The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Casting Call - Traditional Building Magazine

     
    PROJECT Bleecker+Bond Building, New York, NY
    ARCHITECT Scott Henson Architect, LLC, New York, NY; Scott Henson, principal

    By Eve M. Kahn

    Victorian cast-iron façades were the first curtain walls, maximizing natural light and column-free interior space. When poorly maintained, they can become unstable sieves. Scott Henson, the head of a five-person preservation architecture firm in New York City, Scott Henson Architect, LLC, spent part of the past four years overseeing the disassembly and reconstruction of a ten-story sieve.

    The cast-iron 1890s front of 648 Broadway, in Manhattan's trendy NoHo neighborhood, has been brought back from the brink of crumbling to watertight and structurally secure status. The longtime owners originally hired Henson just to inspect the façade after a chunk of cast iron fell, but the assignment grew into a $1.2 million overhaul. Tenants can now gaze across NoHo's higgledy-piggledy water towers through noise-blocking double-paned windows framed by metal rosettes, wreaths, dentils, balusters, and volutes. (Much of the intricate ornamentation is new, made by Robinson Iron in Alexander City, AL, and CCR Sheet Metal in Brooklyn, NY.)

    Henson was drawn to the commission partly because so many innovative Belle Epoque buildings survive nearby, including Louis Sullivan's leafy Bayard Building and McKim, Mead & White's Romanesque-arched Cable Building. "The historic and current development of the NoHo district is built upon progressive architectural experimentation," he says. The original name of 648 Broadway was the Banner Building, after its millionaire developer, Peter Banner. A wholesale clothing merchant, he also put up commercial and residential structures, including luxury apartment blocks on Central Park West.

    For the first phase of 648 Broadway, he hired Cleverdon & Putzel, prolific architects of everything from Harlem row houses to a crematory in nearby Queens. Tenants, mostly clothing manufacturers and sellers, filled Cleverdon & Putzel's eight floors soon after the Banner Building opened around 1892. Six years later, Banner brought in Robert T. Lyons (the architect of several Banner apartment buildings) to add a two-story penthouse. Lyons echoed Cleverdon & Putzel's arched windows and Classical vocabulary, and the top two floors serve as a lacy six-bay capital for the four-bay plainer base and shaft. Banner was prominent enough that his daughter Rosalie married a Bloomingdale department store heir (and that couple's son married a Rothschild baroness).

    But the developer apparently overextended himself. By 1906, 648 Broadway was embroiled in his bankruptcy proceedings. The current owner's family acquired it in the 1940s, and its tenant roster has evolved over the decades from handbag makers to a jazz club to designers, theater and film professionals and other creative types. The building is now loftily called Bleecker+Bond (after the adjacent side streets). Henson and the contracting team (Soho Restoration, Brooklyn, NY; subcontractor: MJE Contracting, Corona, NY) ended up removing unfortunate 20th-century accretions. Underneath a 1970s aluminum storefront, they found fluted pilasters, reliefs of lions' heads and an 1890s advertising plaque for the Cornell brothers' Manhattan iron foundry.

    Leaky window air conditioners had fostered decay in the wood sash and helped corrode the wrought-iron bolts that held together the cast iron. Lyons' sheet-metal upper floors were severely deteriorated, pocked with dents and punctures. The façade had to be literally taken apart. "Cast-iron construction is a complex assembly, a very heavy, unwieldy, brittle puzzle that demands meticulous care," says Henson. Soho Restoration dismantled the façade and patched the salvageable iron with epoxy from Belzona of Glen Cove, NY. Robinson Iron and CCR fabricated and installed new elements. The fasteners are now stainless steel, and the joints are soldered. J. Scott Howell, Robinson's general manager, is a veteran of such replication projects, and reports that New York's 19th-century foundries supplied an astonishing variety of compatible patterns that clients could mix and match. "Everybody wanted something a little special about their particular location," he says.

    Viles Contracting Corp. of Newark, NJ, used Cathedral Stone mortars to repair the eroded brownstone trim at the former Banner Building. JPadin of Newark installed Spanish cedar-framed, insulated-glass windows in double-hung and pivoting formats. New HVAC was woven throughout the ten floors, with mechanical equipment hoisted onto the roof, all while the offices remained occupied. Coal storage spaces on the ground floor, still full of container-loads of coal, were cleared out to adapt into a fire stair egress leading to a back alley. Henson and project subcontractor Julio Mejia recently toured a reporter through the building, starting at its foundations on granite blocks and brick ziggurats.

    In a basement cavity, a brick vault arches over the adjacent subway tunnel. (A train rattled ominously through, just in time for the tour.) A petaled leaded-glass transom illuminates the lobby's white marble walls. An ADA-compliant steel ramp, fitted snugly over a basement lateral beam, now leads to the ground floor's deli. Floral and ribbon motifs recur there in the pressed-metal ceiling, exposed column capitals and penny round tile floors. On the shaft for the venerable Otis freight elevator, Eastlake florals and stripes are incised on each floor's door latches. Iron asters and scrollwork trail down the back stair's railing. Construction debris from the 1890s still lurk in a strange windowless half-floor between the Cleverdon & Putzel base and Lyons' addition. Henson has developed a kind of sub-specialty in such dusty crannies and daring vintage architectural materials around New York City.

    In recent years he has secured the envelopes of everything from Flemish Revival stepped parapets to Colonial Revival limestone corner quoins, copper mansards, Beaux-Arts gilded domes, 1930s skylights, 1960s concrete balconies and 1980s curtain walls. Clients keep coming in with unique building conditions compromised by weather, time and gravity, or building components in some unexplained state of duress. "Those are the kinds of challenges I love," he says, "and that are important to me for my work as a preservation architect."  TB

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  • On Block in Harlem, Neighbors’ Push for Restoration Will End in Demolition

    Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times
    Derrick Taitt and his neighbors tried to save the graffiti-covered building at 58 East 126th Street.
    By
    Published: April 15, 2012
    Gentrification, or at the very least prettification, has reshaped block after block in Harlem, but it has not fully arrived at East 126th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.
    There, handsome rows of century-and-a-half-old brownstones line the north and south sides of the street, just as they do one block west, on a pristine tree-lined stretch where homeowners keep polished doorknobs and spotless front stoops. But along East 126th Street, vacant buildings are interspersed among the inhabited ones. Their windows are boarded up or bricked over with cinder blocks. Chicken wire encircles a couple of the front stoops. One brownstone is fronted by ribbons of razor wire, though neighbors said people still lived there legally, they just went in through the back. In the middle of the block, on the south side, sits No. 58, scrawled over with graffiti, stricken with a caving roof and collapsing floors, and deemed structurally unsound. The building is slated for demolition this month by the city, despite a nearby resident’s efforts to buy it and neighbors’ laments that the seamless row of houses will be punched through with a gap-tooth hole. “Historical buildings should be saved,” said Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian and the author of “Harlem: Lost and Found.” “If a property is more valuable with its historic resources intact,” he said, “why would you let it get to a state where the only recourse is to demolish it?” No. 58 has not been designated a city landmark, but, according to Mr. Adams, it has the potential to be, sitting on a brownstone block comparable to others with historical designations. It is also about a block and half from the former home of the poet Langston Hughes, 20 East 127th Street, which is a city landmark. Despite a strong overall community sentiment that city money should go to restoring such buildings before they degenerate and become structurally dangerous, the city says it is not in the business of rescuing unsound, privately owned buildings. “It’s always the private property owner’s responsibility to maintain the property,” said Eric Bederman, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is overseeing the demolition. “It is a critical part of what being a responsible owner is about.” Property records show a troubled financial history for No. 58, which, according to Mr. Adams, was most likely built in the late 1860s for upper middle class whites. It was advertised for a sheriff’s sale in 1970, acquired by the city in 1980 through a tax foreclosure, sold at public auction two years later, and in 2006, was bought for $950,000 by a corporation called Parade Place LLC, of Brooklyn. Messages left with Saadia Shapiro, who is listed in public records as the corporation’s managing member, were not returned. One neighbor, Derrick Taitt, who owns a brownstone on the north side of the street, said that No. 58 had sat empty for over two decades. In recent years, neighbors began calling the city’s 311 line as conditions deteriorated. Debris was falling. The roof was collapsing. Squatters were sneaking in and out of a large hole in the street level wall. “It’s gotten worse in the last eight or nine months; street dwellers have been coming in,” said Michael Peterson, 44, who lives with his family in the top floor of No. 56, next door. “All of us collectively have been complaining.” The brownstone on the other side of Mr. Peterson’s building is also vacant, which is troubling to him and his neighbors. No. 52-54, a double-wide, has long been a gathering point for vagrants, drug users and prostitutes, Mr. Peterson said. He and other neighbors recently bought supplies from a hardware shop and hammered together a wooden barrier with nails sticking out of the top to block the basement stairwell. They also lined the front fence with chicken wire. “Prior to the sealing, it was really bad,” he said. “But we shouldn’t have to do that.” (According to property records, the building is owned by the William M. James Housing Development Fund Corp. Reached by phone, Mr. James, who is 96 and a former minister at Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church, across the street, said that there were plans to convert the building into a seniors’ center). But though the buildings on either side have vexed Mr. Peterson, he does not want to see them torn down. “It’s just going to bring in more issues,” he said. Mr. Taitt, who said he was on the board of the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle, said he had tried repeatedly to contact the owner of No. 58 to make offers on the place, sending certified letters that got no reply. “Another neighbor said, ‘Why don’t we get together and buy it?’ ” Mr. Taitt said. “The owner doesn’t want to talk.” After inspections by the city departments of housing and buildings found further problems at No. 58 — a teetering rear brick wall, more roof cave-ins, a collapsed floor — they issued a declaration to demolish in late March. A spokesman for the housing department said that demolition work would most likely begin in two weeks, and that the property owner would be billed. Neighbors suspect, warily, that after the building is torn down, a bland, boxlike structure will rise in its place: the property owners may build whatever they please, so long as they comply with zoning requirements and the building code. Already, neighbors are girding for the loss. “These buildings have personality,” said E. Wayne Tyree, 70, a poet who lives nearby. “This will change the whole beauty of the thing.”
    Jack Begg contributed reporting.
     
    A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2012, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: On Block in Harlem, Neighbors’ Push for Restoration Will End in Demolition.

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