Multiple doors in black and white

Old is Now New – Breathing New Life into Old Buildings

By Mike Morse, Building Products Consultant, Madison Office

Urban revitalization efforts (which includes re-purposing aging commercial and residential spaces) has never been more popular. For many reasons, America’s downtowns and cityscapes are transforming and changing. Modern city planning goals have also changed, and what was once considered prime retail space for yesterday’s department stores may now be reserved for condominium, commercial, and parking garage multi-use facilities.

Renovating aging structures poses a wide variety of challenges and opportunities for developers and contractors. In some cases, a building that would otherwise have reached its end-of-life may be sustained for historical reasons. In others, the location itself is the main driver, and the renovation is the way to make the space usable. The goal of renovation may be to make a useful space out of something that might otherwise be abandoned.

Every renovation is unique. The process of refreshing downtown monuments and structures – often built in the early twentieth century – and bringing them up to modern usage and current building codes can be a tall order. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, in addition to Life Safety Code and IBC updates, have changed the way buildings can be built and renovated. Minimum egress door widths, fire door hardware and glazing requirements, elevator access, electronic security integration, and fire suppression systems – these fairly modern advancements all pose challenges in older buildings. 

Satisfying modern building codes and usage goals doesn’t mean that an older building needs to trade-in its “soul.” With careful hardware choices, designers, architects, and building owners can maintain the charm and long-lived character that comes with the building materials and designs of yesteryear.

Product Recommendations

With a little effort, you can add a touch of class and intention to your next downtown renovation by considering some of these less-chosen hardware pieces.

Crossbar Exit Devices

Simple crossbar exit devices offer a clean design that highlights full-glass doors with minimal visual disruption, while still satisfying egress code requirements for panic or fire exit hardware. In certain applications, the crossbar devices still hold a visual impact and charm worth considering today.

Potbelly Closers

Yes, these are still in production! There are still a handful of applications where the older “potbelly” style closers look right at home. Consider a product like this when updating old historical buildings, courthouses, or churches, or if you are just looking to emulate an older look. This closer is also available with optional brackets that will allow it to work well on beautiful old arched top doors.


Heavy, thick, cast push and pull plates, or plates with varying edge details, in bronze or brass materials, can give your door hardware a timeless look. The cost effect of this upgrade is minimal, and the result is products that exude material quality and long-living craftsmanship. When you couple these products with warm finishes like US15 satin nickel, or a living finish like US10B oil rubbed dark bronze, you are adding details to your project that will develop and burnish over their lifespan. This look is uncommon in the more-spartan, modern brushed-stainless pieces used in most construction today.

Modern Door Construction

One more consideration is the doors themselves. Older buildings often made use of heavy, solid wood doors for exterior applications. Today, we avoid recommending wood doors for most exterior applications, as there are so many new products that can offer the warmth and character of wood doors without the warping and deterioration of real wood. From affordable pre-stained 6-panel embossed steel doors, to impressive, rust-free wood-grain-look fiberglass reinforced polymer (FRP) entrances, door construction has come a long way.

Building Renovation Example: Wgettha Building

We recently wrote specifications and supplied products for the newly renovated Wgettha Building, located at the Wgema Campus of Forest County Potawatomi Community. Formerly the Concordia College campus, this building is on West State Street in Milwaukee, WI. The renovation challenge was how to match the interior door hardware with the historical wood doors.

With careful selection, your historical facility can combine yesterday’s look with security and a long service life. Contact a Building Products Consultant, today, for more product recommendations or a free site evaluation!