Architects Are Stewards of Historic Resources

Why do so many people love old buildings? For most, they represent a favorite architectural style, a sense of reminiscence or simply the “good old days”. For an architect, an old building is a puzzle waiting to be solved, peeling back the layers of history, like peeling an onion, to reveal the building’s past lives and its larger significance.

BEFORE: For 130 years, the Educational Alliance educated immigrants using its building largely as it had been built—or jerry-rigged to work—with outmoded classrooms, labyrinthine corridors and obsolete mechanical systems. PHOTO: courtesy PBDW Architects

What you see when you encounter an old building is often an accumulation of many past interventions, undertaken over the course of its history to accommodate changing styles and usage. It is important to understand the history of a building to ensure a planned renovation or adaptation continues to tell the story of the building’s evolution and does not erase important aspects of the building’s past.

The following projects offer three examples to revitalizing historic buildings, ushering them into the future while honoring their past:

ADAPTING FOR A CHANGING PEDAGOGY

In 2014, the Educational Alliance completed the PBDW Architects-designed comprehensive renovation of its flagship building in New York City. Established in 1889 as a settlement house to serve Lower East Side immigrants, in 1891 the alliance constructed a new building at 197 East Broadway to house its classrooms and offices.

The alliance spearheaded many educational firsts, including an Art School and Children’s Educational Theater in the 1900s and one of the first Head Start programs in the nation in 1965. The programs continued to grow and evolve, reflecting the changing needs of its constituency and advancements in educational pedagogy.

For 130 years the alliance continued to provide these services using the building largely as it had been built—or jerry-rigged to work—with outmoded classrooms, labyrinthine corridors and obsolete mechanical systems. When PBDW Architects was called upon to “update the elevators”, it was clear that the 19th century building was not meeting the alliance’s 21st century needs.

AFTER: The rooftop addition at the Manny Cantor Center creates a new amenity for large gatherings and includes a wraparound terrace that also takes advantage of neighborhood views. PHOTO: Jonathan Wallen

Working closely with the alliance, PBDW Architects assessed the building’s existing conditions and usage, as well as alliance representatives’ aspirations for the future, and ultimately recommended a thorough reworking of the building rather than the limited scope the alliance first imagined.

PBDW Architects’ design for the renovation synthesized the team’s findings into a plan for new classrooms, a fitness center, meeting spaces and offices, working within the constraints of the original flagship building. The 5-story Romanesque Revival building is characterized by its restrained pale brick and terra-cotta facades, large windows and prominent corner site.

Modernizing the building while maintaining its original integrity was the guiding principle behind all design decisions. These include the design of new classrooms, which take advantage of the large windows and tall ceiling heights by locating new mechanical systems, with their attendant dropped ceilings, toward the interior of the building. The fitness center was located on the top floor of the original building to maximize the views out from the large arch-topped windows on that floor. The rooftop addition creates a new amenity for large gatherings and includes a wraparound terrace that also takes advantage of neighborhood views.

The Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center is a completely reimagined building that draws on the legacy of the institution while positioning it for the future. It still proudly fulfills its mission to serve the local immigrant population, who has changed over time and whose needs in turn have changed the institution.

HELPING A PRIVATE INSTITUTION GO PUBLIC

BEFORE: Long a key feature of the New-York Historical Society, the auditorium configuration was outmoded and ill-equipped to provide a fulfilling experience. PHOTO: courtesy PBDW Architects

The New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 as New York’s first museum. The original 1908 York and Sawyer building reflected the use of the building mostly for scholars and as a repository of New York’s historic artifacts. Its small dark-bronze entry and windows barred with heavy iron guards set within the classically symmetrical limestone facade signified a private institution.

Over time, the society began to reimagine itself as an institution that was more open to the public. PBDW Architects facilitated that change by literally opening the building to the street, replacing the unwelcoming entry doors with a glass-enclosed vestibule; removing the window bars; and changing windows to glass doors, bringing in more light and inviting curiosity as to what was taking place inside.

It was important to honor the original architecture while allowing the institution to be relevant and accessible for the present and future. The existing ground-floor plan represented an early 20th century formality that no longer fit the institution. PBDW Architects envisioned a more open ground floor, eliminating closed galleries and creating opportunity for display immediately upon entering. The design preserves the arched openings and vaulted ceiling that leads to the historic marble staircase and upper-floor galleries and the auditorium.

Long a key feature of the institution, the auditorium configuration was outmoded and ill-equipped to provide a fulfilling experience. The renovation is confined to the original volume but takes advantage of the tall ceiling height to introduce a mezzanine, increasing capacity. New AV systems allow for a variety of uses, including the showing of the immersive multimedia film “We Rise”, which profiles some of the remarkable women whose advocacy for change had lasting effects on our country.

About the Author

Anne Holford-Smith
PBDW Architects partner Anne Holford-Smith has more than 30 years’ experience, focusing on preservation, renovation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings. She currently serves as a commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

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