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This Facade Repair Included Cherubs and Winged Lions

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on September 6, 2017

Gramercy Park, Manhattan

Gramercy Terra Cotta

The award-winning facade of 36 Gramercy Park East (image courtesy CTA Architects)

Sept. 6, 2017

Facade repair work is mandated by city law, but it comes in many flavors. It can mean a prosaic brick-repointing job. It can require the total reskinning of an aging brick building. And then there are the massive – and award-winning – restorations of facades that qualify as architectural gems. 

This last was the case at 36 Gramercy Park East, a century-old, 12-story, Gothic Revival building designed by James Riely Gordon that has been home through the years to such luminaries as the actor John Barrymore, the circus magnate Alfred Ringling, and the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. The U-shaped building’s facade is clad in thousands of pieces of bone-colored terra cotta, and its elaborate decorations include six winged lions, Gothic arches, sculpted faces, bay windows, corner rope moldings, more than 120 cherubs, and six oversized statues of soldiers on the parapet. A pair of knights in shining armor guard the front entrance. 

But there was trouble amid all this grandeur. The facade began deteriorating and the roof, upper-level masonry, and rear brick walls began to leak. The condo board turned to a renowned restoration firm, CTA Architects, to fix the structural problems and also go the extra step of restoring the facade to its original glory. 

It was a massive and complex undertaking. “We prepared drawings and conducted a painstaking up-close survey of the terra cotta pieces one by one,” says CTA partner Dan Allen. “We used a boom crane to access the facade, sound-testing each terra cotta piece with a sculptor’s hammer and numbering each piece for removal, restoration, replication, and/or reassembly.” 

The sculptor’s hammer, a soft iron hammer used to tap each piece of terra cotta, “told” the architects via sound which pieces fell into which of three categories: those that were in good condition and needed no removal; those that needed to be removed and reset (the pieces were in good condition, but needed an improved connection to the building); and those that were damaged beyond repair and needed to be removed, replicated, and replaced. The replications were done by Boston Valley Terra Cotta near Buffalo, New York, one of only two companies in the country that do such work. 

Approximately 1,500 pieces of terra cotta were removed, replicated, and replaced, according to CTA’s project manager, Matthew Jenkins. All of the winged lions and soldiers were replicated and replaced. On the rear of the building, CTA found that attractive pressed-metal projecting bays had been covered up by aluminum siding by a previous owner. The team removed the siding and replicated the pressed-metal bays. 

“This was unusual to find a building that’s so richly ornamented from top to bottom,” Allen says. “You don’t see winged lions protruding from the 10th floor very often. The job was a lot of fun.” 

The final bill came to $2.4 million – plus a simultaneous $1.2 million to install central air-conditioning. The board paid for both projects from the reserve fund and a pair of assessments. As far as the board – and and the 36 unit-owners – are concerned, it was money well spent. 

“What’s really unique about our building is that we have like-minded residents,” says the board president, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Everybody understood the value of central air-conditioning and of restoring the facade, and they consented to the assessments. They wanted to make the building better.” 

According to the architectural community, they succeeded. Among numerous prizes, the facade restoration won the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s prestigious Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award.

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ARCHITECT: CTA Architects. GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Total Structural Concepts. STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Robert Silman Associates. SUBCONTRACTOR: Boston Valley Terra Cotta. PROPERTY MANAGEMENT: Mann Realty.

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