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Thread: Missing Cornices

  1. #1

    Default Missing Cornices

    June 27, 2004


    Going Topless


    Twenty-five years ago, a student was killed by falling masonry. Inspection standards were quickly toughened. Cornices have been removed on Strivers Row, which is a portion of West 138th Street, above , and on West 144th Street.

    FEW people are as tireless as Thom Bess, a retired chief court reporter by profession and a preservationist by avocation, in promoting the cornices of Harlem.

    In his pearl Cadillac, he has taken Brooke Astor on a tour of the stately Stanford White townhouses of Strivers Row, on West 138th Street, where, he recalls, Ms. Astor commented airily: "Well, I could live here." (To which Mr. Bess responded, "We all could, if we could afford it.")

    And he never tires of pointing out the one Strivers Row townhouse, as conspicuous as a missing tooth in a pretty smile, whose owner stripped off the cornice, adorned with a flower pattern, in a misguided attempt, Mr. Bess says, to make the building safer for firefighters if a fire were to break out.

    Most New Yorkers are too jaded and too hurried to look up at the often stunning architecture that surrounds them. But to some, like Mr. Bess, who do, every building with a top denuded of pressed tin, copper, cast-iron, stone, terra-cotta or even wood cornices and ornamentation stands out like a disfigured part of the urban landscape.

    Many of those naked tops are the unintended consequence of Local Law 10, passed less than a year after Grace Gold, a Barnard student, was struck and killed by a falling piece of masonry at 115th Street and Broadway 25 years ago last month, and of its even more stringent successor, Local Law 11, passed in 1998.

    The law, which requires that exterior walls and projecting ornamentation be inspected for safety by an engineer every five years, applies to the 12,000 city buildings - 60 percent of them in Manhattan - that are taller than six stories. Preservationists say the laws have contributed to the attitude that old buildings are inherently dangerous and should be stripped of decoration as a preventive measure rather than take a chance that a piece of masonry or cornice will fall off. As a result, ornamentation may be removed independently of the facade-inspection law, as was the case with the building on Strivers Row.

    The neighborhoods most affected are often long-neglected jewels like Harlem and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where the architecture is beautiful but ill-maintained, and where building owners are more likely to comply with safety requirements by taking the cheapest route instead of the most aesthetically pleasing one.

    It is hard to miss the evidence of destruction wrought in the name of safety. Lintels have been shaved off windows, leaving behind a flattened shadow of the former ornament. Apartment buildings have been capped by ribbons of "ghosting," layers of bare brick or stucco parging where massive overhanging cornices once hung like beetled brows. Such ghostings can be seen along Columbus Avenue in Manhattan Valley. Buildings have been scalped on nearly every block of Lenox Avenue in Harlem.

    "Local Law 10 plays a big role," said Charles Wittman, owner of Architectural Fiberglass on Long Island, who estimates that his company has manufactured more than 10 miles of replacement fiberglass cornices for buildings throughout the city, including many city-sponsored gut rehabilitations. Often the damage is in the structural steel, and to get there, the facade ornaments have to be hammered or blasted off.

    Few critics would dispute that the facade-inspection law stemmed from the noblest of motives: to make the city safer for pedestrians. But preservationists argue that removing ornamentation can be a superficial fix that may not address underlying problems of water seeping into the facade and may even worsen them.

    The old cornices, critics note, were designed to deflect rain like an umbrella. Once they have been removed, the brick facade is directly exposed to the elements and may actually wick moisture away from the surface, where it freezes and thaws, destabilizing the brick.

    Covering the exposed wall with ribbons of stucco can lead to water absorption and be just a temporary fix. "In many cases we have found they are Band-Aids," said Alan Epstein, president of Epstein Engineering. He said his firm discouraged stripping cornices for both aesthetic and waterproofing reasons.

    Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council and a critic of the consequences of the law, said, "You've got a choice; either you are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the cornice, or you could just take it off. Of course it was easier to just take it off. Listening to the people responsible for promulgating these rules, they would have you believe there are dozens of people killed every day because of cornices falling off of buildings."

    CRITICS of the law cite evidence that many more injuries have been associated with construction errors involving falling cranes, flying beams and scaffolding accidents than with crumbling facades. And whether the facade-inspection law has made the city safer is hard to determine. The city has no central system to track falling building debris, said Jennifer Givens, a spokeswoman for the Buildings Department. Out of the 12,000 buildings over six stories, about 1,100, or 1 out of 11, were found to have unsafe conditions during the most recent five-year inspection cycle, which ends next January.

    A few people have tried to mitigate the architectural damage. Mr. Bess has been so concerned about the stripping of facades in Harlem that in 1994 he persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put "The Cornices (and Buildings) of Harlem" on its list of 11 Most Endangered Places of that year, along with Cape Cod, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the oldest surviving McDonald's.

    Franny Eberhart, an Upper East Side preservationist and former executive director of the Historic Districts Council, helped document missing cornices on buildings in Fort Greene and on the Upper West Side in 1996 and 1997, hoping - in vain, as it turned out - that the city would support a tax-incentive program making it easier for building owners to replace them. Her survey found that 68 of 825 buildings in the Fort Greene historic district were missing cornices, and 24 of those had been shaved off after 1978, when the area was declared a landmark. It found missing cornices on 84 buildings on the Upper West Side from roughly 69th to 95th Streets.

    Once cornices and other ornamentation have been removed, the economic incentive to replace them is slight. "It doesn't really add to the rent," said Robert Quinlan, a developer and a fan of cornices who has renovated several 19th-century buildings in Chelsea and on the Upper West Side.

    Restoring a cornice, he said, costs about $250 per linear foot, or $5,000 for a 20-foot building and much more for an apartment building. Facade restoration, he said, is a long-term investment, one not likely to be realized until the building is resold.

    One encouraging sign for those who value the aesthetics of old buildings is that the real estate boom has made landlords appreciate the value of old ornamentation, leading to less stripping and more restoration.

    "I see less of it in general,'' said Mr. Wittman, the fiberglass manufacturer, "and I see people calling us not because they have to. They're just doing it as a matter of course, where they recognize the residual value of their ornamentation."

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    Sad story..happy ending. Could fiberglass cornices be the next big thing?

    p.s. okay maybe not that big

  3. #3


    January 7, 2007
    Streetscapes | Upper West Side
    Along Broadway, Jettisoned Cornices Are Being Rebuilt

    COMPLEMENTARY DESIGNS A 1905 photograph shows the elaborate cornice of the Bretton Hall, completed two years earlier at Broadway and 86th Street.

    The building lost its cornice years ago, but now John C. Calderón has redesigned the parapet in complementary red brick and cast stone laid in alternating stripes.

    The owners of the Midway Hotel at Broadway and 100th Street, have spent $100,000 to restore the cornice, using a smaller fiberglass version of the original.

    BROADWAY, as it snakes through the Upper West Side, is a laboratory revealing the shift in contemporary attitudes toward historic buildings over the decades. For most of its length it is unfettered by landmark regulation, and owners and architects can do as they wish with the slightly threadbare prewar apartment houses. As a result, many buildings scalped of their cornices in the mid-20th century have been recrowned in the last decade.

    There are at least a dozen examples, some restorations, others totally new works, but all demonstrating widely varying ideas.

    As construction heights reached 10 to 15 stories in the 1800s, the crowning element of the cornice became the standard for how a building should meet the sky.

    Typically, it followed a classical design and was made either of copper or galvanized iron. Stone and terra cotta were sometimes used, but metal could be shop-molded into intricately detailed pieces while remaining lightweight.

    A mile’s walk down Broadway, beginning at 100th Street, offers up a sort of design studio in contemporary cornice repair for the 10-to-15-story apartment house. At 100th Street rises one of Broadway’s most sophisticated works, the 1909 Allenhurst.

    In that year, The New York Times wrote that the two upper stories “will be particularly ornate, with a large overhanging cornice.” Indeed, its architect, William Rouse, gave the building a particularly notable one of copper, which has a higher initial cost than galvanized iron but does not need regular painting.

    Later, the Allenhurst became a single-room-occupancy hotel, the Midway, and in the winter of 1992 a storm ripped off one part of the cornice. The next spring, the owners took off most of the rest.

    Michael Ahren, the manager, says that three years ago the owners decided to spend $100,000 to restore the cornice, using fiberglass to imitate the original, although they had to shrink it for structural reasons. “We wanted to return it to its original glory,” Mr. Ahren said. “It’s 90 percent exact.”

    As to size, that’s an overstatement, because photographs appear to show a cornice twice the depth of the present replacement. Nonetheless, for a relatively modest real estate operation, it is an expansive and praiseworthy gesture.

    The Midway’s replacement cornice was installed by the Architectural Fiberglass Corporation, whose president, Charles Wittman, says fiberglass is now the material of choice for cornice installations. Because of its stabilizers, fiberglass doesn’t need to be painted, he said, adding that his company has installed 13 miles of fiberglass cornice in the metropolitan area.

    At 86th Street, the Bretton Hall, designed by Harry Mulliken and completed in 1903, lost its galvanized iron cornice decades ago and has the characteristic scalped look. But now a new treatment, designed by John C. Calderón, is nearly finished.

    He wanted to replicate the original chunky projecting cornice but said that the cost was prohibitive, even though projecting cornices serve to keep moisture away from the vulnerable upper walls. So he redesigned the rooftop, rebuilding the vertical wall — the parapet — in red brick and cast stone laid in alternating stripes. It has an art moderne look, as if it dated to the 1930s.

    Mr. Calderón’s work is uncannily like the upper section of the 1980s apartment house diagonally across the 86th Street intersection, but he said that any similarity was unintentional. He sought to complement the rhythms of the brick and stone detailing of the rest of the Bretton Hall, and also leave room for see-through balustrades for future rooftop tenants.

    His effort looks a bit raw now but should blend in better when the entire facade is cleaned, part of a $1 million project. His is an intriguing departure from the usual “make it look as though it has always been there” approach.

    At the northeast corner of 81st Street, a 1913 building designed by Gaetan Ajello lost a huge projecting cornice — either galvanized or copper — sometime before 1980, leaving a bare patch at the top that has long been a painful sight. The architectural firm of Lawless & Mangione has just finished rebuilding the parapet wall.

    Instead of replicating the original cornice, the architects have installed one that doesn’t project as far. Neither they nor the owner would give details on the project, but the material appears to be fiberglass or cast stone.

    Compared with old photographs of the original, the new cornice is dinky, but to a viewer unfamiliar with the building’s past appearance, the result is neat and trim, and certainly shows a decent respect for the opinions of others.

    On a stroll like this one, it is hard to miss the spectacular roof lines that remain intact; they give the flavor of what the replacements seek to reproduce.

    The two 1910s apartment houses on the east corners of Broadway at 98th Street have majestic cornices of copper, with patina worthy of a Renaissance bronze in open-air Florence.

    Rouse & Goldstone’s lovely Haroldon Court of 1912, at the northeast corner of 90th, has a beautiful earth-toned cornice, apparently of terra cotta.

    And the king of the hill is the great projecting copper cornice that Charles Platt designed for his 1916 Astor Court apartments, on Broadway from 89th to 90th.

    Having the originals still in place is a blessing, of course, but their newer cousins add a piquant variety to a feature that New Yorkers are often too busy to stop and enjoy.


    Correction: January 14, 2007

    The Streetscapes column last Sunday, about cornices on buildings on Broadway between 81st and 100th Streets, misstated the date for the construction of Haroldon Court, a building by Rouse & Goldstone at 90th Street. It was built in 1922, not 1912.

    Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
    Last edited by Kris; January 16th, 2007 at 05:55 AM.

  4. #4
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2005
    NYC - Downtown


    This is a much-welcomed turn of events

  5. #5


    Are there video cameras in this cornice?

  6. #6
    The Dude Abides
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    NYC - Financial District


    Don't know, but I see one of the Ariels in the background...

  7. #7


    I think I see two (cameras, not Ariels).

  8. #8


    This is great news. The city should give a tax credit to induce property owners to restore cornices.

    GVA Williams is restoring a masterpiece building located at 136 Madison, and its work includes restoring the cornice which had been stripped.

    Hopefully, one day, someone with enough money will buy the building on B'Way and 86th mentioned in the article and restore the cornice. That building is magnificent and deserves to be restored.

  9. #9


    Good to see an attempt being made to replace these lost cornices. However, the two pictured in the above article aren't great looking, in my opinion. But better than nothing.

  10. #10
    Build the Tower Verre antinimby's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2004
    in Limbo


    Quote Originally Posted by pianoman11686 View Post
    Don't know, but I see one of the Ariels in the background...
    Yeah but which one, East or West? (and no peeking, please)

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