Inside A Historic Office Building’s Restoration

The John Sevier State Office Building was renovated to update the office space while preserving its historical significance.

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The outside of the John Sevier Building. (Photo: Wold Architects and Engineers)

This summer, Wold | HFR Design completed the restoration and renovation of the John Sevier State Office Building.

Otherwise known as the Tennessee State Office Building, it was designed by Emmons H. Woolwine in a mostly art deco architectural style, which was popular during the New Deal era. Today, the 80-year-old, 103,000 sq. ft., eight-story building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and to preserve its historical significance while updating the space to accommodate 21st century needs, the John Sevier Building underwent a comprehensive renovation.

“The primary reasons [for this renovation] were centered around the deficiency of the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems and water penetration issues in the building envelope,” says Christi W. Branscom, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of General Services, which oversees the state’s real property. “However, the interior of the John Sevier Building was last renovated in the 1980s and was due for an update.”

As a result, the project consisted of a complete interior and exterior renovation. As the third oldest state building, “it was critical we maintain the historic nature of the building, specifically, the exterior, entryway, and corridor spaces throughout the interior of the building,” says Branscom. “The remodel also allowed the tenant to reconfigure the building to meet their specific needs.”

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A mural in the John Sevier Building. (Photo: Wold Architects and Engineers)

The main lobby, public corridors, and building exterior were completely restored. Historic light fixtures were restored and rewired to receive new LED lighting and the installation of modern sky lighting complementary to the original design. A conservator completed a study on the historic lobby ceiling motifs and murals painted by Dean Cornwell depicting scenes from Tennessee history. This ensured accurate repainting to closely replicate the original colors.

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A newly renovated office space in the historic building. (Photo: Wold Architects and Engineers)

To create a modern office space in a historic building, a complete update to its technology infrastructure was needed. While this update didn’t impact the project’s goal to preserve the building’s history, there was overlap when it came to the building’s directories.

“The original directories had movable letters on a felt background,” Branscom explains. “The ornate frame around one directory had historical significance. We were able to maintain the historical frame and replace the interior with a video wall that allowed content to be updated dynamically via software.”

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A green outdoor area was added during the renovation. (Photo: Wold Architects and Engineers)

Many original elements, including bronze handrails, door hardware, and wood trim, were also removed, restored, and reinstalled. In addition, the sixth floor was expanded by adding a large conference room onto the roof, increasing the historic building’s functionality. The renovation also included a “green” roof to provide staff with an outdoor area.

“Some significant concerns addressed through this renovation project were failing old mechanical systems, leaking pipes, inadequate electrical supply and distribution, and water infiltration from the exterior,” said Branscom.

Throughout the process, some of the most significant challenges revolved around the lack of documentation on previous renovations, historic preservation, and incorporation of technology.

“Not knowing the different types and locations of walls throughout the building meant we had to make several adjustments in the moment,” says Branscom. “Due to the historic nature of the interior corridors and lobby spaces, we did intensive work to protect and preserve those elements. And considering the building was initially constructed in the 1930s, there was a great challenge to incorporate current technology needs within the existing footprint.

“A word of advice for those starting a project like this — the biggest challenge I’ve seen in a historic renovation is the lack of documentation of existing conditions,” she says. “It’s difficult and sometimes impossible to verify the actual conditions against building records. This should be a point of emphasis before embarking on a project of this nature. With the technology available today, laser mapping and minor invasive investigations should be done ahead of time to ensure that what you think you know aligns with reality.”

Due to the amount of work needed, the building was closed during the renovation process. In late November 2020, a fire damaged a corner of the building’s exterior following the renovation’s completion. The exterior has since been remediated and fully restored. Wold | HFR Design served as the project’s architect, and Hardaway Construction served as the general contractor.

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