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Art Deco Co-op’s Redone Entryways Say “Welcome Home”

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on January 20, 2021

Washington Heights, Manhattan

Capital projects, Art Deco, co-op board, Washington Heights.

The entryways of the two Art Deco buildings in Washington Heights now say "Welcome home" (photo by Jody Kivort).

Jan. 20, 2021

The side-by-side Art Deco buildings in Washington Heights were nearing the ripe age of 80, and the co-op board, after extensive renovations of interior common spaces, decided the time had come for the final piece of the puzzle: a facelift for the two entryways. With their harsh lighting, patched and mismatched brick walls, and cracked sidewalks and planters, the entryways said “service entrance” instead of “welcome home.”

“We wanted to bring the buildings back to what they should look like,” says Eric Martinsen, the president of the co-op board who is a founding partner at Fiskaa Engineering, a consulting firm on mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. “But we had a budget, and we wanted to be cost-effective. This project was pretty strictly value-engineered.”

It began with a refinance of the co-op’s underlying mortgage in 2016, with money set aside for the entryways and other capital projects. Then the board brought in Belmont Freeman Architects, which had worked on earlier projects in the lobbies and mailroom, and asked the firm to prepare a long-range capital plan that included refurbishing the entryways. For these capital projects, the board appointed a five-member Building Committee. It proved to be a smart move.

“It was important for us to have people from both buildings and people other than board members involved in the discussions,” Martinsen says. “There was a lot of collaboration.”

Monty Freeman, the founding principal at Belmont Freeman Architects, came up with an entryways design that used materials common in 1938, when the two seven-story, 234-unit buildings were designed by the architect Jacob Felson. “The first time I walked in the building I was bowled over by the Art Deco touches,” says Freeman, who also teaches historic preservation at Columbia University. “The elevator doors, the terrazzo floors in the lobbies – I appreciated the elegance of the design.”

Freeman’s design called for bluestone walkways, precast concrete planters and pillars, stainless-steel handrails, plus four-inch-thick, precast concrete panels to cover the shoddily patched brick walls. WALD Studio replaced the harsh lighting with low-level lights on the stairs, sconces at the corners of the entryways, and gentle floodlights.

There was pushback. Some shareholders opposed spending money on design flourishes and instead urged the board to focus on keeping monthly maintenance stable. As for the Building Committee, Freeman says, “It was a very good group. Some were interested in the design and the materials, and others were very budget-conscious. We had to justify all the design moves and costs, and we had some lively discussions. The committee was smart people who could see the value added by a high-quality restoration with some slightly luxury touches.”

Once the design was approved and work began in 2018, the project was kept under strict supervision. “As board president and an engineer, I was very involved,” Martinsen says. “Instead of hiring an outside project manager, we relied on the contractor, our property manager, the Building Committee and our super, who was there every day.”

The project took longer than expected – about 18 months – thanks to the surprise discovery that there were undulations in the bedrock the buildings sit on, which complicated the laying of the foundations of the walkways. Though a bit behind schedule, the project came in on its $750,000 budget.

“I think we did it right,” Martinsen says. “We wanted to replicate it the way it was and make something that was easier to maintain. And we did that by using stainless steel, precast concrete and bluestone.”

Freeman, like most architects, cares above all about the finished product. “There were people in the building who wanted to know why on earth we were spending so much money,” he says. “But now that it’s done, everyone loves it. And that’s what counts.”


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