a tall building with many windows and a clock on it

Scott Henson Architect Takes Home a National Design Award

By: Scott Henson

The Knickerbocker Telephone Company Building

Originally constructed in 1894 by architect and builder John T. Williams, the “Knickerbocker Telephone Co. Building” is located at 200 Lafayette Street in New York City’s SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Extension, an area that gained prominence in the late-nineteenth century as one of the city’s prime manufacturing districts. The buildings of this district display a variety of architectural styles including Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Revival styles, which were adapted to meet the needs of American commercial interests. The Knickerbocker Telephone Co. Building is designed in the Renaissance Revival-style, characterized by its rusticated base, multi-story brick piers topped by molded capitals, elaborate cartouches, and pressed-metal cornices decorated with dentils and scrolled brackets.

Over the years, the building was occupied by a variety of tenants, including the National Wall Paper Co. (1896); the Knickerbocker Telephone Co. (1900); the Fairbanks Scales Co. (1902-20); the Woodcrafts Equipment Co. (1932); Toepfer-Anderson Promotions Service, direct mail service (1951); the Miller-Charles Co., automatic screw machines (1962); LCY Sportswear, clothing manufacturers (1977); Laura Whitcomb, clothing boutique (1996); and the North Fork Bank, branch (2006).

Acknowledging its historic significance, General Growth Properties retained Scott Henson Architect and Stephen B Jacobs Group in 2012 for an exterior and interior restoration that would address decades of deterioration that had left the building in a critical state of disrepair. With a cost of $36 million, the meticulous restoration included the repair and/or replacement of nearly all of the building’s original historic features, including the sheet metal cornice, brownstone water tables, sills and lintels; cast-iron bands and storefront bays; and wrought iron fire escapes. Much of the top floor of the Lafayette Street façade was reconstructed along with the entire upper half of the sheet metal cornice and decorative brackets, which were replaced to match the original. Due to the extensive deterioration of the brownstone, substantial sections of the water tables had to be completely rebuilt and many of the brownstone lintels and sills had to be cut back and replaced. All the cast iron and wrought iron elements of the facades were stripped, patched or recast and painted to its original historic color.

The 105,000 sf manufacturing building has been converted into high end office space for the clothing distributor, J.C. Penney, and a storefront showroom for the appliance distributor, Pirch. The architects took full advantage of the original building materials and details, which are featured in the renovation. All seven floors have high ceilings and loft-like spaces where great care was taken to restore, preserve, and expose the materials at hand, revealing historic features and reducing material needs. Neglected and decaying interiors were brought back to life by exposing and restoring the brick walls, cast iron columns and heavy timber beams, while contrasting new concrete and glass maintain a modern, airy feel. The immense courtyard skylight was replaced, flooding the first floor with warm, natural light and nearly eliminating the need for artificial lighting during the day.

The importance of the neighborhood is rooted in deep social, cultural, and economic history within the infrastructure of New York City whose commercial architecture is one of the most well documented and geographically compact in the country. The vast cast iron construction of the area is a testament to the architectural and engineering feats of 19th century commercial construction. The restoration project, completed by partners General Growth Properties, Scott Henson Architect, SBJ Group, and Higgins Quasebarth and Partners, is more than just a revitalization of the original historic fabric; it is a celebration and recognition of the significant cultural impact that this building had in the history of making, manufacturing, and creating in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

Sustainable Design Intent

The preservation and re-use of The Knickerbocker Telephone Co. Building is critical to the sustainable stewardship of our environmental resources. Buildings represent an incredibly high embodied energy, that is, the energy and resources expended to build them as well as what would be required to replace them. The preservation and adaptive re-use of this historic structure is an example of the most beneficial sustainable practice that can be offered in building construction.

From the exterior to the interior of the building, the design intent was to keep and restore as much of the existing as possible. The interior open floor layout takes full advantage of the existing column spacing as well as the natural light from the large windows on both Lafayette Street and Broome Street. New glass walls were installed to create conference rooms and offices where required, without diminishing the transparency and airiness of the space. High efficiency mechanical equipment was placed in the least desirable locations of the floors. Given its dense urban setting, the building is very well connected within its community, with most employees commuting by foot, bicycle, or subway, or combinations of all three. LEED Certification is in progress.

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