There is an art to restoring an historic, old building so that its fine details and ornamentation can be preserved and appreciated, and so that its original character can somehow shine through even if the building as it is being used now has a different purpose than it did when it was originally constructed. An architect with a keen sensitivity to such matters, after doing this kind of work to uncover a gem of a structure that had been hidden beneath years of grime and neglect, might be inspired to say, "The real work of art is the building itself." Such an architect is Catherine Paplin.
According to Ms. Paplin, everything starts with material and how those materials are put together. She explains, "I find that it's given me a fresh perspective. Now that I've had my own firm up and running for the past year and a half, I've been going back to design. I'm realizing how important it is to think about really basic things like how a building is going to handle rain and snow, how it is going to age over time, how are these materials going to hold up, how are they going to look in five years, in fifty years. This has really become a very central idea for me and it's actually become an approach to design."
"It's also really a criticism of a lot of modern design because a lot of modern design begins with a set of ideas that are essentially founded on defying the laws of nature, defying gravity, pretending rain and snow don't exist, and really ignoring all of these necessities or also ignoring the particular climate that something is built in."
"To some extent green architecture has started to redress this because people have to think about how much energy is wasted by a building. Nevertheless there is still, I think, an overwhelming kind of vogue for buildings that are very anti-natural you might say, and also anti-traditional. The fact is that a lot of traditional architecture looks the way it does because it's trying to handle rain and snow and actually keep people dry. A lot of older buildings were built in a time when you thought of a building as something that was supposed to last for a longer period, a hundred years or a couple hundred years, at least. But now the building has become a disposable commodity the same way everything else in our society has, and this is very sad."
"When I think about the simple things like the effect of gravity, rain, water, and ice, it leads me to make design decisions like make sure there are little roofs and overhangs at every level because this is how you most effectively deal with the weather, that's the time proven method. It doesn't mean that you absolutely have to copy every last detail of ornamentation and vocabulary that one had before. But it does lead you to do things that look more familiar because they were done a hundred years ago, and two hundred years ago, and so forth."
Most recently Ms. Paplin designed an addition to a 1920's wood-sided cottage in Woodstock, NY and did some research beforehand by talking to experts in the field of restoration. "If you know where to look, there are people who know what used to be done and who know very important detailed things about how materials behave and what they need. Doing that kind of research is really key to producing something that might possibly last and handle the forces of nature decently well. I made sure to put in big overhangs and I'm not using felt behind the wooden siding instead of Tyvek because I understand that you really want something that's going to hold and slowly diffuse the moisture rather than not absorb it and just keep the water puddling behind the siding or just dropping straight down onto the sill where it rots it much faster."
Several years ago, Catherine Paplin was one of the architects who worked on the renovation of the courtyard of The Dakota apartment building on the upper west side of Manhattan, NY, well known, mostly, for the celebrities who live there. Glacier Blue® Devonian Sandstone was chosen for the project. As Paplin explains, "With Devonian Stone I did the courtyard of The Dakota, it's paving and waterproofing. A decision was made that in all probability the original paving, which had been lost, was bluestone. Everything hinged upon finding a quality of material that would hold up and that would be strong enough and would also be fabricated to a level of accuracy that was appropriate for this situation. When I originally started talking to people who supplied bluestone, they really didn't have any sense whatsoever that this was a job that was of any kind of unusual profile or importance, and secondly that they were providing something that comes from the earth and that has a certain kind of value to it and should be treated a certain way. Then by sheer chance of luck, I found Devonian Stone and the difference was like night and day as far as how this all went together. In the design process for that job, I basically sat there doing full-sized section details of all of the paving to make sure that the slope would work because we had very little height to work with, and to make sure that all the pieces would fit together and figure out how all the transitions would occur, the transition to the building, and so forth. It was a learning process for me to learn how a really good material of stone is fabricated and used, what the best way is to make these transitions, and what stone can do and what it can't do."
One of the more recent buildings that Catherine Paplin has worked on with James Gainfort Architects is a building at 11 Spring Street in Manhattan, NY. It is a five story brick building that was built in 1888 as a carriage house and horse stable, and for years was equipped with ramps instead of stairs. It is not designated as a landmark building and is only referred to by its address, 11 Spring Street. The design architect is Asfour Guzy Architects who are restoring the 19th century fa?ade, reproportioning the interior, and transforming the building into luxury condominiums. The engineer on the project is Hage Engineering and Malcolm Stevenson is the construction manager.
Paplin explains, "This building has had a very interesting history. It had ramps for the horses to go up, and it had horse windows, like little narrow windows for the horse's heads to come out. It's a brick building, it was built very, very strong. There were five lines of brick at the base and it's got all kinds of decoration. It had bluestone sills, terracotta lintels, and a decorative terracotta cornice. I think there was some cast stone on there as well. It is being developed for luxury condos so that there will be three units in there, two duplexes and one single. They're still working on it, it's probably still a few months to completion."
The owner most strongly associated with the building was a theatrical set designer named John Simpson, who bought it in the 1970's, lived there alone and tended to the curtains-and-candles display. "He had all kinds of weird inventions and things, and during that time it also became a mecca for street artists so it became graffiti central. The whole first floor of the building was absolutely covered in graffiti and it was like a touchstone for graffiti artists. World graffiti artists would make sure to tag this building." Without even contacting the architects, the new owner-developers decided to let graffiti artists have one last "free-for-all" and completely cover five floors, 30,000 square feet of brick wall space, with art, only days before contractors took over.
"When we got to it, we looked closely at the whole fa?ade from a cherry picker, which I did," Paplin explains, "and we recorded everything that was going on with it. What was remarkable was how good a condition it was in overall, considering the neglect and abuse it had been through in over a hundred years."
"The mortar was in amazing shape, most of it. We found in laboratory tests that the mortar that was holding the bricks together was actually what's called natural cement, that is hydraulic cement, and it was a natural cement mortar, not a Portland cement mortar. That was a big deal because it's a whole different material than Portland cement mortar, and it's been fairly recently rediscovered."
"Hydraulic cement is a cement that is mined from the ground in Rosendale, NY and also in the Catskill region. One of the big things in preservation over the past twenty years has been, everybody's been trying to figure out how they got certain kind of mortars that were very soft and pliable and lasted forever. Eventually everybody figured out that this was a natural cement that was used throughout the nineteenth century. This material had been used for about 150 years and it had been used in countless buildings, including a lot of our forts on the eastern seaboard, there were a lot of maritime applications, and now nobody would recognize it when they came across it because they didn't even know that it had ever even existed. It was that quick that it was forgotten. The last plant in Rosendale closed in 1974 just because the guy who was running it was 84 years old. But this type of cement has properties that make it especially appropriate for certain applications, underwater applications is one of them, but also it works much better with brick than Portland cement does. Portland cement was developed to work with concrete, which it does beautifully. It was also developed to have really high strength so that you could build big huge concrete buildings with it. The natural cement doesn't have this kind of strength but it does have flexibility and a resistance to water, or an ability to actually handle water, it breathes much better. So you will see buildings that have been built with hydraulic cement that are over a hundred years old, that don't have cracks. With brick buildings, a lot of the time you don't need strength. Brick isn't that strong. You actually want the mortar to be the weak link in the chain, so you want it to be more flexible and have a little less strength. The basic assumption is that mortar needs to be as strong as possible, and it needs a minimum strength, whereas with brick work it needs maximum strength. You need to know you're not going beyond a certain strength."
"So natural cement mortar was rediscovered and now it's available again. A mason re-opened the mine at Rosendale and Edison Coatings manufactures the mortar. So now they're pushing it for restoration, so we actually used it at 11 Spring Street. We used it for the restoration of the joints, and in fact what happened at 11 Spring Street was that the top levels had been re-pointed with Portland cement mortar at some point, and both joints had failed so we re-pointed that, but we're not re-pointing the rest of the building because those joints are the natural cement mortar and it hasn't failed. There are no cracks."
"The secret of natural cement mortar is that it has clay in it, it's an argillaceous cement, the cement that you actually mine from the ground. So that's what gives it its elasticity and a lot of the properties that make it great for this, and it also means that's why it's kind of homeopathic, if you will, with brick, because it's clay. I would like to see a change towards using this mortar for new brick buildings and also stone masonry building purposes. I think this would probably be a much better choice than Portland cement mortar for a lot of this type of work. So I've started to try and push that. Right now people are just trying to get it recognized in the preservation field and now it's available to restore buildings that were done with this."
Not only was the mortar at 11 Spring Street intact, but there was also "very little cracked or damaged brick. There was really very little true damage of any kind. It was just really dirty and of course it had also been covered with graffiti and over the years with people trying to take off the graffiti. There had been some wear and tear on the base and people had done some horrible things to the entryways. So basically we had a whole cleaning and restoration program for the exterior and it was a real revelation. Just as we were cleaning it, it became clear what a jewel of good design and craftsmanship this was."
"The masonry work was really very high quality and there were a lot of design touches that, especially hidden by tons of grime, you couldn't even really suspect. For example, we figured out that at the first floor level, which is a sort of a floor and a half type height, that they had a Flemish bond which means the headers are in a diamond pattern and the brick headers were actually stained a slightly darker red to pop them out a little bit."
"It became clear that the whole fa?ade, which was stables for horses, was designed basically as a Renaissance palazzo and there was a lot of attention to detail in terms of how the fa?ade was divided up and articulated. The staining of the bricks was one of several little touches that meant that the base stands out and becomes closer to you, and then the upper floors are smoothed out and made less eye-popping so they recede. This is a way of helping to exaggerate the height of the building so that what's nearer to you comes closer to you visually, it's like an optical illusion and as it gets higher it recedes even more. It's just a slight thing, but this is exactly what was done in Renaissance palazzi. The brick work was fantastic, for example, there were all kinds of games the masons were playing with the arches and the lintels of the windows. They alternated how they dealt with the bricks, they angled the bricks and corbelled them and all kinds of things."
"Nobody even dreams of doing work like this anymore. What I came to realize is that we have a work of art here. This building is a piece of art and it can't be reproduced anymore. Nobody is making anything like this anymore. And this was a horse stable, it wasn't anything that special. To me it's an object of contemplation that everything is so inverted at this point. At that time you would design a horse stable and put this level of craftsmanship into it and this level of design as a Renaissance palazzo, and now you're going to design a museum like it's a factory or a bank vault or just a glass box or something. There's just been a complete inversion of what you think a building of a certain character, or any building that, after all, has a public face on the street, how it should be treated and what it should say and how it should greet people and the kind of craftsmanship and design it should display."
"Amazingly, the current owners and developers, just before they began construction, actually invited street artists to come and basically have a field day spray painting this thing inside and out, wherever they could reach. And they did. And we, as the consulting architects only found out about it in the newspaper. Nobody thought to consult us about this, like, is this a good thing to do to this building? But basically we said you're going to have to take that off because that's a potential vapor barrier and also a mold producer for moisture. And then of course, in addition, the outside of the building has already been plenty battered with repeated graffiti and cleanings and posters and everything. So now there was just a whole new layer on there."
"The building has been in construction for at least a year now, but it's probably going to be at least until the end of the year before they finish everything. Basically everything that was there was preserved and restored, except that the decision was made that the last of the horse windows had to be converted into single openings. In other words, there were these very thin double arched openings that were made into more single, square openings similar to the other openings on the fa?ade, which we all lamented because that was, after all, part of the character of the building, and also part of its aesthetic composition and part of its history."
"This building is looking better than it has for fifty or seventy years at least. It's really getting some loving care. It's also interesting that this building was a mecca for street artists who painted all over it for decades, but the real work of art, to me, is the building itself. We've forgotten that these things are works of art."