Bendix Anderson in Bricks & Bucks on August 7, 2019
High on the walls of an apartment tower in Manhattan, a six-foot-tall statue of a lion is cracking up. “When terra cotta fails, it fails catastrophically,” says Eric Vonderhyde, a principal at Bertolini Architectural Works.
Woodstock Tower, at 320 East 42nd Street in the Tudor City Historic District, is covered with roughly 20,000 individual pieces of decorative terra cotta – including lions, gargoyles, and gothic arches – all glazed in grey to resemble carved limestone. A significant number of those details – as many as 20 to 30 percent – may eventually need to be replaced. Simply repairing cracks in the terra cotta has worked for years, but it may no longer be enough.
“We used to do repairs, and they would last for a long time,” says Oswald Bertolini, a principal at his eponymous firm. “There is pressure from the city to do repairs that are more lasting.”
Built 1929, Woodstock Tower is one of 13 apartment towers created by famed architect and developer Fred F. French at his Tudor City complex in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. The brick tower is clad in broad limestone blocks close to the sidewalk. Higher up, its dark bricks are ornamented with hundreds of details apparently carved from grey stone. These are actually made of terra cotta, clay that’s shaped in a mold, then dried, glazed, and fired in a kiln. (Some terra cotta is fired without glazing.)
“Terra cotta is a really great decorative material, much lighter than real stone and a lot cheaper,” says Vonderhyde. With a heavy coating of glaze, Woodstock Tower’s terra cotta lions and gargoyles were almost impervious for many years to rain and weather. “Glazing,” Vonderhyde says, “is a very dense surface.”
However, since the building opened 90 years ago, the glazing has worn on many of the terra cotta elements. That allowed water to soak the terra cotta. In cold weather, the water froze and expanded, cracking the antique ornaments.
Every five years, experts inspect the facade at Woodstock Tower to comply with New York City’s Local Law 11 and certify that no part of the building is in danger of falling to the sidewalk or street. Experts examine thousands of ornaments through binoculars. The most recent report was filed in February 2017.
“We were surprised by the damage,” says Bertolini. Ornaments like the terra cotta lion high up on the building show cracks that are likely caused by water intrusion. Waterproof patches could cover many of the cracks, but for terra cotta pieces with worn glazing, water is likely to seep into the piece again and make new cracks. Also, officials at the Department of Buildings is now less willing to accept patch repairs.
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission feels replacing the ornaments with materials other than terra cotta alters the feel of the building,” says Vonderhyde. “We are going to see more and more wholesale replacement. Very few materials get 80 or 100 years of life.”
Bertolini is helping the building’s co-op board plan to preserve this historic landmark and keep it in compliance with local laws. The firm has identified numerous terra cotta ornaments that should be replaced before the next round of inspections for Local Law 11 are due in 2022.
The work is likely to be costly and time-consuming. One reason is that there are only two factories left in the U.S. that create the kind of terra cotta ornaments at Woodstock Tower. As the co-op board sets its budget for the work, it needs to consider that once workers get close to the ornaments, they may find more damage that the expert inspectors could not see through binoculars.
For this reason, Vonderhde says, “We advocate for a robust contingency budget of 30 percent or 40 percent of the total budget – but typically get about 20 to 25 percent.”
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ARCHITECT: Bertolini Architectural Works. CONTRACTOR: Upgrade Contracting. TERRA COTTA SUPPLIER: Boston Valley Terra Cotta.
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