43 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
It is grand, like a building in Paris, the City of Light. But its glory days were in the past; 43 Fifth Avenue needed a makeover. “It was dirty and over 100 years old. The marble was cracked and a lot of it hadn’t been given a vigorous cleaning in years,” recalls Donald Farley, a retired chemical engineer and business consultant, who has spent 12 years on the board, all of them as president.
Erected in 1903 and converted to a co-op in 1978, the property has an elegant entrance that leads up a flight of stairs to a handsome marble vestibule. Attractive doors lead into a spectacular lobby with elaborate Art Nouveau-style bas-reliefs on the side walls and a marble floor. The 11-story, 38-unit building is surrounded by a deep dry moat and the entrance is flanked by tall limestone lampposts. The façade, which is topped by a two-story mansard roof, has many bay windows and several attractive wrought-iron balconies.
The Problem: An Aging Property
Following a series of renovations and upgrades aimed at preserving this landmark building on lower Fifth Avenue – including a new roof, elevators, and restored copper facings atop the façade – the nine-member board turned to the lobby. “It’s just such a beautiful space that needed a thorough restoration,” says Matt Resnick, a property manager at FirstService Residential, the co-op’s manager.
Setting Up a Lobby Committee
The first step taken by the board was to appoint a three-member lobby committee, which was chaired by Farley. “Over the course of my career, I’ve set up a lot of projects,” he notes, adding that it helped having a colleague on the board with a real estate background. “He’s run a lot of projects. Matt Resnick, our managing agent, had a lot of experience, and he was very helpful.
“We spent close to a year and a half exhaustively getting everybody’s likes and dislikes and tried to funnel that into a consensus of what would be acceptable for the ultimate lobby décor,” says Farley. “We did a structured decision analysis of all aspects of the lobby.” Then the board agreed that the committee would manage it.
It interviewed about six architects before selecting Kevin Baxter of Baxter Projects, who, says Resnick, “seemed to have the best hold of what we were trying to do. It’s a beautiful lobby, it didn’t need much, and so, his approach was of the era.”
The project entailed applying an intricate painting process throughout the extraordinarily ornate marble lobby. Called stippling, this method creates a pattern simulating different degrees of solidity or shading by using small dots.
In this case, wood was painted to mimic marble. “In between the lobby’s columns, the painters applied a Venetian plaster, which is really beautiful, too,” says Resnick, adding: “Elsewhere, we harvested the original marble tiles that were in [the vestibule] and used them in the main area, so that all the tiles would be the same once you enter the main part of the lobby and step out of the vestibule.”
The project also included custom light fixtures and a new lighting control system that could be programmed to adjust brightness levels at various times of the day. “The lighting was selected purposefully to really show off the gloss finishes and Venetian plaster,” Resnick notes.
Defanging Controversy by Communicating with the Owners
Like most lobby renovations – generally seen as the most controversial steps a board can take – there were “differences in tastes among the shareholders of the building,” says Resnick.
“Everyone has different aesthetic views,” admits Farley. The board took some of them into consideration. For example, after it put a mockup of the lobby redesign on display, and based on comments from the shareholders, the board increased the number of chandeliers from two to three. (This actually brought the space more in line with its original look, which had featured three chandeliers.) “On average, I’d say we had satisfied most of the shareholders,” Farley notes.
His advice to anyone involved in such a project: “Get decisions made in a timely manner. That’s the most important thing you can do. Do plenty of research. Get likes and dislikes [of everybody on the board], and try to integrate that into the whole.”
The project, which came in under the $350,000 budget, started in July 2014 and ended in May 2015. The funding came mainly from the reserves built up with flip-tax money. The committee and the manager met once a week initially and then every other week for the duration of the project.
“There were no major problems,” Resnick recalls. “We had to do an extensive amount of electrical work. The lobby committee’s intent was to purchase an existing fixture. We couldn’t find something that really fit, so the architect designed a sample. We installed it, made modifications to it, and then had three new chandeliers fabricated based on the final sample.”
“The lobby needed a facelift,” concludes Farley. “It’s the signature feature of our building. We put in this warm and creamy décor. It’s not a modern building with health clubs and swimming pools, so what makes the lobby attractive? The well-kept features of an older building.”