Ready for Takeoff: Adaptive reuse, design in the former Stapleton Airport air traffic control tower

stapleton tower
OZ considered the structure of the air traffic control tower to inform the adaptive reuse design.

Rebecca Stone, AIA

Managing Principal, OZ Architecture

In 1995, Denver shuttered the Stapleton International Airport. For about two decades, its old air traffic control tower stood vacant while new homes, restaurants and businesses grew up around it into what is now one of the largest urban redevelopment sites in the country. Approximately two years ago, Denver restaurateur Robert Thompson – the creative inspiration behind the hip social nightlife brand, Punch Bowl Social – announced that he would breathe new life to the highly visible historic air control tower as his 10th Punch Bowl Social location in the country (and second location in Colorado). Additionally, the company will relocate its corporate headquarters into the tower.

A minority of locals was perplexed as to why Stapleton chose to keep an abandoned airport tower rather than demolish it to make additional space for housing or commercial development. However, other neighbors and City Council members had plenty of ideas for ways the tower could be used, and they enthusiastically supported an adaptive reuse project that would keep the airport legacy of Stapleton and preserve the character of the neighborhood. Denver has a strong foundation in adaptive reuse and historic preservation, so it’s no surprise the Stapleton community as eager to find a solution for the tower. However, finding the right purpose and a willing project owner is easier said than done.

Punch Bowl Social will include its signature Holiday Lodge.

Punch Bowl Social will include its signature Holiday Lodge.

In fact, the challenge of what to do with abandoned airports is not uncommon. Denver is among many cities that have shuttered airports over the years. According to CBS News, every state in the U.S. has at least one abandoned tower or airport, many of which have been replaced by new, larger airports with advanced amenities and more room for growth.

Cities around the world have found uses for old airport buildings: New York’s former Galeville Military Airfield, once buzzing with activity during World War II, is now a wildlife refuge. London’s Croydon Airport closed in 1959, but the original terminal building has since been repurposed as a museum and visitor center. Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong closed in 1998, and portions of the former runway have since been successfully transformed into a cruise ship terminal – adapting the idea of travel and tourism from air to sea.

These examples showcase the myriad ways airports can be used, but also highlight how different Punch Bowl Social is in adopting a project of this scale. Unlike many other airport projects, Denver’s reuse will not be a city-funded municipal effort, but an investment by a private company with a broad vision. With this project, Thompson is providing Denver with the opportunity to be a national leader in airport reuse.

So how will Punch Bowl Social do it? First, when approaching an adaptive reuse project at a former airport, we had to consider the structure of the air traffic control tower itself. While the majority of the tower will remain empty, maintaining its height and design honors its historic significance as well its potential for generating conversation – a significant advantage for an entertainment space.

Essential to the tower’s design are the building’s historic industrial and mid-century materials. Thompson is adamant about repurposing these materials, so a good deal of the tower’s original exterior material will be repurposed for the interior walls. The restaurant will occupy the first two stories, plus an additional 5,600-square-foot expansion.

punch bowl diner

Punch Bowl Social’s Stapleton location design by OZ will revive the “golden age of flight.”

Inside, proposed design features revive the “golden age of flight” – a time when air travel was still glamorous and exciting. The restaurant and offices will be inspired by air travel, including custom wall coverings representing the view from 30,000 feet, as well as a hostess stand made from vintage steamer trunks. Vintage airport elements will be mingled with classic elements of the restaurant, such as an antler chandelier and a 360-degree circular bar. The marriage of the two worlds – entertainment and air travel – will enmesh the original feel of the building into the signature character of the restaurant, resulting in a Punch Bowl Social that feels like a Punch Bowl Social, but with the spirit of a midcentury airport.

Designing and reusing a former airport tower is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance an iconic municipal structure while revitalizing what was once abandoned. For architects and developers, the chance to innovate and design a project with such high visibility is a thrilling opportunity, but the greatest satisfaction will come from continuing to position Denver as one of the country’s leaders for creative and successful adaptive reuse projects. \\

Featured in the March 2017 issue of Building Dialogue

Edited by Building Dialogue