Manhattan has many distinctive residential neighborhoods—the mid-18th Century charm of Gramercy Park, the discreet elegance of Beekman Place, the expansive boulevard of upper Park Avenue—but none can compare, in magnificence and wondrous eclecticism, with the remarkable architecture found on and nearby Central Park West.
Here, formidable Gothic edifices, such as the stolid Dakota Apartments, stand side-by-side stately limestone buildings, Art Deco architecture and neoclassical constructions, many punctuated with fanciful iron canopies, graceful balconies, and extravagant ornamentations. Unlike most of Manhattan, where tearing down to rebuild is a way of life, the majority of the Upper West Side's buildings date from the turn of the century through 1930 and retain their distinct, decades-old architectural character.
Nestled within this fascinating and historic streetscape are three virtually identical 1915 apartment houses. Located within close proximity, these three buildings—118 West 72nd Street, 126 West 73rd Street and 42 West 72nd Street—are the legacy of builder and real estate investor Edward W. Browning.
The buildings, of highly decorative Gothic design, are faced in white terra cotta. At 13 stories, they were unusually tall for their time and precursors of the deluge of tall apartment structures that would follow in the 1920's, forever changing the neighborhood's low-rise architectural profile.
Designed by Buchman & Fox, the trio of buildings was also revolutionary in their multi-family housing concept. They contained one- and two-room apartments at a time when large single-family homes and apartments, the latter now coveted as lavishly "pre-war," were the norm.
In 1985, 118 West 72nd Street became a cooperative building. The board has overseen upgrades to the interior, including a new intercom system, painting, and wallpapering, and also installed a new roof. In 1997, when Rand Engineering P.C. was called by Jeffrey Toplitsky of Pride Property Management, time and New York's harsh environment had taken its inevitable toll on the building's exterior, most notably in its fragile terra cotta facade.
During the course of a Local Law 10/80 inspection, Rand saw visual signs of deterioration of the aged terra cotta. Rand suggested a hands-on inspection via scaffold which, when undertaken, yielded an analysis that major restoration work was essential, including new steel framing for vertical mullions separating windows and replacement of terra cotta units.
"The terra cotta facade had deteriorated to a point that went beyond aesthetic issues," said Richard Garmise, president of the board of directors, "The board of directors elected to work with Rand on the restoration based on their specifications and budget; their sensitivity to the historic nature of the architecture; and our previous, positive experience with the company."
This was Rand's second major project for the cooperative, the first having been replacement of a circular stairwell on the building's west wall in conjunction with stucco and window replacement.
Now Rand's mandate was to restore the distinctive, historic character of the decorative 83yearold building's north-facing front wall, a challenge which would entail matching replacement stones to the original white terra cotta.
"In order to assure that the facade was restored to its full architectural distinction, the board considered whether damaged terra cotta units should be replaced with terra cotta, even though the process can be very expensive," said Toplitsky. "Rand assured the board of directors that using glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) to match the stones would yield the same visual results at considerably less cost-and they were right."
Rand's scope of work included replacing the rusted structural steel that had expanded and created damage to the fragile stone facade from the inside out. Because the original design did not provide for sufficient steel, Rand instructed the repair contractor, Arrow Restoration, to replace damaged steel mullions while adding structural steel reinforcement on an as-needed basis.
"Years ago when a building was built, they didn't employ flashing materials to properly protect the structural steel members, which is one of the reasons you have a lot of corrosion," said Kevin O'Brien, project manager of Arrow Restoration, which was founded in 1949 and specializes in exterior masonry restoration work.
Arrow started with demolition of the mullions. Because different style mullions appear on various floors of the building, pieces were taken from each floor.
"We would bring all of the pieces to the sidewalk shed and reassemble them. It was a terra cotta puzzle where some of the pieces were missing," said O'Brien.
Successfully matching the look, age, and color of the terra cotta units with GFRC stones was, for Rand project architects John L. Mahler, RA and Charles Doherty, the most rewarding part of the facade restoration. The process, which was undertaken by Manhattan Mold & Cast, combines artistry, engineering, and technology to produce new stones of entirely different material that are a visual match to their 83-year-old originals.
"Because many of the people at Manhattan Mold are sculptors, they were able to successfully recreate missing mullion pieces," said O'Brien.
After the original stones removed from the building were cleaned, the project team carefully reviewed sample after sample of GFRC replacement stones, mixing and remixing to duplicate the quality, color and texture of the originals. The undamaged stones remaining on the building were then also cleaned, and the new GFRC stones installed. Side-by-side they create a seamless match between old and new.
Rand's Director of Operations Stephen Varone regards 118 West 72 Street's restoration as a true team effort, internally within Rand as well as with the building's management team, board of directors, and repair contractor. It is an assessment with which Toplitsky agrees.
"The Board was very in tune to what was going on and worked hand in hand with the agent and architect," said Toplitsky.
With 118 West 72nd, Rand met the challenge of restoring this historic building to the height of its architectural beauty while securing the long-term viability of the underlying structure.
"They rose to the occasion on all levels," said Toplitsky. "There is an astounding difference between the before and after of this restoration."
From Real Estate Weekly, July 21, 1999.
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