Cast-iron columns layered with peeling paint terminate at rusted steel beams and the crisscrossing truss-work of vaulted ceilings

Reclaimed flooring specialist Urban Evolutions brought in 250 tons of salvaged material to cover the existing concrete floors and replace rotting wood.

A salvaged diving decompression chamber sits on its side in front of the campus dog park

Urban Outfitters

Urban Renewal

Monday, July 11th, 2011

By Christopher Moraff
Photos by Lara Swimmer, courtesy MS&R

When you first pass through the gates of the Philadelphia Navy Yard onto the campus headquarters of retail-clothing conglomerate Urban Outfitters, you know you’re on hallowed ground. 

The former shipyard encompasses more than 350 acres and has nearly 400 structures, five dry docks, and more than seven miles of waterfront. All around, dozens of timeless structures dot the landscape, their diverse façades speaking to more than a century of near continuous expansion that occurred, and continues to occur. 

The Navy began building ships on this site during the Civil War, and by World War II, more than 40,000 people were toiling here, working on the massive naval vessels. Today, a revival is again putting Philadelphians to work at the Navy Yard, with yet another expansion within the Urban Outfitters 330,000-square-foot headquarters. 

“We wanted a place that we could make a real physical space, that made a statement to really push creative thinking,” says Dave Ziel, Urban Outfitters’ chief development officer. “It was about being genuine to the buildings and the architecture that existed.” 

Since moving to the shipyard in 2006, the company has doubled in size and now employs more than 1,200 people in its six (soon to be eight) operational buildings. Its most recent project, a new home for the group’s Free People brand, was completed last year, and the company is currently repurposing two more buildings that will add another 100,000 square feet to the campus. 

Minneapolis-based architecture firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. has been called in to continue the project that it began five years ago with Jeffery Scherer at the helm. Scherer is a co-founder of MS&R and the project manager in charge of the retrofit. For the project, he put stake in his firm’s enlightened ethos. “Our primary responsibility was to develop a framework for relative meanings over time,” he says. “The authenticity of an old place just cannot be recreated through mimicry.”

With that in mind, the project commenced with a detailed inventory of what features would be kept and which would be abandoned. Scherer’s partner on the project, firm principal Josh Stowers, says that process starts by understanding the DNA of the buildings. “Once we get a real understanding of the structures, it’s about building the program to fit the architecture, not the other way around,” he explains. “It’s about responding to what’s there.” 

Scherer adopted several rules for the build-out, including never having new and old operate on the same plane, and removing as little of the buildings’ antique patina as possible. The designers have also focused as much as possible on adaptive reuse, using a door found in one building as a table top in another, and, in one case, relocating a two-story steel staircase. For its thoughtful work, MS&R was awarded the National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among other honors and numerous accolades. 

Renovations for phase two of the Navy Yard campus are scheduled to be finished in February 2012. When asked about his final goal for the campus, Ziel’s answer is earnest yet honest. “The endgame? I hope there is no endgame.”

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