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Maltex Makeover

A Pine Street landmark’s “renaissance” kicks off the Art Hop


Published September 8, 2010 at 8:36 a.m.

Behind the Maltex Building on Pine Street is a life-size copper sculpture of a man working a drill press. The figure commemorates Fred Barrett, a well-loved employee of Shelburne Shipyard who, according to local legend, never missed a day of work in his 60-year career.

You might wonder why “Fred Barrett,” created by Vermont sculptor Dennis Sparling, graces the Maltex Building. The former factory has little to do with shipwrights: It was built in 1900 for the Malted Cereal Company (later renamed Maltex) and is now an incubator building for small businesses. The place has a desirable postindustrial look — high ceilings, over- size windows, exposed beams, restored hardwood floors.

The Maltex’s owner, Derrick “Rick” Davis of Stowe, is delighted to explain why he commissioned the sculpture and had it installed in 1985, just a year after he bought the building. For one thing, he meant it as a tribute to Barrett’s “amazing work ethic.” Davis had worked with Barrett at the shipyards for four years following a post-college stint in the Navy.

But mostly, Davis thought the artwork was apropos for a structure that is a work of art itself.

“It’s just a fantastic building,” Davis enthuses on a recent walk through the brick edifice and its L-shaped, cinder-block wing, a single-story warehouse extension added around 1950. Davis, who looks to be in his mid-sixties but admits only to being 49, says the building was “just a shell” when he bought it from the Vermont Development Credit Union early in his 25-year career as a real estate developer. He has since redirected his energies — in 2000 he cofounded the Permanent Fund for the Well-Being of Vermont Children, an outgrowth of which is Mobius, a mentoring program. But Davis kept the Maltex.

Over the years Davis has made sure the aesthetically appealing building shows art year round. The hallways on all four floors typically display two semiannual collections curated by Burlington City Arts’ Art Sales and Leasing staff, and the building hosts artwork submitted to the annual South End Art Hop. At the 2010 Hop, this Friday and Saturday, the Maltex will be the focal point; in addition to the art inside, the building itself will be an aesthetic destination.

That’s because Davis has invested in large-scale renovations to the structure this year — the first since he bought it. Changes range from significant energy-efficiency measures to subtle use of paint to the installation of a landscaped garden. “The theme is the whole renaissance of the building,” says Davis. “After 25 years, it’s time to bring it into the 21st century.”

The most visible part of the renovations is the L-shaped wing’s new exterior on Pine Street. Chic corrugated metal and wood-composite panels now hide the forgettable salmon-colored cinder-block structure beneath. Cut into the metal are the building’s logo — the Barrett sculpture in silhouette — and name. The latter wraps around the corner of the L so that an uncapitalized “malt” faces east and “ex” faces north.

Steve Kredell, of TruexCullins in Burlington, was the chief architect on the job. “It’s a rain screen,” he explains of the eye-catching façade. “The [concrete block] is still the exterior skin, so we were able to perforate that metal without worrying about it.” Perforation was done with a high-precision water jet, according to architect Matthew Bushey, writing on the TruexCullins blog.

The inside corner of the L, accessed from the parking lot on the west side, received a much deeper makeover. The wing itself was converted from warehouse space to five high-ceilinged offices, some with original polished-concrete floors, or bamboo wall paneling. And the loading dock, where trucks once idled next to two huge Dumpsters, is now a garden with gravel swaths, clumped grasses, lawn, benches and a stunning handicap ramp, all designed by landscape architects H. Keith Wagner Partnership of Burlington.

“It’s another world,” Davis declares.

Pointing out the garden’s centerpiece — the curved ramp made of dark fascia board — Davis comments, “It’s pretty unusual; it’s like a piece of sculpture.”

Turns out the businessman is himself a sculptor: In 1995 he took four years off from managing the Davis Company, his real estate venture, to attend the SculptureCenter in New York.

The Maltex wing’s renovations may strike some as incongruous with the elegant brick landmark from which it extends, but the strictly utilitarian space was never meant to blend in. “We were thinking to upgrade the whole building with a look that complemented the nice, old brick building, but didn’t try to be like it,” Davis explains. “Also, we wanted something that was a little more hip and modern.”

Architect Kredell adds that they wanted to honor the changing face of Pine Street, where the concentration of artists and start-up businesses occupying affordable, postindustrial buildings has created a unique vibe.

Renovations to the original brick building are less obvious and intended to highlight its architectural details, many of which seem extravagant given the building’s former use as a factory. Built on a handsome, raised red-stone base, the building is lined with rows of lofty windows. One row — so tall that its windows span two floors — is topped by semicircular arches accented with granite keystones.

The Maltex has been on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places since 1978, according to Mary O’Neil, a historic-preservation specialist and associate planner at Burlington’s Planning and Zoning Department. She and a team of historians are currently compiling research on the building for a potential nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. (Burlington already has 47 approved sites; the most recent is the entire Church Street Historic District.)

Davis’ first step in upgrading this historic brick structure was to hire Building Energy, of Williston and White River Junction, to do an energy audit. Based on their recommendations, he replaced all the windows with high-energy-rated, custom-made ones; replaced each of the 26 offices’ furnaces and air conditioners with high-efficiency units; and installed energy-efficient lighting in the building’s common areas.

Asked about the excessive cost of replacing windows — often so high that the return on energy savings never makes up for it — Davis doesn’t hesitate. “Some things are not about cost. Some things just have to be done.” Remarkably, he insists that the Maltex’s relatively low rents will not be raised as a result of the renovations. Instead, he says, “the idea is to be more competitive” by offering better, more desirable spaces.

Inside the building, TruexCullins encased elevator entrances in wood-veneer panels, and revamped the main southwest entry with new railings, natural stone and more wood veneer on the ceiling to cover up piping. “It was just spaghetti up there hanging everywhere,” recalls Kredell.

With advice from Cecilia Redmond of Redmond Interior Design in Burlington, brick hallway walls were repainted in what Kredell calls “richer colors,” including a warm yellow that echoes the exterior wood panels. “The walls used to be gray or green and [the paint] didn’t go above the arches,” Kredell notes, “so, in a way, the paint became more important than this beautiful structural element.”

The art-hanging rods lining those brick walls are currently bare as the building receives finishing touches — a fact that unsettles Davis as he strolls the halls. “It makes such a difference having the artwork,” he declares, glancing down an empty corridor.

The artwork will be back in force by Friday evening, when Davis hosts the Art Hop Kick-Off and Maltex Renaissance Celebration from a tented stage behind his building. The party will include live music and performance art, Davis reveals, involving kids from the Boys & Girls Club and the King Street Center, as well as a mysterious 12-foot-high bottle of champagne.

Davis says art has always been part of the Maltex Building’s DNA, and he’s right — the Maltex company once hired the “Mr. Magoo” cartoonists to create ads for its most famous cereal, maple-flavored Maypo. But Davis can also be credited for the Maltex’s mixed art and industry genes, from the Barrett sculpture to the building’s incarnation as a sculptural work unto itself.

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