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The Co-op Where Appearances Matter

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on September 12, 2018

Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Morningside Facade

Replicating decorative stonework at 50 Morningside Drive (picture courtesy of Joseph K. Blum Co.)

Sept. 12, 2018

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Only superficial people think looks don’t matter.”  Had he known them, Wilde would not have accused the shareholders of the La Touraine co-op at 50 Morningside Drive of being superficial. They take great care to preserve the original look of their 1905 building.

“The owners are treating it like it’s a landmark, even though it’s not,” says the co-op’s engineer, James Blum, a partner at Joseph K. Blum Co.

The six-story building, designed by the firm of Schwartz & Gross, features decorative brickwork and decorative stonework arches over recessed fire escapes. Along the roofline there is a decorative sheet-metal cornice. Several of the 24 units have French windows with Juliet balconies. The board was performing mandated Local Law 11 facade inspections when cracks were found in the ornamental stonework over two windows on the second floor.

“Our original thought was we would need to replace one of the seven blocks in the stonework over the two windows,” says Blum. “The surprise was we had to replace them all – they had cracked because the connecting steel had corroded. So we had to put in new steel.”

To replace those stones with fabricated concrete replicas cost the co-op about $40,000. There were cheaper repair options that would have satisfied the law. “The question is, why are we doing this?” asks Stuart Brent, treasurer of the co-op.  “Why don't we do something else, like stucco, or taking it down, or just do something that’s less expensive?”

The answer was simple. Brent took a hard look at the financial aspect of the situation and decided, with the support of the shareholders, that looks matter not only from an aesthetic standpoint, they’re also financially advantageous.

“Just like the old stones, these new ones will last at least 75 years,” Brent says. “Any other kind of repair, even if you would just brick it, nothing would last that long. Not only does it look good and keep the building in the condition it was originally designed, but it’s the best protection for the front of the building.”

The shareholders at La Touraine cannot afford frivolous architectural flourishes, but they agreed that appearances matter because curb appeal affects sale prices. “We do very well in sales,” says Brent. “We just turned over five apartments, so we know that the look of the facade does matter.”

These repairs were not a burden for the shareholders. “We’ve had an ongoing $24,000 yearly assessment in place since 2012,” says Brent. “Also, we took out a 10-year, self-liquidating mortgage for $530,000 at 4 percent, we assessed shareholders, and we recently increased the flip tax from $100 per share to 1.5 percent of the sale price. The owners are more likely to accept these decisions when sales prove to be robust and maintenance charges are kept at a reasonable level.”

Blum remembers that the co-op was faced with similar choices six years ago. “We restored the sheet-metal cornice,” he says. “It’s a very noticeable element of the exterior. It's not common for a building of this size to be embellished with a cornice. Instead of just stripping the building, the board lovingly restored the cornice.”

“We try to maintain the details,” says Brent, “but it costs money. Our philosophy is to raise maintenance only to meet operating costs. For capital repairs, we raise the money by assessment. So far we’ve been able to do it, and I hope we can do it in the future.”

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ENGINEER: James Blum of Joseph K. Blum Co. CONTRACTOR: Bellet Construction. STONEWORK: Essex Works Ltd. MANAGEMENT: Shamil Porto of H.S.C. Management.

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