NOVEMBER 2008 » FEATURE

Profiting from History

Architects' strategies for turning some of New York City's grandest old buildings into condos are proving their worth despite an erratic housing market.
By Eve M. Kahn

Not since the 1970s wave of warehouse-to-loft conversions have so many apartments taken over formerly non-residential structures in New York City. The homes fetch prices up to eight figures, partly because the architects have maintained quirky traces of history. The evidence of the buildings' past uses – whether as foundries, factories, offices or dowager hotels – is keeping sales steady even in a difficult market. And the passersby benefit too, as exteriors are cleaned and reinforced and long-shuttered ground-floor spaces are reopened to the public. One Hanson Place, also known as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, and the Plaza Hotel, both fast-tracked over the past three years, are two of the most notable recent conversions in the city – each displaying methods of carving posh homes within skyline-defining masonry profiles.

Project: One Hanson Place, Brooklyn, NY

Client: Dermot Company, New York, NY; Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, Los Angeles, CA

Architect: H. Thomas O'Hara Architect, New York, NY

Façade Restoration Consultant: Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., New York, NY

Contractor: Hunter Roberts Construction Group, New York, NY

No Brooklyn spire can compete with the height or the memorable shape of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. The bank had originally expected its 1929 tiers of setbacks to be surrounded by tall rivals, but the executives misread downtown Brooklyn's housing market. "They assumed that other buildings would come up around them," says architectural historian Eric Allison.

Instead, the Depression quashed Brooklyn development. Above the bank's dazzlingly vaulted and gilded hall for customers, 34 floors of offices long sat vacant. After World War II, dentists moved in by the score, attracted to the 360-degree views of parks, church steeples, bridges and Manhattan. The scenery helped distract the patients, Allison explains: "They were less likely to notice what was happening in their mouths."

This year, condo owners started occupying the former dental center. The building has been renamed for its address, One Hanson Place, and reorganized into 179 residences that cost up to $5.875 million. A development team of the Dermot Company and Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund (founded by basketball star Magic Johnson) orchestrated the conversion. In 2005, they bought the landmark for $71 million from HSBC, the last banking occupant. With Thornton Tomasetti as façade consultants, H. Thomas O'Hara Architect has worked up a restoration true to the 1929 design intent: a reassuring sense of stability, with touches of whimsy.

The original architects, a Manhattan firm named Halsey, McCormick & Helmer, specialized in eye-catching domed banks, mostly in Classical or Art Deco modes. Robert Helmer, the only licensed architect at the office, also served as its eloquent spokesman. He described the bank's overall style as "an unusual and beautiful variation of the Romanesque," with a 63-ft.-tall banking hall akin to "a cathedral dedicated to the furtherance of thrift and prosperity of the community."

The lower stories are clad in swirly Minnesota granite and Indiana limestone. On the 512-ft. shaft, buff-brick planes are trimmed in terra cotta and limestone. Just under the gilded dome, four clock faces have long marked time for Brooklynites in every direction. Locals have also been irresistibly drawn to the banking hall's extravaganza of marble in dozens of colors, cast metalwork ornament and glass mosaic scenery. The images in the mosaics alone range from celestial – zodiac signs, sunrays, starry nights – to locally rooted: an aerial view of Brooklyn fills one wall, depicting colonial flags and the names of Dutch settlements. The marble floors are patterned in pentagons, zigzags, overlapping disks and parallelograms. Stone columns and arches and extraordinarily diverse metalwork (in bronze, brass, copper and even silver) portray industrious workers, fierce animals, bountiful harvests and currencies.

Williamsburgh Savings and subsequent banks were so respectful of the interior that a 1996 designation report from the city's Landmarks Commission (the exterior was landmarked in 1977) contains a litany of intact features including "tellers' counters, railings, balustrades, doors, security gates, clocks, chandeliers and lighting fixtures, flagpoles, decorative metalwork, ventilation grilles, windows and attached furnishings." The upper floors, however, "had been renovated so many times, there was nothing left worth saving," says Dan Gomez, the project architect with H. Thomas O'Hara. Some floors had been turned over to single tenants, others had been chopped into warrens and most had only two or three bathrooms.

Although the offices could be gutted without misgivings, O'Hara's team made sure to preserve the silvery gray marble surrounds at the elevator doors. New corridors on each floor are narrower than their predecessors, but follow the same paths – at one end of each hall, a window frames a view of the Empire State Building. The apartment interiors, Gomez explains, not only have unobstructed views, but also "a loft effect, but an elegant one, not a rough industrial look." Windows are not centered on the walls – "the spacing made for interesting rooms," the architect says – and ceilings reach about 11½ ft. The beams were already clad in concrete fireproofing, Gomez adds: "We laminated them with smooth-finish wallboard, to maintain the look of coffered ceilings." Some beams have chamfered ends, and a few freestanding steel columns add yet more character to the rooms.

Different floors also have distinct personalities. On 13, floor slabs have been cut to create double-height living rooms illuminated with arched windows. Above that level, two dozen units enjoy private terraces paved in quarry tile and enclosed in masonry parapets. "There had been mechanicals installed on the setbacks," says Gomez. "We consolidated all the mechanicals instead behind louvers on the dome and on a mezzanine level between the 13th and 14th floors. We maximized the square footage of the apartments and the terraces." Amid the variety of layouts, interior designers David and Eve-Lynn Sheffer provided consistently tradition-flavored details: six-in.-tall baseboards, heavy paneled doors, chestnut flooring, walnut bathroom vanities and basket-weave-pattern bathroom floor tiles.

Behind the scenes, Gomez says, lie uncounted linear feet of new plumbing, wiring, cooking-gas pipes and HVAC. The new technology extends literally to the tip of the building. LEDs now illuminate the 27-ft.-wide clock faces, and a new flue for the boiler in the basement has been routed through the original brick chimney inside the dome. "It's a 21st-century building," says Gomez, "but you can't tell at all from the outside, except for the LEDs."

More than half of the units have already sold, and the 33,000-sq.ft. banking hall is ready for a retail tenant. The developers are marketing the available spaces with close-up photos of carved capitals and preservation-friendly slogans like "Own a Piece of History" and "Space, Grace, a Sense of Place." That is, the intact original ornament is proving to be an invaluable sales tool. What tenant, after all, wouldn't feel comforted to come home to carved-stone lions, and uplifted to step into an azure domed lobby strewn with golden glass stars?

Project: Plaza Hotel

Clients: Elad Properties, New York, NY, and Kingdom Holdings, Saudi Arabia (owners); management: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

Architects: Walter B. Melvin Architects, New York, NY; Costas Kondylis and Partners, New York, NY; Rani Ziss Architects, Israel; TPG Architecture, New York, NY; GNA Architects, New York, NY

Contractor: Tishman Construction, New York, NY

People remember their visits to the Plaza Hotel, even if they've just peered timidly into the lobby, or wangled invitations as teenagers to debutante balls, or had Sunday afternoon tea while pretending to be grand. "It's a building that in a way isn't private property, it belongs to all New Yorkers, it's of such heritage, such magnitude, the top of the top," says Gal Nauer, whose Manhattan-based firm, GNA Architects, just helped reinvent the Plaza as a hotel/retail/condo complex.

The $400 million, three-year project has made the 1907 landmark look the way it glows in people's memories, although in reality that glow had been fading for decades. Stained glass and marble paneling had been torn out, water damage had eroded plasterwork and woodwork and murals had chipped and darkened. "Some of its essence had disappeared over its 100 years," says Nauer. Visitors now exploring the ornate public rooms, gilded guest suites, new stores and condos will likely not realize how much coordination and person-hours went into the transformation. "There were hundreds of workers onsite at a time, in every trade you can imagine, all with a joyous commitment to getting it right," says Nauer.

The construction crews had to balance determination and delicacy while gutting 1,000 hotel rooms yet protecting the glazed-brick French Renaissance façade and eclectic public spaces. A cavalcade of important early-20th-century architects, all renowned for hotel commissions, had designed the building. Henry J. Hardenbergh created the dormered mansard mass, Warren & Wetmore added a wing in 1921, and Schultze & Weaver (known for their Biltmore hotel branches) installed a Classical ballroom in 1929. The palette is nonetheless a fairly consistent cream and gold. Materials like Breccia marble, mirrors, crystal and gilt bronze recur, and the painted and sculpted motifs are largely in the Classical idiom of scrollwork, cupids, garlands and nymphs. A few of the public rooms though, push the envelope into oaky German Renaissance Revival and peppily colored Spanish Renaissance Revival. These varied moods have survived 10 owners so far, not to mention wear and tear from partygoers as rambunctious as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Eddie Murphy and fans of the fictional Eloise.

In 2004, New York-based Elad Properties and the Saudi company Kingdom Holdings paid $675 million for the building and soon shuttered it for renovations. The 18-story shell now contains 282 hotel rooms or suites (priced from $1,000 to $22,000 per night) as well as 152 condos with Central Park views that have sold for over $50 million. No trace remains of the original floor plans, except the elevator locations. "Everything was stripped to the steel columns and concrete slabs," says Nauer. "All the chases and ducts were re-routed. We had to penetrate the slabs in many places, but fortunately the structure, the steel columns, are incredibly strong." She also managed to add a few cubic feet of living space: "We reconfigured some floor slabs to add ceiling height on the top floors, where the maids' rooms had been. The ceilings there were as low as 8 ft. – most of the floors below have 12-ft. ceilings. And there was a huge chimney that ran up through the building – it had served a railroad terminal that was used for deliveries in the sub-sub-cellar." The chimney shaft, she adds, "turned into gorgeous bedroom spaces."

None of the changes affected the exterior except in a courtyard formerly filled with mechanicals. A petal-shaped fountain now burbles there, alongside a slate-rimmed reflecting pool, and Juliet balconies for the hotel rooms are stacked on the walls. "We added limestone along the two lower floors of the courtyard that had been brick, to match the limestone base of the whole façade," says Nauer. "People can step out onto their balconies and see the beautiful water cascade, it's another gesture that's a gift of the Plaza."

The hotel rooms' other principal visual delight are gold highlights everywhere. Furniture is encrusted with ormolu, gold cords trim the bed linens and the bronze doorknobs are embossed with the hotel's logo – back-to-back Ps. Gold vines course through the bathroom tiles, gold double Ps edge the creamy marble sinks, and the Sherle Wagner bathroom fixtures, including dinner-plate-size showerheads, are plated in 24k gold.

The condo section's décor is only slightly tamer. Bathroom tiles and glass kitchen cabinets are white, kitchen counters are black soapstone and nickel plumbing fittings come from Lefroy Brooks. "Most of the buyers," says Nauer, "have kept our kitchens and bathrooms instead of putting in their own, which is very unusual for condos at this price point."

While the hotel and condo phases were underway, restorers from EverGreene Painting Studios were tackling the landmarked lobbies, gathering spaces, hallways, foyers and stairwells. "This was one of the most complicated and interesting projects we've ever taken on," says Luis Angarita, senior restoration project manager at EverGreene. Up to 60 staffers, in close collaboration with Walter B. Melvin Architects, were assigned to the Plaza for months straight. They stripped paint layers off Caen stone paneling and bronze pilaster capitals, cleaned and polished mosaic floors and re-created lost ceiling ornament and monumental oak doors based on vintage photos or surviving examples. Conservators also delicately removed varnish from murals of cupids or German hilltop castles, then consolidated surviving paint and filled in lost scenery.

Most noticeable, however, is the rejuvenation of the Palm Court alongside the lobby. Its stained-glass laylight, patterned with pink-flowered vines, fleurs-de-lis and green cross-hatching, had been torn out in the 1940s to make way for air-conditioning ducts. Based on black-and-white photographs, one rough sketch by Henry J. Hardenbergh and a handful of surviving glass shards, Melvin's office designed an 1,800-sq.ft. replica that was executed by Botti Studio of Architectural Arts in Evanston, IL. EverGreene meanwhile re-created the missing entablature for the elliptical laylight's perimeter: "We had to sculpt everything to fit the glass exactly, without an inch to spare," says Angarita.

Just 18 months after the renovation began, condo owners began moving in. Nauer describes the whole process as "a fascinating, challenging, always rewarding journey. Everyone worked with cherish and care. We've brought back the Plaza's authentic qualities, but with a fresh take. We've pushed it to a new level, but it seems to have been that way for 100 years." 

 

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