The building is undergoing a restoration of it's original grandeur
There is an eight-story time capsule at 192 Broadway. The Corbin Building, completed in 1889, is home to architectural details that simply do not, or could not, exist today. In fact, its intricate red terra cotta faade, bronze-plated cast-iron and mahogany spiral staircase, marble wainscoting, and other fine designs make the slender tower one of unrivaled quality for any era.
Today, the Corbin Building has met with an extremely lucky fate thanks to its location at the corner of Broadway and John Street. It stands on the same block as the main Fulton Street Transit Center site, where steel has been rising rapidly since March 2011, with years of sub-grade construction already complete.
View a slide show of the Corbin Building.
Because of that shared Broadway frontage, the landmarked Corbin is being incorporated into the Transit Center. Its owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is boldly erecting the hub to pair its new, modern glass-and-steel building with the architecturally spectacular Corbin Building.
|Nearly 400 terra cotta panels adorn the building
The task so far has involved more than five years of research, planning and design between the MTA Capital Construction team and principally, the NY State Historic Preservation Office and the Federal Transportation Administration (which is funding the project), as well as numerous other agencies and amenity groups that have an interest in the project.
Each offers particular oversight for the "adaptive reuse" of the 122-year-old Corbin Building -- in both restoring it as best as possible to its original grandeur, and making it a functional addition to the new Transit Center.
To carry out the rehabilitation, the MTA hired global engineering firm ARUP. Under the direction of Preservation Architect Page Cowley, Principal of Page Ayres Cowley Architects, and Craig Covil, Principal of ARUP, the team has spent years retrieving and studying original design drawings, century-old photographs, and researching the factories and suppliers that manufactured the buildings construction materials. Armed with that information, they determined how to go about the extensive rehabilitation while staying on schedule and on budget.
What they learned was well beyond contemporary common knowledge. Its true the eight-story Corbin claimed the tallest-tower title when it opened, but it wasnt widely known that the building actually reached more than nine stories if you count the twin rooftop pyramids and flagpoles that originally adorned its east and west ends. The Corbin also was one of the first to use Otis Elevators gearless-traction systems, which is what allowed the building to rise so high and be among the first to be dubbed a "skyscraper."
A Skyscraper is Born
Built by its namesake Austin Corbin (1827-1896), the building was designed by architect Francis Hatch Kimball (1845-1919), who designed some of New York’s most regal buildings, including Brooklyn’s stately Montauk Club. Kimball specialized in ornate architecture in various revival styles, and terra-cotta provided him with the material to decorate his buildings. He also was keenly aware of the properties of materials that enabled him to use new technologies and build tall -- even being labeled the “father of the skyscraper” by the New York Times in 1917.
What sets Kimball's Corbin Building design apart from others of this time period is the innovative use of brick arches as an enduring structural support below grade and as a device to create a fairly column free office space on the upper floors. Cowley and team were thrilled to discover one of Kimballs own original drawings for the building -- a diagram that shows its entire 162-foot-long John Street faade, and its full height including its basement and sub-basement.
|Preservation Architect Page Cowley
Arches also feature in the faades and frames multi-storied bays -- a precursor to the curtain-wall -- as these contain cast-iron framing that permits multiple and operable glass windows. Perhaps more interesting is that the street-level arches are essentially mirrored by sub-grade, inverted arches upon which the entire structure stands. Compared to the steel underpinning of todays towers, Kimball successfully built tall using simple bricks.
Innovators at Work
To build vertically, Kimball erected a wrought-iron superstructure. The arches that mark the buildings exterior are, however, also an essential structural feature in the flooring construction. For this, Kimball and Corbin hired the recently emigrated Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino Moreno (1842-1908). Guastavino, as he is has become known, is famous for his innovative vaulted ceilings. But his work at the Corbin Building was early in his career, and his tile-vault system had yet to be patented.
"Its an amazing factor," says Cowley, noting Corbins storied history not only as a developer and banker, but also as an entrepreneur who built railroads and bred buffalo. "He sought out the best people and materials to work with and the result is an extraordinary, safe, and highly articulated contemporary building. He researched who was out there doing work that he wanted to achieve -- and he finds these innovations and remarkable people. Most developers wouldnt take the risk, but he was a major risk-taker, no question."
For Guastavino, innovative structural design was as important as safety, and his tile-and-mortar technique was equally strong and fire-resistant.
"His system incorporated traditional Catalan vaulting (or timbrel vaulting), but incorporated two improvements," Cowley explains. "One, he used quick-drying cements and, in the Corbin Building, a layer of plaster of Paris for the first layer -- which is an amazing material for casting because its so fine, and when its wet [the moisture] can be easily absorbed into the porous tiles and bonds well.
"Unlike his later buildings, these tiles are not laid in a herringbone pattern, but in parallel and overlapping coursing," says Cowley. "What is clever is that this type of construction does not require centering to build the arch. And with his pioneering use of fast-setting cements, he could build quickly and create a structurally sound arch of minimal thickness. The entire support is approximately four and a half inches. What is amazing in this early sophistication of skyscrapers is that you are dealing with something so thin, so durable, and self-waterproofing. His work was remarkable."
Last year, MTA workers began removing layers of the Corbin Buildings decorative finishes and partitions that tenants had gradually added over the past century. But while those coats of paint, new walls, and flooring changed the buildings dcor, in some areas they preserved original details that now are being examined used as clues to re-decorate and restore interior spaces using the original color palette as a guide. Determining the earliest paint and locating these original layers in particular have been like a preservationists treasure hunt.
"We have construction workers fully supportive of our work, and theyve learned the significance of trapped or encased materials," say Cowley. "As they have removed non-historic components, if they see a paint-encrusted remnant of wallpaper or wood trim, they save it for me. Then in our office we pull out the microscopes and we do something called chroma-chronology, which is counting the layers of paint and matching the original colors. You can usually discount the first two layers because maybe they were primers or fillers, but you look seriously at the next couple of layers -- and over multiple searches you can pinpoint what color was the original. Then we match them to industry-standard color systems."
The Corbin's fourth and seventh floors have the others beat when it comes to the most intact original elements. A look at them today reveals ridges where wallpaper, encaustic tile, and marble floor patterns were pressed into the plaster substrate. White marble, likely sourced from the Tuckahoe Quarries upstate, and Tennessee Pink and Gray granite was still affixed as wainscoting to some of the walls. Carved wooden window frames endured, though no original glass survived.
But it was the buildings ground level, originally the main floor of the Corbin Banking Company, that clearly underwent the most changes.
"We don't have the exact dates, but we know the building went through a major alteration with the first contract for the subway," says Cowley, who prizes a historic photo of an original station entrance on John Street. It resembles the cast-iron entrance roof at the 4/5 Wall Street subway station.
Cowley pointed out that during the MTAs recent preparation and deconstruction, a missing section of Guastavinos first-floor ceiling structure was revealed -- proof that a stairway once existed there, leading up to floor two. Until then, the only evidence of that stairway was in Kimballs original drawing. She suspects that sometime around 1917 that stairway was removed and its opening was sealed.
Merging Past with Future
On the buildings exterior, nearly 400 individual panels of molded terra cotta adorn the building. A closer look shows intricately crafted animals and floral patterns, at heights so high they could never be fully appreciated from the street. That level of detail indicates how extravagant Austin Corbin was in his investment, and how diligent Cowley and the MTA team have been at documenting and preserving the buildings architectural relics.
Cowleys next move is figuring the best method for cleaning those deep reliefs without harming their aging material. Gingerly applied restoration cleaner seems to work well, though several methods are being tested.
|Original carved wooden window frames have endured
Structurally, the MTA spent about a year underpinning the Corbin Building to ensure its stability. That was key to building a new subway entrance through the building, where escalators will be installed on the western end and bring riders down to the 4/5 Fulton Street platform.
Also at ground level, a new hybrid design based on the 1910-1917 faade alterations will remove the present and non-historic storefronts that greatly altered the buildings appearance and its original masonry arches. In their place the MTA will install a steel-framed storefront using traditional details and configurations. The transom panels over the storefront will be constructed of leaded square panes of glass that will reproduce panels typical of the 1880s. Behind this, the masonry arches will replicate the original silhouette. The faade will not completely restore the original look, but will at least lend a historic treatment that adds functionality.
The building also is being reinforced laterally for seismic support, while the "slot building" is being erected on its northern faade. The slot, or interstitial building, is a 20-foot-wide steel structure that will link the Corbin Building to the main Fulton Transit Center Building. It is designed to include certain code compliance requirements that would otherwise compromise the integrity of the open floor plans of the historic structure. This new addition will provide emergency-egress stairways, a freight and two more passenger elevators, and additional structural support.
Over the next two years, Cowley and her team have their work cut out for them, as the focus shifts from site preparation to rehabilitation. But as work proceeds, it seems that she is perhaps most proud that the Corbin Building is being restored with such integrity.
"We took an enormous amount of time to understand the preservation process," says Cowley. "For me it is the best of all worlds that could happen to a building of this caliber. In researching and working with this building, it is so well built. It has so much ornament. It has so many brilliant people involved in its original design that it is nice that its story can at last be told."