Transformation: Repurposing the Old Stapleton Airport Tower

April 9, 2018

When the new Denver International Airport was under construction in the early 1990s, plans were already under way on what to do with Stapleton Airport after it closed. The Stapleton Development Foundation, made up of a group of city leaders, produced a master plan for the old airport that included a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use planned community.

Located 15 minutes from downtown Denver, Stapleton’s 4,700 acres started to change in 2001, with its runways transformed into tree-lined streetscapes and a parking structure into a neighborhood site.

But even with all these changes, the old control tower stood empty. The city tried to work with several groups to redevelop the space, to no avail — until Robert Thompson, CEO and founder of Punch Bowl Social stepped up. Punch Bowl Social is a chain of locally curated “eat-ertainment” restaurant venues that combine locally themed food and drinks with activities including karaoke, arcade and table games and bowling.

“A few years ago, my phone rang and it was Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon, who oversees the Stapleton neighborhood, mysteriously asking if we could meet up,” Thompson recalled. “When we did, he floated the idea of Punch Bowl Social taking over the old air traffic control tower building.”

The control tower had stood vacant for more than 20 years, said Thompson. “Imagine a crumbling, deteriorated building, scrawled with graffiti, enclosed by a chain link fence, rising above this lovely, master-planned community,” he said. “While the tower is now surrounded on all sides by new homes and high-density millennial housing, it had been an eyesore to the community, and the city, for more than two decades.”

Thompson said that when given the chance to give new life to an iconic structure, he immediately said yes. “We actually didn’t approach the city – the city approached us. Dozens of ideas for re-use of the tower were presented over the years, including demolition,” he said.

Becky Stone is a managing principal at OZ Architecture who oversaw the Punch Bowl Social project. “At the time, the city wasn’t sure what it wanted to do with the tower. But they did want to maintain its history, since it’s iconic,” she recalled. “So we came up up with ideas to preserve the tower.”

This project was a significant, multi-year undertaking, said Thompson. “While the building was structurally sound, the interior had degraded substantially over the past two decades, requiring comprehensive infrastructure improvements.”

It would have been much easier — and significantly more cost-effective — to demolish the building and start from scratch, but that’s not what Punch Bowl Social is about, said Thompson. “This building presented significant challenges for our team – more than we’ve previously experienced in any other location,” he explained, “from understanding the structural capacity of the floors, to wiring and mechanical challenges.

Thompson and his team chose Denver-based OZ Architecture on the project because of that company’s deep collaboration over the past several years. “We’re not typical clients. We come with very specific design ideas and very lofty ideas for how Punch Bowl Social spaces should feel, look and function,” he stated. “We’re demanding as hell, and sometimes uncompromising on the things we want. And OZ has been in lock step with us, finding creative solutions and building each of our locations with extraordinary attention to the details. We push them and then they push us.”

In working on those details, accommodations had to be made, said Stone. “Punch Bowl Social has a bowling alley and they are long, so we got creative with designing an addition to the building that kept with the character of building,” she said. “The city was very open to our ideas and encouraged fostering creative ways to use the building.”

Before construction began, there was a lot of environmental clean-up, said Stone. “We had to do a radar scan of the foundation to see what we might hit,” she said. “When the original runways were removed, they didn’t remove the underground piers, so we needed to see where they were before we started digging. We also had to do structural updates to make sure the building met current seismic codes.”

One of the biggest construction challenges was the height of the tower, said Stone. “When we were getting the building permit from the city, under the code, the tower was considered a high rise,” she recalled. “So we had to work with the city on how to deal with the tower when the rest of the building was only three stories.” But the sides worked through it, she added.

Design is one of the primary components that makes Punch Bowl Social such a standout, said Thompson. “We are unwavering in our drive to push the boundaries of design.” The project took about two and a half years from the first conversation with Chris Herndon to the grand opening, he added.

The design of the 32,000-square- foot project honors the legacy of the airport and preserves many elements of the historic tower building, including stylized, precast panels that originally adorned the exterior of the building, said Thompson. “The intensive effort required removing and preserving the panels to accommodate the new design and then mounting them back on the building. It’s pretty cool to see the original exterior integrated into the interior design.”

The response and excitement from the community for our new location has been overwhelming, said Thompson. “Stapleton is our 10th location and the second one in our hometown of Denver. Tickets to our grand opening event [in November] sold out in less than two hours. We were swamped with requests for more tickets up until we opened the doors,” he said. “It has been amazing to see the continued interest from the community.”

The transformation of the old Stapleton worked great because Thompson saw the uniqueness of the building, said Stone. “They worked well with our team and the city to see what could be done. It’s now a restaurant that is uniquely sought out,” she said.

For those wanting to attempt a similar transformation, Thompson noted that there isn’t enough patience when preserving a historic place. “However long you think the project might take, double it. With that being said, it has been an incredible effort and more importantly an honor, to preserve the
former control tower,” he said.

Punch Bowl Social is intentional about seeking locations that have historic roots but need a new purpose, said Thompson. “Five years ago we opened our original location in Denver on South Broadway in a former abandoned Big Lots store that was reimagined as the first Punch Bowl Social,” he said. “We have some exciting adaptive reuse projects coming up next year. In San Diego we’re renovating a historic 1920s boxing Coliseum into a Punch Bowl Social. We are also working on a 1950s warehouse in Bushwick, another historic property and challenging adaptive reuse project which will be our first New York location, slated to open next year.”

The team had a vision, said Stone. “We included the oddities of the existing building and embraced them. We used the unique characteristics of the building and made the most of it in the new venue,” she said.