© Jack M Kucy

Behind the Scenes: The Art of Preserving New York’s Historic Architecture

Chlo̩ Vadot Chlo̩ Vadot

New York is a city full of aging buildings, manufactured in brick, terra cotta, cast iron and other materials vulnerable to time, erosion and gravity. Therefore, it represents a significant market for architects working in preserving, restoring and evaluating the resilience of historic architecture. “Because of the density and because of the amount of people that live here, the risk [of buildings causing damage due to failure] is higher than it may be in other cities,” explains Scott Henson, principal of Scott Henson Architect, a preservation architecture firm in New York City.

According to Scott, the New York Landmarks Conservancy is one of the main advocates for the preservation of architecture in the city and guides a lot of the conversation that happens around the subject through events and public programs. There are many other organizations that work at a local level, such as the Historic Districts Council, the Greenwich Village Historic Preservation Society, Landmark West on the Upper West Side, the Friends of the Upper East Side and the Victorian Society, to name a few.

On a sunny fall morning, I visited the office of Scott Henson Architect to discover the role a preservation architect plays in an architecturally dynamic city like New York as well as to uncover the many facets and challenges of the profession. Thanks to programs like FISP — the Façade Inspection Safety Program — and the proximity of new property developments that are being built alongside historic sites and foundations, a firm like Scott Henson’s seven-person office is continuously busy with projects spanning the city’s five boroughs and beyond.

The Fleming Smith Warehouse, 135 Watts Street, in progress; right image by Joseph Polowczuk

When I arrive at his office in the Flatiron District, Henson shows me some of the firm’s past awards, which include prestigious recognitions from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Municipal Arts Society and the AIA. Following our introduction, the entire office sits with me around the conference table, and we begin to talk about past and ongoing projects and the backgrounds and passions of each person working on the team.

“I’ve been working on old buildings since an early age really,” begins Henson. “There’s just always been something about old buildings, the history of an old building and the lives of those who have lived in them that has intrigued me.” Born and educated in Kentucky, Henson recognizes the history, culture and traditions of craft inherent in the place he grew up and explains that working close to craftspeople his entire life strongly influenced his career path. “My father was a master craftsman, so it was a natural progression,” he adds.

“While I was in undergraduate school at the University of Kentucky, I was working in the shop, learning how to make things,” explains Henson. “I worked with wood and steel and many other kinds of materials. During the summers, I would work with carpenters and cabinet makers and brick layers to learn the trades. After school, I worked for a few years with a design-build company.” Later, Henson went to graduate school at the GSD at Harvard and gained exposure with renowned architects like Herzog & De Meuron, Peter Zumthor, Rem Koolhaas and others. He spent the summers at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine, where he learned how to build boats and properly restore them.

After graduate school, Henson traveled to Japan, where he studied with a master carpenter. “There’s a tremendous amount of preservation and restoration in traditional Japanese architecture,” he explains. Original wood structures in buildings deteriorate over the centuries and the master carpenters come in and actually replace timber and certain elements of the buildings rather than completely destroying them. During his fellowship, Henson meets his wife, Miho Hayashi, who is a registered architect in Japan. They start their firm together in New York in 2003.

The Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, 1883; center image by Joseph Polowczuk

Nathaniel Schlundt, a project architect at the office, holds two degrees, the first in Architecture and the second in Preservation Architecture. “In undergrad, I really thought I wanted to be a designer,” explains Schlundt. “Then, I got a fantastic opportunity to work on an archaeological site, which I have been working on continuously since 2008. Preservation lives somewhere between new design and archeology, and that’s how I found it.”

Elyse Marks, another member of the team, worked in a few large-scale firms in New York City as well as for smaller, specialized organizations, before starting work for Scott Henson. “For me, it was no contest,” says Marks. “Going through school, we would have to design new buildings, and it would always be a site on a blank space, which is so rare to find in cities. I felt like it was always this fabricated environment that was very unreal, or we’d be forced to knock a building down to create a new building. I was always trying to get my teachers to let me reuse the old building, [so] I figured out pretty early on in architecture school that I wanted to get a more practical degree.”

Marks now manages projects and contributes construction oversight for the firm, which consists of surveying ongoing construction projects that may be affecting neighboring buildings. “If the commercial units down on the first floor of the building are doing renovations,” explains Henson, “or if a unit owner is renovating their apartment, we’re hired to make sure they do them correctly, to code and to the building’s standards.”

“Even the smallest things that they do can affect how [the condo or co-op owners who have stakes in the building] live,” explains Marks, from noise pollution to damaging parts of the building’s mechanical systems that may become exposed during retrofits.

30 Bond Street, 1892; left image by Joseph Polowczuk

All of the team’s members allude to the environmental benefit of preserving existing architecture, as the projects save on expending additional energy resources in the demolition of a building and the construction of a new one. The economic incentive is also alluring. “When the stock market crashed and everybody lost their jobs and architects weren’t getting any work,” recounts Marks, “I felt like the only people that I talked to that still had jobs to do were people that worked on existing buildings. That never runs dry. You always need somebody to fix something.”

“We’ve worked on a few towers here in the city in Midtown, and it’s amazing how poorly constructed they are,” remarks Henson. “They leak like a sieve, and it’s our job to rappel down those buildings and determine what is causing those leaks or causing pieces to fall off the buildings.” This is where Local Law 11 — the Façade Inspection Safety Program — comes in, a requirement set by the City of New York that requires that every building over six stories tall in the city be inspected by an architect or an engineer every five years. At that evaluation point, the building is determined to be either safe, unsafe — meaning it will need immediate attention — or “Safe With Repair And Maintenance Program.”

“Most buildings fall in the middle ground,” continues Henson. “If there are unsafe conditions that are present, we immediately get them fixed and put together a program for the building owners to maintain the building over the next five years, until the next inspection. It’s a requirement by the city, and as Elyse mentioned, during the Recession, that requirement did not go away. Every building still is required to do those inspections and repair the buildings for the safety of all New Yorkers.”

The Knickerbocker Telephone Company, 200 Lafayette, 1893

So what does preservation architecture encompass, you may ask? The preservation architect spends a lot of time working with other architects to evaluate the requirements and restrictions of building on or around a Landmarked or National Register site.

Preservation encapsulates a variety of facets, from restoration — a process that retains and repairs materials from the most significant time in a property’s history — to localized repairs, which might include improving watertightness around the building, for example. The firm’s project at 200 Lafayette Street, the Knickerbocker Telephone Company Building, harnessed an award-winning building strategy that mixed preservation and restoration.

“The conditions of this building when we were hired, it was basically falling on the street,” explains Henson. “Large parts of brownstone, brick and cast iron, had cracked off. There was a sidewalk shed covered with all of the materials of the building. It was a good three- to four-year project of restoring that building. The storefront had been heavily modified over the years, so our team brought it back to its original condition.” The higher floors are mostly preserved, with many repairs all around. Architects Stephen B. Jacobs worked on the interior, transforming the industrial space into offices.

The Banner Building, 648 Broadway, 1900; images by Jack M. Kucy

The firm conducts an extensive amount of research, supported by the city’s many archival and digital resources. “We go back and find as many old photographs as we can,” says Henson. “Often, the conditions of the building have deteriorated so much that there’s very little to go by other than the photographs.”

At 648 Broadway, the Banner Building was a case where much of the cast iron had cracked or corroded off, so the architects only had a few pieces to go from to determine how to put everything back together. ”We had our cast iron fabricator come up and take the few pieces we had,” says Henson. From those pieces, they made molds and recast the parts to then reassemble everything onto the building.

In some cases, the firm is hired to deal with repairs to damage caused by new construction. Scott tells the story of a building in the Village adjacent to a large new development. During the course of construction, the site was excavated about 30 feet deep for the purpose of building retaining walls for the foundation. In the process, the aquifer below the site was drained, causing nearby buildings to sink, enough to cause cracks and displacement throughout entire structures.

The job involved jacking up the building to its original position to repair all of its systems, explain Henson and Anna Melendez, Senior Project Architect at the firm. “A lot of systems had to be replaced. All the plumbing lines, the elevators and mechanical system were replaced, all while people were living in the building.”

© Jack M Kucy

© Jack M Kucy

© Jack M Kucy

© Jack M Kucy

Engelhardt Addition, Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory, 58 Kent Street, Brooklyn,1872; images by Jack M. Kucy

In addition, the team recently worked on a proposal for a building renovation in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and have ongoing projects with institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and New York University, where historic buildings are central to the schools’ heritage and pride. A special project is also ongoing in Snug Harbor, a Staten Island site that served to house a community of retired sailors and now consists of a rich historical complex, “a sort of cultural art center where most of the buildings are landmarked,” explains Marks.

The building the team is working on is a music hall from the 1890s, which is being renovated into a functional theater space. “We’re working with another architect, Wendy Joseph, from Studio Joseph,” explains Henson. “We are the preservation architects for the building, and she is [working on] an addition to the building to upgrade the theater.” This renovation will provide the theater with additional backstage space for technical equipment, loading docks and staging space.

The Snug Harbor project is a perfect example of the challenge of marrying the old with the new. “A large part of what we’ve been working on was to determine how [Wendy Joseph’s] new building interfaces with the original, and working with DDC and Landmarks and Parks to make sure that the historic integrity of the old building is maintained,” says Henson.

Detail of the Engelhardt Addition, Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory, 58 Kent Street, Brooklyn,1872; images by Jack M. Kucy

Throughout the years, Henson explains that the Façade Inspection Safety Program has provided the firm with a stable source of projects, allowing him to concentrate on meeting new clients and finding the developers who are buying old properties. “One of the good things about Landmarked buildings and the Landmarks Law is that developers can’t just come in and destroy buildings,” he explains. “It gives us the opportunity [to work]. It requires the owners to save and preserve their buildings, and that’s where we come in to help them.”

The energy at the firm is very unique. “We put together a really good cohesive team, and we all work together on projects and we all feed off of each other and the knowledge that we have from our past projects,” reflects Henson. “It’s hard for me to imagine running an office with 100 people and getting lost in so many projects that I can’t be directly involved.” With his firm, he is able to get a pulse on all ongoing and prospective projects and continue learning through each situation.

Cover image: The Banner Building, 648 Broadway, 1900; image by Jack M. Kucy

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