Cate Smit Elliott
Board Secretary, 233 West 99th Street Corp.
In my freshman year at syracuse University, almost by default, I became president of Hall Council. As a sophomore and part of my junior year, I was a resident advisor. It should come as no surprise, then, that I fell into one of the open slots on the board of directors for the co-op building where I bought my apartment. I was a single shareholder when I first served; I am now married with one child and sold my one-bedroom unit to buy a larger more spacious two-bedroom place in the same building. Through the years, my desire to protect and enhance my building has grown accordingly.
A few years ago, the president of the board raised the subject of the building’s vault, the portion of the basement that extends out underneath the sidewalk and is supported by beams that would compromise the sidewalk if damaged or decayed. (This is typical of prewar not post-war buildings.) It seemed that its structure was weakening and might threaten to collapse under the weight of, say, a fire truck if it were to roll up on the sidewalk.
In an effort to get this project moving, the awning was taken down, and we applied to the parks department to have the tree in front of the building removed. It could only be moved during certain times of the year so, by the time this occurred, the contractor had moved onto another job. Then, by the time the contractor became available again, the winter had settled in, and we couldn’t make a hole from the sidewalk to the basement without the risk of snow and cold seeping in. Finally, by 2007, all the stars were aligned. The vault project could begin.
The sidewalk was dug open to expose the beams and assess the work needed. Then, an elaborate wooden hut was built on the sidewalk to protect the basement from exposure to both rain and uninvited guests. Our walkway from the building became an intricate maze winding around this hut. While some people expressed dissatisfaction, most seemed to be tolerant. The staff and tenants were warned of the upcoming inconveniences and even the least mobile managed to negotiate the temporary sidewalk path, knowing this would only be a temporary inconvenience.
But then the board learned that the rose stone slab that had been placed at the entrance in 1929 was sinking and actually tipping in towards the building, allowing water to seep in. Upon drilling around the entrance, it was discovered that more beams had started to deteriorate.
This began to feel like pulling at a thread on an unraveling sweater. The most difficult part, at least for the tenants, came when it was declared that we would have to actually close the entrance to the property while the rose stone, beams, and sidewalk were repaired. A new stone had to be delivered and the lintel and joist had to be secured so that the front door to the building wouldn’t collapse. This meant that all entrances and exits had to be made via the delivery doorway with its one-story flight of narrow steel stairs. We are a building that accommodates strollers, wheelchairs, the elderly, pets, and the normal tenant hustle and bustle, so stairs were not very conducive to this type of movement.
The board had difficulty imagining how it could possibly keep some tenants from feeling imprisoned in their own building because stairs were simply not an option for them. Since we had no idea how long this would take to repair, we had a temporary bridge built that could be put down in the mornings and evenings for the rush hour foot traffic in and out of the building. In addition, we would hire our weekend porter to help carry anything or anyone up and down the stairs. I have a stroller and it was a study in teamwork to watch as everyone did what they could to go up and down the narrow flight of exterior stairs. Once, even a furniture mover – working in the building – jumped in to help.
In the end, the sidewalk was beautifully repaired, a more durable replica of the original replaced the entrance stone, and the vault is as strong as, well, a vault! I can now rest peacefully when I hear the sound of a fire truck in our neighborhood, knowing that it won’t be crashing through our sidewalk if it needs to come up over the curb.