The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Reconstructing Lady Liberty

    As the Statue of Liberty reopens to the public Urban Omnibus interviews Lehrer McGovern about the 1984-6 renovation of the statue in preparation for its centennial celebration. Tomorrow, on Independence Day, one of our country’s most beloved monuments will re-open to the public for the first time since Superstorm Sandy destroyed the docks, promenade, and much of the infrastructure on Liberty Island last October. While the extreme winds and flooding wreaked havoc on mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and sewage systems, the Statue of Liberty itself was not damaged. The fact that the statue withstood the storm is a testament not only to the its original design — the elasticity of the structural support system Gustave Eiffel designed makes it highly weather-resistant, literally swaying in the wind — but also to the various attempts over the years to maintain and upgrade the historic structure. Indeed, Eiffel devised ingenious engineering solutions to realize the vision of political thinker Edouard de Laboulaye, sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, and architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the original designer of the internal structure who died unexpectedly in 1879 before the plans were complete. Eiffel’s solution to the structural challenges inherent to Bartholdi’s design prefigured the curtain-wall construction of the 20th century skyscraper: the statue’s skin is not load-bearing but is instead supported by a skeletal substructure of a 92-foot central pylon girded with lightweight and malleable trusswork that assumes the irregular shape of Lady Liberty’s body. Nonetheless, defects from the original construction have beleaguered the statue’s custodians since its opening in 1886. The head and arm were both misaligned with her body by more than a foot, forcing their attachment to different parts of the supporting structure than originally intended. And the chemical reaction between the copper of the skin and the iron of the armature was always bound to cause major problems. As Edward Cohen put it to The New York Times in 1985, “If you put iron and copper together with a little moisture, you get a battery.” A century of quick fixes to these and other challenges – including the use of asbestos, leather, tar, and lots of green paint – only exacerbated the issues that long plagued the monument. Cohen, an engineer who spent 50 years with the firm Ammann and Whitney, was part of a team, including architecture firms Swanke Hayden Connell and Thierry Despont, that worked tirelessly for two years to completely renovate the statue in advance of its centennial in 1986, a celebration presided over by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterand. Another principal collaborator on this group effort was the construction management firm of Lehrer McGovern, which was a modest four-year old start-up in 1983 when it beat out many larger and more experienced companies to win the sought-after renovation contract for the Statue of Liberty. The difficulty and high profile of this project accelerated the firm’s ascent to become one of the most respected construction management companies in the country. Thirty years later, on the eve of the Statue’s re-opening after eight months of repairs, Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director of the Architectural League, sat down with Peter Lehrer, one of the founders of Lehrer McGovern, to ask him to describe this pivotal project in his career. The story he tells touches on only some of the many fascinating details of this complex feat of historic preservation – from coordinating on-site logistics, to identifying suitable building materials and processes, to sourcing French artisans skilled in traditional metalworking techniques. As Lehrer’s description makes clear, the Statue of Liberty’s status as an enduring icon of freedom and the promise of America continues to overshadow the marvel of its engineering, construction, and ongoing efforts to maintain it. — C.S. I’ve had a life-long fascination with the construction business. My father immigrated to this country as a carpenter, and I remember following him around as I was growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. The thought never entered my mind that I would do anything other than build buildings. So I went to a university to become a civil engineer, and I have been in the construction business ever since. When I graduated, I started working for a major builder. One of my first jobs was as an assistant superintendent at the Pan Am (now MetLife) building. Sixteen years later, I was president of the eastern region, the largest portion of the company. In 1979, Gene McGovern and I formed Lehrer McGovern. It started around our kitchen table in Scarsdale, with my wife answering the phone. But within a few years, it had become a major construction company in New York. Lehrer McGovern was one of the early firms doing construction management – that was 100% of our business – which essentially means that the entire focus of the company was serving the clients’ best interests. I think the firm was respected because of its tenacity, its innovation, the caliber of its employees, and its ability to complete projects on time. In 1983, we got the job of a lifetime, restoring the Statue of Liberty. Our client was the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, and we had a very fixed completion date. There was no room for even one day’s delay because on July 4th, 1986, President Ronald Reagan was going to turn the lights on in the torch. 1986 was the 100th anniversary of the Statue’s initial construction. The project needed to be finished flawlessly and on time. When France donated the 100-foot statue in 1886, it was agreed that the Americans would build the pedestal. The U.S. was unsuccessful in raising the money in time, so when the 214 crates arrived on Liberty Island, the pedestal was not yet ready. It was only through the efforts of Joseph Pulitzer, who used his newspaper The World to campaign for small donations – in many cases pennies being sent in from schoolchildren – that the money was raised to complete the pedestal. One hundred years later, when the Parks Service, which is responsible for the statue, recognized that there were many problems that needed to be fixed, President Reagan once again appealed to private citizens for donations, appointing Lee Iacocca to create a foundation to fundraise and manage the process of reconstruction. Although much of the monies was raised by corporations, once again one million dollars was raised from pennies donated by school children. I think part of the fascination with the reconstruction was that literally everything that we had to do had never been done before. We were looking at groundbreaking, seemingly impossible problems, and coming up with some very unconventional solutions. We worked closely with the design team and with the National Parks Service, but it was Lehrer McGovern’s responsibility to find the solutions, to present and test them. Originally, the statue was already designed and well into construction before Gustave Eiffel was engaged to design the internal structure, which consisted of vertical steel members and a series of intermediate members. But what holds the copper skin to the Statue are approximately 600 armature bars made of a ferrous metal that follow the contours of the skin. To prevent the electrolytic reaction between the copper and the ferrous metal, they used an asbestos separator. But over time, the asbestos separator deteriorated and water started to penetrate through what we called the saddles, which clamped over the armature wall, riveted to the skin of the statue. What we found was that the expansion and corrosion of these armature bars had caused the fastening for many of these saddles to become disengaged. The government’s response to this water infiltration was to coat the entire inside of the statue with a tar material. But that actually accelerated the deterioration because the water then became trapped between the tar and the skin. And then it looked so bad that they continuously painted the inside of the statue with green paint. By the time we started working on it, the statue would have failed and potentially collapsed if the corrective work was not done. The job required working in a very confined environment, and conventional materials would be toxic and dangerous to either the workers or to the statue. We ended up removing the paint with liquid nitrogen, which was donated by Union Carbide. We literally froze the paint off! As workers and material had to come by boat every day, we had to build our own pier. And we had barges docked with those gigantic tanks of liquid nitrogen that we would spray on the statue to make the paint fall right off. The next challenge was figuring out how to get the tar off. We tried all sorts of different solvents, and amazingly we found that a solution of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, would remove the tar. Arm & Hammer donated the sodium bicarbonate. In a sense, this was probably the world’s largest Alka-Seltzer, and we were able to remove all of the tar. Afterwards, we were left with what the inside of the statue looked like when it was originally erected, which enabled us to go in and repair all of the armature bars. At the same time, because there was so much deterioration in the torch and the flame, we were faced with a very elaborate process of disengaging the existing torch and flame and lowering them to the ground. At the same time we rebuilt the flame in keeping with its original design: solid sheets of copper. It’s now lit externally, so there is no possibility of water infiltration. Now, when you look at it at night, it’s glowing, it has gold leaf paint on it surrounded by very powerful lighting. There were countless other aspects to this complex project: creating an emergency elevator within the pedestal, improving the ventilation system, repairing the circular stair. Providing access for the work to be completed required the scaffolding itself to be a creative and functional work of art. The scaffolding was constructed by a firm called Universal Builder Supply (UBS), and it still holds the world record for the highest freestanding scaffold ever erected. One of the very first challenges we had to solve was finding artisans who were able to work in repoussé, the metalworking technique used in the original construction of the statue. The technique involves creating negative molds out of wood and plaster and hammering flat sheets of copper into those molds. It’s a skill that doesn’t really exist here, so we went to Reims, France, and brought back ten French craftsmen – only one of whom was able to speak English – to do all the copper restoration. We set up a shop on the island with their tools and, of course, we had to solve a union problem since they obviously didn’t belong to a construction union. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work on a wide variety of projects, from Euro Disney to London’s Canary Wharf, to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, to the Central Park Zoo renovation. But rebuilding the Statue of Liberty was an incredible, special experience. It was an honor to work on this monument, and the more you learn about how innovative the design actually was, the more you appreciate this symbol of liberty in our country. My interest has always been to figure out how to do things that others think can’t be done. Looking forward, I’d love to be someone who helps protect the city against future floods. I’ve done a fair amount of work on flood mitigation, so I’m aware just how awesome the task at hand is. I just hope the needs are realized before it’s too late.

  • Henry Hope Reed 1915-2013

    Paul Gunther remembers the contrarian classicist in The Architect's Newspaper. henry_hope_reed_03 Historian, author, and self-styled man of letters from an era when such amateurs had a loud voice in civic dialog and resulting public policy, Henry Hope Reed spent nearly a century working and living in Manhattan, which became his frame of architectural reference and the crucible of his ideas. He is the last surviving founder of the preservation movement with its alternative vision to the wholesale post war displacement essential to global modernist hegemony and its reliance on the car and attendant vertical hierarchies and linear sprawl. His path attracted the label of nostalgia, if not outright reaction with its perceived rejection of all innovative design solutions, technologies, and divisions of labor in meeting contemporary needs. Over time, Reed went a step further, calling for a classical design vocabulary to be applied in all new construction in line with his vision of a past “Golden City” needlessly abandoned by the rupture of modernism. It is this singular perspective that finally earned his reputation as obstructionist curmudgeon. Brendan Gill once said his fellow critic and gadfly would not be happy until every subway car featured Corinthian pilasters at well-proportioned intervals. His co-creation of Classical America in 1968 as a nonprofit organization devoted to advocacy, publications, and awards led eventually to its merger with the younger Institute of Classical Architecture, functioning nationwide today via 16 chapters dedicated to stemming the erosion of cultural memory by providing the achievements of the past as a resource for contemporary design. Reed’s opposition gave way to the more ecumenical pursuit of sustaining a body of knowledge for those seeking to understand and variously apply it. Marketplace realities were and remain a big reason why. What was lost in the acerbic fray of his final career chapter, when many stopped listening, was his pioneering role in recognizing and in turn safeguarding Central Park as a work of landscape architecture. The pioneering founder of the Central Park Conservancy, Betsy Barlow Rogers, knows best. “Reed’s 1967 book Central Park: A History and Guide written when holding the title ‘Curator of Central Park,’ which he invented with the blessing of Mayor Lindsay, was my primer when, as a new New Yorker, I was discovering my adopted city’s green heart,” she said. Reed’s lead paragraph summons exemplary wit: “Many other well-informed persons believe that one day in the last century the city fenced off 840 rocky acres of Manhattan Island and declared them park.” He salvaged Olmsted and Vaux from the creative scrap heap, as Moses was busiest working to dismantle their now seminal contribution to the conjunction of nature and design. A year earlier in 1966—a half decade before Earth Day—he implored Lindsay to ban car traffic from the park at all times. Reaction as radical progress; the Futurist, proto-modern vision of speeding vehicle versus man was called into doubt. While it took force on weekends, fifty years later his goal for a permanent ban still awaits the courage of self-described progressive officials, elected and appointed. henry_hope_reed_02 Reed also introduced America to the architectural walking tour in 1955, when New York’s Municipal Art Society agreed to his novel proposal inspired by the visites conference street lectures he had discovered in Paris. Like devotion to Central Park, it is strange to conceive of New York without them. He also rescued several collections of Beaux-Arts practitioners at a time when their career contributions were deemed at best embarrassing in the face of curtain wall function. Columbia’s Avery Library and the New-York Historical Society were prime beneficiaries in the latter instance, featuring the full nationwide output of Cass Gilbert, including his centennial-celebrating Woolworth Building. The widow Gilbert had no other place to turn in mid-century. In 2005, the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, with the support of Chicago investor Richard Driehaus, created the annual $50,000 Henry Hope Reed Award for “an individual working outside the practice of architecture who has supported the cultivation of the traditional city, its design, and art through writing, planning, or promotion.” It is bestowed every year along with the Driehaus Prize for Traditional Architecture, which for more than a decade has held forth as an alternative Pritzker Prize, despite its relative obscurity. On Capitol Hill, July 5, 1955, the House Appropriations Committee of the 84th Congress considered the 1956 appropriation to the Department of Defense as Reed sat side by side with Frank Lloyd Wright. Unexpectedly allied in testimony critical of the initial Skidmore Owings & Merrill proposal for an Air Force Academy in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado Springs, their complementary view was the absence of and necessity for some sort of anchoring gathering place of shared value. The renowned chapel thus began to take shape. Henry testified, “In the creation of an Air Force Academy the Government I believe is not taking advantage of a great opportunity to assert the tradition of building magnificently with the aid of all the arts. By doing so all Americans gain the opportunity to reaffirm the bonds of citizenship in visual form—an opportunity that this Government has not offered them up until now.” The same debate continues today, made worse by tight budget battles, but finally the hopeful if often brittle theme of Reed’s lifelong research and clamor was the possibility of a stable and ennobling common wheal expressed through architecture in pursuit of a livable city. His personal classical solution was narrowly rule-bound but his driving civic hope was unlimited.