Interiors Awards 2016: Historic Restoration

Photography by John Bartelstone

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New York City Hall Renovation
Designer: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners
Client: City of New York Department of Design and Construction
Location: New York

“That kind of grandeur does not happen anymore, so the fact that it came back to this original form is remarkable. Considerable talent is needed as an architect and preservationist to make it look like nothing has been done to it.”—Jury

New York City Hall, designed in the French Renaissance style by John McComb and Francois Mangin during the first decade of the 19th century, has been renovated and modified several times in its more than 200 years as the home of the city’s government. Many of these ad hoc efforts undermined the historic integrity of the building (a National Historic Landmark that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), placing Band-Aids over chronic deficiencies and even compromising the building’s structural stability.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s recent renovation—precipitated by plaster falling on council members’ desks in the City Council chamber—took a more comprehensive, holistic approach. It brought the building up-to-date mechanically and electrically, repairing damaged elements and restoring its earlier sheen in a very inconspicuous way that highlights the grandeur of the interiors. “So much of what is here you don’t see,” Beyer Blinder Belle Partner Richard Southwick says of the firm’s Houdini-like ability to hide its work.

The most pressing renovation needs included improving the building’s life-safety elements, such as sprinklers and smoke alarms; providing ADA access; updating antiquated or, in some cases, nonexistent HVAC equipment; upgrading electrical, lighting, audio, and plumbing systems; and ensuring that structural systems were sound. To keep the character of the building intact, new conduit and ductwork was concealed throughout the building within existing load-bearing walls, in attic spaces, and behind false millwork. Other systems were integrated into interstitial cavities and in attic and sub-basement spaces. Modern, efficient heaters were installed inside the shells of the existing wrought iron heaters, which were beautiful but ineffective.

The exterior was repaired as needed to make it weather-tight, and steel was imbedded into parts of the frame to make the building structurally stable and code compliant. Windows were restored, and cracks were filled. A zinc-coated copper roof was installed, and the facade’s stonework was cleaned and replaced in some locations. Solar panels were installed on the roof and fuel cells were placed just behind the building to provide alternative energy.

Inside, practically every space was deeply renovated, including the City Council chamber, the rotunda dome, the circular rotunda stair, all public corridors, the lobby, and major meeting and hearing rooms. The floating stair, which was examined via sonogram, had grout pumped into its many internal voids to mitigate a potential structural disaster. Each of the dome’s interior rosettes was either cleaned or replaced, as were the marble slabs on the floor.

Paint was peeled back in most of the rooms for color matching. Soot and grime that had built up over decades was removed, furniture was fixed or replaced, and new mahogany wall panels were installed to replace the old, worn panels. The building’s invaluable art collection was restored as well. In many cases dropped ceilings and other impediments were removed to reveal original surfaces. Southwick called this process “exploratory surgery.”

Not all of the rooms were refurbished alike. The firm approached each space according to its period of significance. For instance, the rotunda was brought back to its original design, but the City Council chamber, which had been expanded and later modified, is a time capsule from 1915. In some cases, Beyer Blinder Belle chose to add a subtle modern touch, like brighter paint or new carpeting, quietly bringing the institution into the present.

The scope of work involved an astonishing level of research. Beyer Blinder Belle studied minute details of the edifice for months, poring over documents and photos to ensure accuracy. The renovation adds up to an amazing amount of ingenuity while maintaining and enhancing the building’s history. “We wanted a couple of surprises, but they couldn’t be obvious,” Southwick says. “They add another, new layer of meaning.”