As Josh Wiener, the board president, saw it, the Wellston wasn’t putting its best face forward. Designed by the legendary architect Rosario Candela, the 15-story, 130-unit condop on the Upper West Side is a gem of prewar architecture, with its limestone base, corner quoins and decorative balconies. But after nearly a decade of use, the doors at the two entrances of the block-through building, at 161 W. 75th St. and 174 W. 76th St., were in serious disrepair.
“The hinges were in bad shape, and the doors were badly rusted at the bottom,” Wiener says. “Because they’re made of steel, glass and wrought iron, they’re heavy, and it was difficult to push or pull the doors open.”
For the most part, it was the residents who had to wrestle with them. Though the Wellston has a 24-hour doorman at each entrance, they are stationed at the inner double doors that separate the vestibules from the lobby. “Originally, there was a person inside and someone else holding the street door,” Wiener says. But budget cuts had left only one man standing when the building went condop in 1992, he adds, and the offering plan didn’t allow hiring additional staff without approval from the sponsor, who owns five commercial spaces and about 30 apartments – and didn’t want to cover the expense.
Moving the doormen closer to the street entrance wasn’t an option. “The way the building is designed, there isn’t room for a station or seating there, and because the area is cold in winter and can get exorbitantly hot in summer, it certainly wasn’t appealing,” Wiener says. “We had been discussing renovating the lobby and building a nice concierge desk, but that would only put the doormen even further away.”
As president of Silver Lining, a general contractor specializing in high-end residential properties, Wiener was the perfect person to brainstorm a solution. “I’ve been board president on and off since 1996, and any time the building needs work, they want me to run again so they can gleefully turn the projects over to me,” he jokes. “I like to get involved.”
One day, while walking past the Apple Bank at Broadway and 73rd Street – a classical prewar building that was formerly the Central Savings Bank – Wiener noticed that the original doors, which were similar to the Wellston’s, had been replaced with automatic ones. “I looked at other buildings that had them and saw that they require a strong motor that is quite large,” he says. “I figured we’d only need to automate the right door at each entrance, but even so there had to be enough room to house all the machinery.” The only way to know that, however, was to chop open the plaster and take a look. After proposing his plan to the board, Wiener got the go-ahead to proceed and found that the installation was doable.
Wiener then met with Wellston’s property manager, Robert Grant, a director at Midboro Management, and asked him to start searching for contractors. Since the building is in a landmark district, Grant’s first move was consulting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to make sure there were no objections. “In our case, we weren’t altering the look, so it wasn’t a problem,” he says.
Still, it was a challenging task. “We not only had to find the right automated devices and equipment,” Grant says, “but in order for the doors to properly open, we also had to re-level the vestibule floor slab, which had settled after nearly 100 years. And on top of that, both sets of doors had to be completely restored.”
After soliciting multiple bids, the board chose the MacKenzie Door Company, a Manhattan contractor that uses Stanley mechanical openers, and Wainlands, a Queens architectural metalwork manufacturer and restorer specializing in decorative designs.
“The project required a lot of scheduling and coordinating on Robert’s part, including with the super, who ended up playing the role of a mini-general contractor,” Wiener says. Because restoring the doors would take three months, the work began in summer, when temporary replacements wouldn’t be needed. First, the doors were removed, then stripped to the metal, and the rusted steel was replaced. “We got new hinges and remortised the joints, and then did a zinc dip to prevent new rust from forming before repainting the doors black,” he says. “Because insulated, double Thermopane glass would be too thick, we opted for new laminated safety glass panels instead.”
It took two weeks to re-level the floor, install the electric machinery and mount the doors. The entire project, which cost a relatively modest $114,000, was completed last fall, and residents couldn’t be happier. The doors can be opened using push buttons on the wall both inside and outside the building, and the doormen have remote controls as well. “It’s been a huge hit, and we’ve gotten a lot of compliments,” Wiener says. “People don’t have to struggle anymore, especially when they’ve got packages. And now that the doors are automated, it’s improved the flow of package deliveries as well.”
There’s another upside that no one could have anticipated. “In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been better in terms of the coronavirus,” Wiener says. “We did this before the pandemic hit in March, when people were afraid to touch the handles or push the doors. Even now, the less you have to touch, the better.”
Not surprisingly, Grant says that other buildings managed by Midboro are following the Wellston’s lead. “I think we’ll be seeing more properties that would otherwise have held off on lobby renovations or restorations starting to move ahead so they can automate their doors,” he says. “It really makes sense in the age of COVID-19. Like the Wellston, everyone wants to keep their buildings properly maintained and their residents safe.”
As for other co-ops and condos that are contemplating retrofitting their entrances, Wiener does have a few words of advice. “Before you embark on a project, make sure you have the space for the machinery, and try to find another automated door installation that you can show your board, since even the best ideas need to be walked through,” he says. “Every board has to be careful with expenditures, and if there’s any dissent, it’s going to trickle down and cause problems. But if you get everyone on the same page, it’s a big win.”