THe RE-invention Process


The process of restoring the Conley-Maass Building, 14 on 4th Street SW, required a sprinkling of detective work and a heaping of patience according to Adam Ferrari, local architect with 9.SQUARE, an architecture and community design firm.

Ferrari said that much of the building, especially the second floor, was actually a fire hazard when local couple Traci and Hunter Downs purchased the space in January 2016.  There was only one entry and exit to the second level, and it was through the adjacent building.  The space was littered with exposed wiring and power strips.  Much of the building’s original structure was covered up for ease of maintenance or to hide rot and decay.

Mike Benike, Project Manager at Benike Construction, was another member of the team charged with preserving and rehabilitating the Conley-Maass Building for over the past year. His construction team began physical work on the building only seven months ago. At that time, there was a good amount of skepticism surrounding the project due to the poor existing condition of the building. 

“The bones were fantastic, but there was a lot of just plain old garbage inside,” Benike explained.

“A lot of people might not think that preservation is feasible or attainable. But this is a glowing example of what can be done. It provides proof that it is possible. So especially in this time of anticipated growth in Rochester, growth doesn’t always mean brand new buildings. It can mean preserving and giving new life to an old facility made new,” said Benike.

All photos above courtesy of 9.SQUARE.

Before construction began, the entire basement was filled with trash. A good amount of previous remodeling of the building had been completed in a haphazard manner. But the team had hope and collectively started a year-long learning project to restore the building and prepare for its new tenants.

“What makes a project attractive is the team that’s going to be doing the project. We had a really great team, from the owner [Hunter and Traci Downs], and the design team with Adam Ferrari and 9.SQUARE, and ourselves, and even our subcontractor team that was underneath us was a group of high performers. We had a lot of good talent on the project,” said Benike.

An original electrical bill from Sept. 30th, 14. That's 1914.

An original electrical bill from Sept. 30th, 14. That's 1914.

Benike estimated that over twenty different contractors made up the construction team, not including the design consultants involved, like 9.SQUARE, historical and development consultants, and special inspections. Over one hundred different tradespeople took part in the Conley-Mass rehabilitation at one point or another during the project.

The strength and cohesion of the entire team involved in the Conley-Maass restoration is the real unsung hero of the building.

“It starts at the owner. Their approach and attitude can trickle down to the other project partners. We had just a great, collaborative delivery,” said Benike.

Benike Construction became involved in this journey at the Conley-Maass building last May with an initial meeting with owner Traci Downs and project architect and design consultant Ferrari. At that time, the construction team saw the vision, scope, and challenges of the project, which Benike says posed a very exciting and unique opportunity.

Over one hundred years of innovation have occurred under this roof.

The team then entered the pre-construction phase over the next nine months. Finally, in January of this year, actual construction on the building began. The group was given seven months to complete the restoration process, a fairly tight deadline. But they took the challenge on and logged a lot of labor hours in a short amount of time.

Because of the storied history of innovators within the building, not the actual architecture of the complex itself, the Downses successfully had the Conley-Maass Building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The couple was able to apply for historic rehabilitation tax credits toward restoration of the structure, a first for the city of Rochester and Olmsted County. 

Inclusion on the National Register did come with some restrictions.  Any addition or change to the building had to be compatible with the original intent of the structure.  Ferrari explained that the team received only eight total changes to their original plan from both the state and government, none of which impacted the design.  The process ended up being surprisingly straightforward. Because of this inclusion on the National Register, a large focus during the construction process was reuse and preservation of original materials within the space.

The Benike Construction team doing some planning.

The Benike Construction team doing some planning.

Benike Construction used a lean construction technique to establish open communication between their team on the ground, which was essential to complete the Conley-Maass restoration within the seven-month timeframe. In this process, instead of the project manager creating a weekly schedule for the project, the project superintendent and the people in the field collaborate to develop the weekly plan, looking six weeks ahead.

“[Lean construction] provides reliability that the person doing the work is saying, ‘I can commit to doing this for this week.’ And everyone in the room knows that person is going to do these things for this week,” Benike explained.

In the early stages of the construction process this past winter, the focus was on demolition and restoration of historic materials within the Conley-Maass Building. Internal walls that were not historic or part of the original structure were gutted. Several of the interior partitions and the electrical and mechanical systems had been pieced together so many times over the years, that it was better to remove them and start new.

There were a lot of surprises unearthed during the demo process.

“Did anyone tell you about the well?” Benike asked me. No. No, they had not.


Ferrari explained that the overall renovation design was very intentional.  The building itself is a contrast of old and new elements, meant to be obvious in some places, but subtlety and skillfully blended in others.  Ferrari and the team kept the design simple and flexible.  They consolidated infrastructure to create open spaces to facilitate maximum natural light flow through the multiple windows and lay lights.

“We tucked all the small, articulated rooms into the middle as much as we could, so we could leave the opposite ends open for [the business incubator] Collider, the [Bleu Duck] restaurant, and the event space, to be just big, open spaces,” Ferrari explained.

Buildings are meant to be adaptable. They’re not meant to be pieces of art. They’re meant to be things that we live in, and augment, and modify.
— Adam Ferrari, Architect

The design was meant to change as the construction and renovations progressed.  “Buildings are meant to be adaptable.  They’re not meant to be pieces of art.  They’re meant to be things that we live in, and augment, and modify,” Ferrari said.

New interventions to the building, which needed to be different from the original structure, were made to be different in a very intentional way.  For instance, the bathrooms were modernized, but even that boundary was pushed.  The bathrooms have sleek, elevated, rectangular sinks, 100% recycled paper countertops, and the newest rendition of the more empowering handicapped logo.  New infrastructure was implemented to comply with modern building codes, like steel beams in the basement.  An elevator and kitchen hood, among other modernizations, were carefully inserted.  But these additions were restricted to a compact, vertical column stretching the whole way from the basement to the second floor, leaving a small footprint on the original design.  Even the massive amount of air required for the kitchen equipment were squeezed into this column.

Much of the existing structure was reused or repurposed in some manner, making it feel more comfortable and natural, Ferrari explained.  A beam from the basement, destined for the dumpster, was wrapped in lights and set as the centerpiece in the first floor conference room. The staircase leading from the Bleu Duck Kitchen on the first to the second floor is one shining, repurposed gem. The tread of the stairs is composed of salvaged joists, which were cut out of the building to install a different two story staircase and elevator. The rise portion of the stairs are from repurposed subflooring that was covering the original hardwood.

The coolest part is that this staircase was built, by hand, by a descendant by marriage of the Maass family. Maass and McAndrews was a plumbing and mechanical company that occupied the Conley-Maass building for about forty-five years, and contributed to the building’s current name.

“If people walk in and see the existing materials or the old materials, not everything was in its place when we walked in. That’s pretty unique to see either historic windows or wood trim that was salvaged off a different portion of the building […] and incorporated into the final design, whether it was in a different floor or a different space,” Benike explained.

When an element of the building did need to be replaced, it was matched and blended as closely as possible to the original structure.  For example, the wooden platform in the storefront had been removed at some point.  The team carefully reconstructed the platform from old photos taken from across the street.  Most of the existing windows in the building were missing or deteriorating and were exchanged with carefully matched, thermally efficient windows.

Some of the restoration efforts underway.

Some of the restoration efforts underway.

In some instances, the original structure of the building was exposed for the first time in decades, but was in much better shape than Ferrari expected.  It just needed to be uncovered and receive a healthy dose of elbow grease and ingenuity.  Four layers of flooring were peeled away to reveal beautiful, intact, original hardwood.  The north and west external brick façade was covered in layers of paint that had to be stripped off and the brick carefully cleaned.  The first floor ceiling was coated in paint and spray foam.  Four techniques were used to finally remove all the residue and expose the original wood underneath.  Pristine prism glass in the store front was uncovered and cleaned and are now preserved and protected by a glass panel.  The second floor ceiling was surprisingly intact.  The entire tongue and groove wooden ceiling, lay lights and all the original skylight windows were undamaged. 

This juxtaposition and blending of old and new goes beyond the structure of the Conley-Maass Building.  Over one hundred years of innovation has occurred under this roof. 

“[The building] is an old thing that was built for a certain purpose that we are repurposing with new technology, and businesses, and new ideas,” said Ferrari.

Construction on the building is now 99% complete. The results are stunning.

“It’s been a very fun project to be a part of. I’m really proud to have participated in it. … And I definitely want to give a big ‘thank you’ to Hunter and Traci Downs. They took the leap. Without them seeing what could happen here, without them having the vision and taking the risk to make it happen, there wouldn’t have been a project. We’re fortunate to have them in the community.”

This building has stood as a pillar of entrepreneurship and innovation since its conception.  Now a new group of innovators and risk takers will call 14 on 4th home and have their stories told within its walls.