The Gianotti Building at 278 Main St. in West Haven is an example of the adaptive reuse of a property. It was built as a school in 1926 and converted to apartments in 1986.

Thirty-five years ago in New England, an old mill building was just an old mill building. If the company that had inhabited it took off for the South or to another part of the country that offered a cheaper cost of doing business, the building stood abandoned or was torn down to make way for a new apartment block or retail stores.

Progress usually meant new buildings and new development, so historic buildings in New England’s cities and suburbs were torn down by the hundreds to make way for other uses.

That all changed in the mid-1970s, when tax reform accelerated depreciation and gave developers the incentive to work with existing buildings. Laws put restrictions on banks, forcing them to invest in their own, often old, neighborhoods. And the oil crisis of the early 1970s, which prompted many New England manufacturing businesses to move to the South – leaving hundreds of buildings empty – also contributed to the birth of the adaptive reuse of old buildings, according to Scarsdale, N.Y.-based architect Richard Henry Behr, who has been working on adaptive reuse projects in New England for 35 years.

In addition, there was a shift in philosophy for people in architecture and urban planning, Behr said. Books and research by authors and theorists like Jane Jacobs – author of the 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” – helped change the way people thought of historic buildings.

“We’ve learned how not to destroy a city in order to rebuild it,” Behr said.

Behr started working on adaptive reuse projects – projects that take an old building and renovate it for another use – as soon as they became popular.

He worked on the renovation of the Taft Hotel in downtown New Haven in the late 1970s, a project that converted the venerable, 14-story building into 196 apartments with commercial space and restaurants on the first floor. It would have been easy for the city of New Haven to put subsidized housing there, but community leaders thought it was important to have market-rate apartments downtown. The project was a catalyst for the city’s eventual downtown revitalization, as are many adaptive reuse projects in downtown areas.

‘Really Cool Buildings’

Adaptive reuse is still going strong in cities like New Haven, where several projects, including the renovation of the Southern New England Telephone Co. headquarters into apartments, are ongoing. Renovated buildings throughout the state are also showing their continuing value, as three suburban properties recently sold for $38.7 million.

Steve Witten and Victor Nolletti of New Haven-based Marcus & Millichap recently brokered the sale of two century-old mills and a 1920s school that were converted into apartments in the 1980s. Yarn Mill, a 123-unit luxury apartment building at 210 Pine St. in Manchester, was built around the beginning of the 20th century and converted for residential use in 1988 and 1989. Weaver Mill, a 288-unit luxury apartment building at 91 Elm St. in Manchester, was built in 1886 and also was converted in 1988 and 1989. The third property, the Gianotti Building at 278 Main St. in West Haven, was built as a school in 1926 and converted to apartments in 1986.

It’s unusual to see properties like those in the suburbs, Witten said, so there are few benchmarks to compare the price. But it was a fair market price, when taking into account square footage and other factors, he said.

“To see these large suburban mills [being successful], it’s great,” Witten said.

The three properties now offer amenities such as elevators, exposed brick, arched windows and vaulted ceilings. But the buyer, New York-based Tarragon Corp., plans to make even more improvements, according to Witten. They will add amenities like expanded fitness centers and business centers, he said.

“They know exactly what tenants are looking for,” Witten said.

The old properties offer more than historic preservation and a way to counter urban sprawl. Many tenants like to live there because of the high ceilings, old beams and character of the buildings.

“They are fun to live in,” Witten said.

They’re also fun to market, he added.

“They’re really cool buildings,” Witten said. “These are just fun to work on.”

The architecture of older buildings doesn’t just inspire real estate brokers and tenants. Other architects have been taking their cues from those properties, now more than ever.

“New architecture and new construction are now emulating existing buildings,” Behr said.

Buildings with lofts, high ceilings and interesting details are highly marketable today.

“The market well and people see the value in them,” Behr said.

The Yarn Mill property in Manchester is a 213,123-square-foot building on 3.65 acres. The building contains four efficiency-style units totaling between 802 square feet and 913 square feet, 62 one-bedroom units from 860 square feet to 1,607 square feet, 55 two-bedroom units of 1,357 square feet to 1,899 square feet and one three-bedroom unit totaling 1,842 square feet.

Weaver Mill totals 287,682 square feet. The building has an elevator, exposed brick and full amenities. The building contains 12 efficiency-style loft units of 990 square feet to 1,538 square feet, 209 one-bedroom units totaling between 644 square feet and 1,626 square feet, 42 two-bedroom units of 1,070 square feet to 2,549 square feet and 24 three-bedroom units of 1,087 square feet to 2,147 square feet.

The Gianotti Building in West Haven was originally the West Haven High School and later the Gianotti School. The building sits on 2.45 acres. The units are larger than any other in the immediate market and have exposed brick and full amenities. The building contains 11 efficiency-style units averaging 432 square feet, 79 one-bedroom units totaling between 791 square feet and 915 square feet, 20 two-bedroom units totaling 1,016 square feet each and six three bedroom units totaling 1,241 square feet apiece.