The First To Go

Since the first iteration of New York’s facade inspection law was enacted in 1980, we’ve seen a lot of real-time data on how buildings age and how people deal with that aging process. The first couple of five-year cycles of the law were brutal, as masonry that had not been properly maintained or inspected was looked at for the first time in thirty, fifty, seventy years. The removal of cornices and ornamental balconies was common, and there are quite a few buildings that still have the scars from that work. Some building owners dealt with the problems by removing all of the ornament: the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, constructed in 1926 and demolished in 2004, was the most famous example of a building having 100 percent of its terra cotta ornament removed and replaced by plain brown stucco, in 1982, after its first facade inspection. For the next 22 years, every time I saw it, it looked to me like a giant had taken a belt sander to the facade, smoothing off all the bumps.

The 1904 Whitehall Building, seen above shortly after completion, is a different story. Its facades are pretty much intact although it no longer stands in isolation as it did back then. But one part of the facade is different and has been for a long time: the masonry balustrade (or maybe it’s more of an intermittent parapet) on either side of the central gable. I don’t know when that was removed and replaced with a solid brick parapet, but it was not recently. I worked, briefly, on the parapets in 1994, and they were not new, suggesting that the replacement took place before the first mandated facade inspection circa 1981. They were also extraordinarily thick – on the order oof two feet of solid brick – which suggests that they were built to match the thickness of the missing balustrade. Here’s a recent photo:

The scaffold is on the extension, not the original building.

About 25 years ago, I wrote (elsewhere) that New York is a perfect lab to test the destruction of brick. That sentence is too narrow and should be extended to all masonry. We get a lot of rain (about 50 inches per year, compared to 38 inches in Seattle and only 22 inches in London). (If that seems odd, remember that we get both a lot of clear days and a fair number of heavy downpours every year, while London and Seattle get a lot of overcast days and drizzle.) We have below-freezing average low temperatures for three months of the year but the average high temperature is never below freezing, meaning that we have a lot freeze-thaw cycles. And we’re more or less facing the open ocean, so we have high winds. Projecting and otherwise exposed masonry ornament, like cornices, balconies, and balustrades, is attacked from all sides, while the field of a wall is only weathering on one face. The ornament ages much faster and, in budget-constrained repairs, is more vulnerable to demolition decisions as well as to the weather.

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