August 2017

A Difficult Corner

by Don Friedman on August 31, 2017

The stone tangle in the picture is the intersection of a church spire (background), and two different styles of turret (foreground left and right). You can see a bit of the scaffold pipe at the top and bottom and some plywood beyond on the right. For reference and mental picturing, this is all about a hundred feet above grade.

Strictly speaking, none of this is necessary. Use of the church by its congregation would not be impeded if the entire spire were to disappear tomorrow, although the building’s profile from the street would suffer aesthetically. The spire and its turrets and other projections are purely ornamental, meant to create a certain image from the street. That image is in the gothic style and is therefore inseparable from roughly a thousand years of architectural symbolism. In other words, the fact that the spire serves no physical function for use does not imply that it’s meaningless.

In terms of physical function, that’s a really awkward intersection of stone geometry. Five different sloped surfaces (the three you see plus the backs of the two turrets) dump snow and rain into that little valley. There is damage at the base of the turrets on either side from the drainage from the valley. In short, the geometry concentrates water into a small area from which it then has to flow out again. The water, of course, does flow out, but it’s damaging the masonry in the process.

There’s no obvious solution to the problem, other than to blame the people who designed and built this 120 years ago. There’s no way to add a gutter or drainage without completely destroying the visual integrity of the area. The logical thing to do would be to add a cricket, but that would also be visible as reducing the visual independence of the three elements (spire and turrets). Even flashing would be visible.

Sometimes the best answer is to do nothing. It’s been a long time since any repair work was done here and the stone has survived reasonably well. We can fix the damage, knowing that it will gradually recur and someone else will have to come fix it some time in the 2040s. The best thing about this solution is that it’s a way out of the metaphorical corner that trying to waterproof or drain the physical corner puts us in.


August 30, 2017

The front entrance of Castle Clinton in 1896: The front entrance of Castle Clinton in the 1970s: We’ve been writing a lot of conditions reports lately. Just coincidence, really: as a small firm, the type of work we have at any given moment can vary. Some months are more design intensive, some more construction intensive, […]

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Gypsum Is Not Talc

August 29, 2017

I’ve mentioned gypsum block before: it was the masonry-style predecessor to gypsum board, a manufactured pre-fab substitute for rough-coat plaster and lath. The picture above (click to enlarge it) is from an early 1960s building. That’s a standard gyp-block partition in a mechanical room, serving as a fire-rated divider between two spaces. “Gold Bond” was […]

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Classic Damage Nicely Illustrated

August 28, 2017

It’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion here: it certainly looks like the mortar in the joints between the stone is being squeezed out, so that it projects from the stone face. Mortar of any kind doesn’t act like that – it’s not putty – but this is hard mortar with portland cement binder […]

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An Added Benefit

August 27, 2017

We climb scaffold for a single purpose: to see some aspect of a building up close in order to better understand it. But a lot of the time (click on the panorama above to enlarge it) the view is worthwhile in itself.

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Where You Find It

August 26, 2017

That’s the shed roof of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania train station as seen from the waiting area. Obviously I’m biased, but truss roofs have a certain beauty that more modern structures lack. There’s something about the repetition of strong lines combined with perspective…

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Rail For The Future

August 25, 2017

The Regional Plan Association has a really good suggestion – a plan, one might even say – for running a new mass transit rail line from southern Brooklyn through central Queens to the south and east Bronx. It is potentially much cheaper per mile than other projects, like the Second Avenue Subway, because it uses […]

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Is a Non-Dead Building Ghost a Building Zombie?

August 24, 2017

Another old picture, but this one is not quite a ghost. The curved mansard roof (that is visible as a curved pattern on the side wall) was part of the extent building before its unfortunate extension. The extension added one full story and made the mansard level the same size as the typical floors below, […]

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Building Ghosts From 15 Years Ago

August 23, 2017

I’ve been digitizing old rolls of film* and I came across a bunch of pictures I took, between 15 and 20 years ago, of building ghosts. Most of these ghosts are no longer visible: the current building boom in the city has resulted in the disappearance of a lot of vacant lots and parking lots, […]

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Engineered Landscapes

August 22, 2017

This article, a long description of the creation of Jones Beach, got me thinking about how much of the landscape around us is artificial. Even though the beach at Jones Beach is natural, there’s a lot of buried infrastructure and roads that are it usable, in addition to the iconic structures (the water tower and […]

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