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Restoring and Repurposing Landmark Buildings

Isaac-Daniel Astrachan, AIA, LEED AP

Restoring and Repurposing Landmark Buildings

Posted: March 26, 2020 | Tradewinds, Project Management

Restoration and renovation work are a significant percentage of architectural work being done in New York City. As a firm, Stephen B. Jacobs Group PC has completed hundreds of these types of projects in the past fifty years; from the Cast Iron Building in 1974, to Brooklyn brownstones in the 1980s, to the Long Island City Courthouse in 2007, to more recently and currently renovating landmarked buildings into high-end boutique office spaces, residential apartments, and schools. Existing buildings have such embodied energy that in many cases it makes economical and moral sense to repurpose them for contemporary uses. 

Historical buildings come in many different types and shapes. A few years ago, between 2012 and 2016, we had the privilege of working on the renovation of the Knickerbocker Telephone Company Building at 200 Lafayette Street in Soho. Stephen B. Jacobs Group, along with Scott Henson Architect, earned the 2017 Palladio Award for Adaptive Reuse/Sympathetic Addition for this project. 

The building, originally constructed in 1894 by architect and builder John T. Williams, is a 105,000-square-foot, seven-story, Renaissance-Revival style, factory-style structure located within what is today the Soho Cast Iron Historic District. The exterior of the building consists of brick, brownstone, and cast iron, with a substantial sheet-metal cornice, wood windows and storefronts. 

Stephen B. Jacobs Group converted the building into prime showroom and office space. Taking full advantage of the existing structure, the original materials have been brought back to life — utilizing exposed brick walls, cast iron columns, heavy timber beams, and wood ceilings — to create loft-like spaces with high ceilings. All the building’s windows were replaced, and a new, elevated, landscaped rooftop was created for tenants’ use and special events. The project was designed with the goal of achieving LEED certification.

Another project, which is currently in its very early stages, is the renovation of the ensemble of buildings at 2045 Madison Avenue in Harlem. All Saints Church, the rectory, and parochial school would be converted into a charter school. The existing sanctuary will be preserved and converted into additional educational and community spaces. The rectory building will be converted to a multi-family residential building. The school comprises 48,000 square feet, and will keep the existing spacious classroom layouts, with tall ceilings and optimal daylighting. The project will focus greatly on preserving the existing building and working with NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission on maintaining the building’s historic elements and value.

The renovation of 70 Pine Street from an office into a residential tower was completed in 2017. 70 Pine Street is a 66-story iconic Art Deco skyscraper that was built in 1932. The building is one of Lower Manhattan’s most prominent towers, and one of the finest Art Deco buildings in New York City. At 952 feet, it was the tallest building in lower Manhattan. In 2008, the building was vacated and became a prime candidate for a residential or mixed-use conversion.Originally designed by Clinton & Russel, Holton & George, it was constructed with a broad podium entirely filling its site, setting back gradually through its midsection up to the 30th floor, becoming a faceted tower and terminating in a slender pinnacle which contains an observatory with spectacular views in all four directions, crowned by an illuminated lantern.

Adaptive reuse of obsolete mercantile buildings for residential purposes is always difficult because the proportions of the buildings are not readily adapted to housing prototypes. This case was particularly problematic because of the width of the base. The challenge was to find an architectural approach that preserved the historic integrity of the building while at the same time created desirable market rate rental units and two hotels.

The solution was to zone the dwelling unit into habitable spaces and place them in close proximity to the windows, and then to create large foyers at the apartment entrances that could be used for home occupation or other non-habitable purposes. In some cases, particularly in the studio units, a tenant might choose to sleep in the foyer, so each apartment is heated and air conditioned by a water-cooled heat pump system with a separate unit at the rear of the apartment. 

As the base steps back and the building’s depth diminishes, the apartment layouts become more conventional.The renovation preserved and restored all of the architectural features of the building, including its ornate lobby. Because of the change of use, nine elevators were removed and the elevator shaft space was cleverly utilized for mail rooms and other back of the house functions at the lobby level, and maintained all of the extant details and ornamentation. Exterior restoration included repointing of much of the brick, replacement of all of the windows and storefronts, modification of some of the terrace openings to make them handicap accessible, and cleaning and restoration of the ornamental limestone.

The restoration and renovation of historically significant buildings is vital to the preservation of the fabric and character of cities. New York City is such a dynamic city, in part because of the architectural mixity of historic and modern buildings. Working on existing buildings is typically more challenging than new constructions, given the uncertainties involved, but bringing a building back to life is at least, if not more, as rewarding as designing a new one.