It was a unique design problem: What to do with an old rifle range and the rest of an aging U.S. Army armory sitting unused in Western Maryland.
Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects decided to take a shot.
The renovation, which stretched more than a year, involved the transformation and modernization of a 20,000-square-foot structure into a state-of-the-art home for the Washington County Commission on Aging in Hagerstown, Maryland. Today, the site finally houses under one roof - both the commission’s offices and the Washington County Senior Center.
“I think we accomplished all the goals we set out for at the beginning,” said Harry Reynolds with the Commission on Aging. “It turned out to be an excellent job.”
Finding the light
It wasn’t necessarily an easy job at first, said Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects’ head architect on the project, Todd Grove.
For Grove, who’s been with the firm just shy of 30 years, the main challenge on the armory project was repurposing a building of thick, windowless walls and the cold feel of concrete into a space that would be warm and welcoming for area seniors. The old armory was built “like a bunker,” Grove said.
“The overall image and feel of the place wasn’t exactly what you’d want for a vibrant senior facility,” he recalls.
So Grove focused on bringing plenty of daylight into his new design wherever possible. Windows were added into those old concrete walls, and a new glass entranceway was planned. A drab parking lot was transformed into an outdoor courtyard where seniors could congregate, with a large glass wall looking out onto the fresh landscaping.
The Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects team also worked to add elements of warmth with natural wood and bright colors sprinkled through the structure, and the overall design featured cost-saving, energy efficient technology throughout.
“These types of projects never have a lot of budget,” he says, “so we used sustainable features everywhere we could.”
A lively space to gather
Reynolds, who worked in construction for years before retiring and taking a volunteer advisor role on the project, said the new facility has been open for several months and today offers in one facility dozens of programs to local senior citizens – from computers to dance to a hot lunch for anyone who’s hungry.
It’s a long way from the small, separate sites local seniors used to have to navigate.
“There were challenges along the way,” he says of the years-long process from governmental approval to opening. “But I think everyone is just elated with what we have today.”
Reynolds added that he was pleased to again work with Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, having had success with them on past projects, including several regional libraries.
“They’re very well respected in this area,” he says.
Making the old new again
That ability to breathe new life into old structures has become a hallmark of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects’ work, Grove says. Over the years, the firm has repurposed countless structures that had been sitting empty or underutilized, something for which the M&D staff has a particular pride.
“It’s definitely something that we’re comfortable doing,” he says. “It’s something I enjoy.”
And the idea of helping to bring a little joy to area senior citizens with this project was the cherry on top.
“No one really had an idea of how to use the (armory) building, so it was nice to find a way to use it for something,” Grove says. “That we’re doing it for this group of people makes it particularly satisfying.”
Reynolds pointed to that old indoor rifle range, for example.
That space was divided into several areas in the redesign and now serves as a suite of offices and includes an exercise room. So part of what once was a cold, concrete rectangle today will fill with the laughter of local senior citizens.
They’ll shake hands and warm up and then stand and reach together toward better health— a daily, smiling reminder of what those who designed their senior center believed all along.
“Once you add a little light,” Reynolds says, “it turns into a whole new space.”