

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