William W. Crosskey II is enamored with buildings. The older the better.
Architects are trained to "see'' and to translate into three dimensions the often sketchy, pie-in-the-sky specifications they get from developers and others involved in a fresh project.
But to take an existing structure — one designed and built decades or a century earlier, often for a single purpose — and reimagine it for a modern, more useful application is the foundation on which Crosskey says he and his firm thrive.
"Conversions are a lot of fun,'' Crosskey said, "because it's a challenge to figure out how to (redo) a building … and to solve the puzzle as to how to renovate it and repurpose it."
It's also one of the reasons that he and his Hartford firm, Crosskey Architects LLC, has been commissioned for at least seven of the 13 proposed downtown office-to-residence conversions. The baker's dozen would add another 1,120 mostly one-bedroom apartments, with a combined development value of $276 million, to the heart of a city that craves them.
In a service industry where egos can get as big as the structures being designed, Crosskey is often credited by those who know him for being a polar opposite. The many design and preservation awards Crosskey Architects has amassed over the years hasn't changed him or his firm's approach, observers say.
"He and his (firm) do meticulous work,'' said Diane Jones, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects-Connecticut Chapter in New Haven. "They're good listeners. They are highly respected for adaptive reuse and historic preservation.''
The downtown septet — among the several dozen projects he and his four fellow designers currently have on their plates — all fit that bill. The youngest are the former Bank of America building, 777 Main St., and Sonesta Hotel astride Constitution Plaza, which opened in the '60s. The rest are near or more than a century old: 201 Ann Uccello St.; 179 Allyn St.; 36 Lewis St.; 99 Pratt St.; and Hartford's former Capewell horse-nail factory.
Crosskey, 57, has designed dozens of mostly multi-family houses and buildings in his 30-year career, many of them in the Hartford area. His firm also recently designed Norwalk's Wall Street Place, a $50 million apartment-commercial-retail development that purportedly will feature Connecticut's first fully automated parking garage for 250 cars.
As good a designer as Crosskey and others say he is, Crosskey's value to his renovation/restoration clients is finding them money to get projects built. Crosskey has plumbed deeply the state and federal tax credits available for preserving historic structures.
Connecticut's preservation tax credits can shave 25 percent to 30 percent off the project price tag, he said. The same federal program offers another 20 percent savings with tax credits. Those attributes are one reason Crosskey says he doesn't actively market his firm's services. He flat out dislikes doing it, preferring to let his firm's work speak for itself.
"It's the quality of the work we do and our reputation,'' he said in his spacious offices on the upper floor of Union Station downtown. "That's the key part of our value equation. I feel lucky to be busy and have the work we have. It's being around long enough … lot's of hard work and our reputation.''
New York developer Yisroel Rabinowitz owns 201 Ann Uccello St. and hired Crosskey — largely on the recommendation of his Farmington general contractor, Core Construction, and the Capital Region Development Authority's top official — to redesign the building's former office interiors into 26 one-bedroom apartments.
Crosskey already has won another fan. Rabinowitz said that he recently had expressed concerns to his architect about some elements designed into his project. But by their next meeting, Crosskey had revised the plans "to do it the way I wanted it,'' Rabinowitz said.
Crosskey says he understands those kinds of concerns, and accommodates them in the way he approaches design.
"Most of the time,'' Crosskey said, "I'll have a developer who wants to build a certain type of project, so when I go to see a building for the first time, I'll have a use in mind and know fairly quickly whether that building will work or not, and what the major issues will be."
Laura Knott-Twine has known Crosskey — first by reputation, then later through their shared passion for historical preservation — for more than 20 years. Crosskey is a former board member of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. "He's about attention to detail,'' Knott-Twine said. "He's very diligent. He's highly respected in the whole architectural community in Connecticut."
Crosskey's roots as a designer were inauspicious. He was bitten with the design bug his sophomore year at the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, where Crosskey says he was an average student.
"I took a drafting course and I was hooked,'' said Crosskey, whose father, a lawyer, moved the family to the town's Elmwood section in 1962.
He enrolled in Syracuse University's five-year architecture program, graduating in 1979. From there, he went to work for a Vermont architect designing vacation homes and condominiums. In 1981, he returned to West Hartford, to work for a design firm and was bitten again — this time with the urge to strike out on his own.
He saved enough from his day job, and another moonlighting as a designer for a friend, to hang his own shingle in Wethersfield in 1984. His first project was renovating a pair of multi-family dwellings on Washington Street in Hartford, owned by nonprofit Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (SINA).
More work with SINA and other for- and nonprofit developers followed over the years. Some are familiar nameplates or addresses: 70-unit Hollander Foundation Center on Asylum Street downtown; a redesign of Hartford's Dutch Point housing project; the 60-unit Cedar Woods supportive housing project in Windham; the 106-unit Allen O'Neill Homes public-housing upgrade in Darien.
But his firm wasn't immune from New England's building slump in the late '80s, early '90s. He briefly took on a partner but, when work began to skid, Crosskey says he shed both his partner and his staff, doing the mostly, small residential-design projects himself.
Today, his staff numbers 13, including four other architects. Among Crosskey's latest assignments is a design for the planned $19 million conversion of the former Talcottville textile mill in Vernon to 83 apartments. Knott-Twine, the project's manager, says Crosskey's vast conversion experience won him the engagement. She says she often recommends him to other developers for that reason.
His firm also has worked up a preliminary design for expanding a four-story housing structure at Jefferson and Washington streets, with seven more floors into a medical-office building for Hartford Hospital.
The youngest of his two daughters is studying in Los Angeles for her master's in architecture. Crosskey is eyeing her eventual return to the firm where she spent several years, perhaps to eventually succeed him.
"Someday she'll be back to carry on,'' he said. "I hope."