Manhattan, NY CTA Architects, P.C. has won multiple design and preservation awards for the recently completed complex exterior restoration of the 12-story 36 Gramercy Park East, erected in 1910. The project garnered the Society of American Registered Architects’ National Award of Merit, New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, and the New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America’s Preservation Award.
The Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards are the NYC Landmarks Conservancy’s highest honors bestowed for outstanding preservation work on historic buildings. The Victorian Society in America’s annual Preservation Awards honor projects of outstanding merit in the preservation or restoration of significant buildings or artifacts that contribute to the material culture of the Victorian era.
“CTA has performed a great number of complex historic exterior renovations, but the 36 Gramercy Park East project was the most challenging to date, due to the historical character and great ornamental detail of the building,” said CTA partner Daniel Allen, AIA. “The $2.5 million renovation included restoration or replacement of approximately 3,750 ornamental terracotta elements within the 15,393 s/f terracotta façade.”
The Gothic Revival, U-shaped residential building located between 20th and 21st Sts. in the Gramercy Park Historic District extension, designated in 1988. Early tenants included actor John Barrymore, sculptor Daniel Chester French, circus magnate Alfred Ringling, and playwright Eugene O’Neill. The Gramercy Park district is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The property was designed by Texas-born architect James Riely Gordon, who was the architect for many prominent buildings throughout the country and in NYC.
He used bone-colored, glazed terra cotta on the granite base, including winged grotesques, oriels, Gothic arches, sculpted faces, bay windows, colonnettes, corner rope moldings, shields, more than 120 putti, and oversized statues of soldiers crown the top of the building.
The building’s side and rear elevations are made of red brick with stone lintels. The rear elevation features several projecting bays faced in ornamental pressed metal.
When the façade began deteriorating and the upper-level masonry, roof, and rear walls began to leak, the owner – 36 Gramercy Park East Condominium – called upon CTA to restore the façade to its original glory. The underlying steel structure was first reinforced and waterproofed; then the terra cotta was cleaned, repaired, and restored. The main roof was replaced, parapets were rebuilt, and new Landmarks Preservation Commission-approved railings were installed around the roof’s perimeter.
The project team included general contractor Total Structural Concepts and the structural engineer Robert Silman Associates Structural Engineers. Boston Valley Terra Cotta recreated the terra cotta pieces that could not be salvaged. They are one of only two firms in the United States that manufacture terra cotta for façades.
Work began as a Façade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP) review, required by the New York City Department of Buildings. That led to the creation of a program for the phased façade restoration.
“We prepared drawings and conducted a painstaking up-close survey of the terra cotta pieces one by one,” said Allen. “We used a boom crane to access the façade, sound testing each terra cotta piece with a mason hammer and numbering each piece for removal, restoration, replication, and/or reassembly,” he continued. The mason hammer, a soft hammer used to tap each piece of terra cotta, “told” the architects via sound which pieces fell into which of three categories: those that were in good condition and needed no removal; those that needed to be removed and reset (the pieces were in good condition, but needed an improved connection to the building); and those that needed to be removed, replicated, and replaced (pieces damaged beyond repair). All salvageable pieces, of course, required cleaning. Pieces ranged from several inches to several feet in size; the six grotesques overhang the building by five feet. Aside from the grotesques, the largest pieces were approximately one foot by two feet.
Every effort was made to retain original materials wherever possible. In fact, over 60% of the cornice band at the main roof level is original material. However, the soldiers at the head of the building were in such poor shape that they had to be completely replicated. The terra cotta façade is only on the street façade facing west and in the “light shaft,” the space within the U-shaped opening. The rest of the walls are solid brick masonry walls. Thus, the street-facing façade inspection was done by boom, but the sides were inspected from adjacent roofs and the light shaft inspection in the back of the building was performed from hanging scaffolding. The team also used fire escapes, where necessary.
In addition, a CTA team member went to the University of Texas at Austin where the James Riely Gordon Archive is kept. This individual found a treasure trove of original materials including shop drawings, pattern drawings for the production of the terra cotta, and original sketches and blueprints.
The building has a cage frame, meaning it is a hybrid of a steel structure with masonry load-bearing walls. It was built during a transition period for building frames (approximately 1890 through 1910), as the industry was transitioning to fully steel structural frames. Thus, for 36 Gramercy Park East, some of the terra cotta pieces were anchored directly to steel elements and some were connected to the masonry wall behind them. This meant that CTA had to check a variety of connection types, which created an additional technical challenge. The team replaced select pins and anchors that held the terra cotta in place.
Pipe scaffolding was erected in front of the 12-story façade during the restoration. The pieces that needed to be replicated were removed and shipped to Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s workshop. According to CTA project manager, Matthew Jenkins. “Each piece was reproduced with new shop drawings. Approximately 1,500 pieces of terra cotta were removed, replicated, and replaced. About 1,500 pieces – about 40% of the total on the façade – were removed and reset, either due to the need for repairs or due to the installation of adjacent pieces,” Jenkins stated. In total, there were approximately 3,750 pieces of terra cotta on the façade. All of the grotesques were replaced. Pieces replaced or reset received new stainless steel anchors or pins, which were not available in 1910.
The underlying steel structure was reinforced, coated, and fully waterproofed where exposed. The renovation provided waterproofing that was far superior to what was available in 1910, thanks to better modern materials. The backup masonry and steel were also waterproofed.
Probes were used to ascertain the status of the rear of the building. CTA found that attractive pressed-metal projecting bays had been covered up by common residential aluminum siding by a previous owner. The team removed the siding and replicated the pressed-metal bays, which can be seen from portions of Third Avenue, to the east of the building.
The majority of the roof had recently been replaced, so it was in good shape. However, a setback at the penthouse section was in need of repairs. The team installed a new resin membrane there. Parapets around the perimeter of the roof were replaced and brick in the back and sides were repaired and waterproofed where needed.
Another challenge was that CTA had to coordinate with and gain approvals from multiple agencies including the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). In particular, the LPC had to approve a new handrail around the roof. They wanted the handrail to be visually unobtrusive so as not to interfere with the aesthetic impact of the façade. Therefore, CTA specified a wire rope handrail for low visibility.
LPC and other agencies were also involved in the four-week-long challenge of color selection for the terra cotta glazing. CTA and Boston collaborated for that long, reviewing color sample after color sample, until the appropriate one was finally selected. Similarly, mortar color, brick shape and color, and brick joint mortar had to be selected and agreed upon.
Work was performed while the building was fully occupied, so CTA and the construction team coordinated carefully with the building’s management. Work took place only during the day. The team protected all windows with plastic sheeting.