a large building with arched windows and people walking around

Henson Team Outing at the Polonsky Exhibition

By: Scott Henson

The Henson team just visited the new Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures for a fun fall outing! The exhibit features some of the library’s most remarkable manuscripts, artworks, recordings, etc. and is located in the beautifully restored Gottesman Exhibition Hall.

In 2015, while working at another firm, Henson’s Associate Principal, Eric Hammarberg, was in the midst of a total ceiling restoration in The Rose Main Reading Room. While on site one day, Eric was informed that several small pieces of ornamental carved wood had fallen from the ceiling of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall onto the glass cases of an exhibit. He immediately visited the Hall to conduct a brief visual inspection of the ornately carved wood coffered ceiling. This event launched a comprehensive restoration of the wood ceiling.

The restoration included the replacing hundreds of missing wood elements with new pieces carved from wood of the same species and time period, dutchman repairs, staining, modifications to a utility panel using aircraft aluminum structural honeycomb behind the wood veneer ceiling, cleaning, and hand waxing the entire ceiling. The painstakingly detailed restoration is most impressive because you can barely tell that it happened! Wielding his tactical flashlight, Eric pointed out repairs that were otherwise invisible.

Next, we moved to The Rose Main Reading Room where Eric recounted the restoration of the gilded and painted plaster ceilings (in a hushed voice, of course). The reading room is so large – 297 feet long to be exact and nearly 2/3 acre – that any small sound such as someone scooting a chair underneath a table creates a dramatic echo that bounces off of every wall.

The restoration occurred after one of the ceiling’s plaster rosettes fell 50 feet to the ground in the middle of the night. This was similar to what happened downstairs, however one can imagine that there was a much more dramatic sound as the 16-pound solid plaster rosette shattered on the tile floors of the football field sized echo chamber that is the reading room!

The reading room was closed for two years while the restoration was underway. Eric described how a 40-foot-tall dance floor scaffold was installed and each of the 872 plaster rosettes was manually examined and tested, then securely re-anchored to the ceiling with stainless steel cables. He also regaled us with fun facts such as how the library sits on the site (and part of the foundation) of the old Croton Reservoir, that much of the construction equipment and materials entered the reading room through the functioning section of a window that was temporarily removed.

It was so much fun to get the inside scoop on these projects and enjoy the stunning artifacts on display at the Polonsky Exhibition. There is so much to learn inside this stunning temple to knowledge and it sparks major joy to see that The New York Public Library is committed to the stewardship that this building deserves.

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