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The Corbin Building, Fulton Center: Rediscovering and Renewing An Architectural Gem – Part 2

February 26, 2015 in Corbin Building by Nick Haas



This is part 2 of 6

HABS documentation and rediscovery

To make way for the new Fulton Center pavilion, the Corbin Building was initially scheduled for demolition along with others occupying the west end of the block between John Street and Fulton Street, and Arup sub-contracted the historic preservation specialists Page Ayres Cowley Architects (PACA) to research and document the building before it was demolished. Due to its age, drawings had to be produced for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a national repository documenting the history of construction in the US, so PACA supplemented its document research with photogrammetry of the building façade to produce highly detailed drawings of the architectural elements (Fig 7).

PACA’s investigations revealed what years of neglect had masked: here was a highly ornamented architectural gem of historic significance.

One outstanding feature was the extravagantly decorative staircase, formed using slate cantilever steps with ornamental balustrading in brass and copper-plated cast iron, a mass of intricate relief and detail (Figs 8, 11). Also resonating with the proposed redevelopment were the building’s connection to the history of mass transit through the original owner, builder, and later conversion; the HABS survey identified that it had one of the earliest Otis passenger elevators.

Clockwise from the top left: 8,9,10 & 11

Clockwise from the top left: 8,9,10 & 11

As a result, late in 2003 the Corbin Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and momentum grew through both public and government opinion that it should be saved. The Fulton Center design would be revised, and this was formalised in a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the MTA, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and the Federal Transit Authority, which provided overall funding for the project to save and incorporate the Corbin Building into the new Fulton Center.

The original structure

With a hybrid structure of load-bearing masonry and an ironwork gravity frame, Corbin is wedge-shaped on plan, 40ft (12.2m) wide at the east end but only 20ft (6.1m) wide at the west elevation overlooking Broadway. Its overall length is 152ft (46.3m), and it has two basement levels, double-height retail space at street level, and seven full levels of office space above. The building ends were once crowned with “fairytale towers” but lost their peaked roofs in the early 20th century.

The façade is predominantly self-supporting masonry. Cast iron columns were used internally and are also embedded within the perimeter masonry walls as support for the internal floors and roof. Wrought iron beams frame between the columns and perimeter
walls and support the Guastavino tile arch floors. The large projecting bay windows in the south and west façades were formed as self-supporting decorative cast iron structures. For all lateral stability the building relies on the masonry elements acting as shear walls.

While the exterior was found to be more or less intact (albeit suffering from its long neglect), the building interiors had been extensively redecorated and remodelled. But the grand ornate staircase still connected levels 2 through 8, and some elements of the original Otis elevator remained.

Plans for adaptive re-use



Although a limited restoration of the façade would have met the obligations the MoU imposed on the MTA, the client and design team agreed on a more ambitious plan, benefiting both the new and the existing buildings, to integrate Corbin and the Fulton Center pavilion into a single coherent design that allowed each part to support and rely on the other. Key design decisions were to:

• use part of Corbin’s street level space as the main south entrance to the Fulton Center, so that the public would access the
building through the central arches on the existing façade below a new steelwork canopy into an escalator lobby, and pass through a large new opening in the north wall to the Fulton Center beyond.

• install a new deep escalator, running from the Corbin south entrance lobby through its existing basement and sub-basement levels to connect with a new concourse under the IRT Lexington line on Broadway. This concourse (effectively a below-ground promenade) would access the PATH station over a block away and allow passengers to cross the existing subway line without having to return to street level.

• locate egress stairs for both Corbin and Fulton Center in a unified space between them, an “interstitial building” that would
require new penetrations in the north wall of the former at every level above ground, but enable removal of the typical intrusive and ugly NYC external iron escape stairs from the façade. This would also allow the historic ornamental stair in Corbin — not compliant with modern codes due to the height of the existing decorative handrails — to be kept unaltered.

• share MEP systems between Corbin and Fulton Center, with basement and subbasement spaces in Corbin for incoming electrical vaults, a PRV station for the steam heating system, an escalator motor, and control room. Multiple services would pass through, including generator fuel piping and storm and sanitary drainage, and there would be a shared fire command center at street level between the two buildings.

• strengthen Corbin’s lateral system by a connection to the new Fulton Center steel frame. As this could only be efficiently achieved at the pavilion’s lower levels, due to floor diaphragms becoming discontinuous above level 3, this would also necessitate lateral stiffening to Corbin above the roof connection level.

• replace the existing parapet structure with a reinforced masonry backing wall tied to the roof. As the parapet is Corbin’s most vulnerable element in a seismic event, and had undergone significant weathering due to its exposed location, it was decided to rebuild the wall, improving its ability to cantilever (rather than just rely on its own mass).

• reconstruct the fairytale pointed roofs to the two towers that bookend the roof level. Code and safety concerns required a “modern construction” framed with pyramidal steel members and ring beams to minimize vertical load and outward thrusts on the existing masonry.

• expose the underside of the terra cotta tile arch ceilings previously hidden behind modern suspended ceilings, so that users could experience the spaces as originally intended. This would necessitate burying all electrical power, lighting, and IT conduits within the building slabs.

• retain the existing elevator shafts, and renovate/upgrade the elevator and cabs to a period design with minimal impact to the existing. Parts of the original Otis elevator cage were found during construction and incorporated in the lobby design.

• relocate and consolidate historic features, including the marble wainscot throughout to level 7; replicate the historic floor plate/internal corridor; repair in situ the historic wood partition office on level 7; display the decorative terra cotta from the parapet and the existing cast iron boiler doors in the escalator well way; display the historic Otis elevator cage in the entrance lobby. Arup submitted all details for the work to the SHPO for its review and sign-off, as the building had previously been designated as Landmarked.

7. Photogrammetry as a base for producing the HABS documentation, showing the original “pepperpot” roof on the right.
8. Elaborately decorated staircase.
9. Uday Durg, MTACC Program Executive, examining decorative detail on Corbin.
10. The Corbin Building “signature”.
11. Detail of brass and copper-plated cast iron balustrade.
12. Recreated “pepperpots” crown the restored building.

Originally published in the Arup Journal, November 11, 2014. Authors include: Ian Buckley, Craig Covil & Ricardo Pittella.

Coming up next: The Corbin Building, Fulton Center: Rediscovering and Renewing An Architectural Gem – Part 3

The Corbin Building, Fulton Center: Rediscovering & Renewing An Architectural Gem-Part 1

February 18, 2015 in Corbin Building by Boston Valley Terra Cotta


This is part 1 of 6


The Fulton Center transit hub in Lower Manhattan is one of the most ambitious capital projects undertaken by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) since its inception in 1968.

The goal of the $1.4 billion scheme is to connect and rationalize access to 10 separate New York City subway services that converge in and around Broadway and Fulton Street, and to enhance the experience of the 300,000 passengers who daily move through the facility (Figs 1–2).

Central to the project is the redevelopment of approximately one third of a city block adjacent to Broadway to create a new multi-level mixed-use station and retail destination, which opens in 2014, at the intersection of the IRT Lexington Avenue line (4 5) and IND Eighth Avenue line (A-C). The Corbin Building encloses the southern boundary of the new facility and forms a highly visible main entrance at street level, as well as providing retail and commercial space above grade and building services and utility space within its two levels of existing basement.

In 2003 MTA Capital Construction appointed Arup as prime consultant for the Fulton Center redevelopment in a wide range of multidisciplinary architectural and engineering design services (including the analysis and design of the cable net that supports the huge art installation around the interior of the central oculus, described previously in The Arup Journal1).

One of the biggest challenges would be to rehabilitate and integrate the Corbin Building within the development.






Described by contemporaries as the “father of the skyscraper”, the prominent NYC architect Francis Hatch Kimball (1845–1919)2 designed the building in the highly decorative Romanesque Revival style, and at the time of construction in 1888–89 it was Manhattan’s tallest (Fig 3). After training in England, Kimball pioneered the use of ornamental terracotta and metalwork, both structurally and decoratively, in realizing his often extravagant designs.

After training in England, Kimball pioneered the use of ornamental terracotta and metalwork, both structurally and decoratively, in realizing his often extravagant designs.

Austin Corbin (1827–96) commissioned the building to serve as offices, bank, and prominent symbol of his own success, located as it was on Broadway squarely downtown in the heart of the developing financial district. Corbin, a famous “robber baron” and President of the Long Island Rail Road, had consolidated his competition in the 1870s, and his desire to display his resulting wealth ostentatiously was a perfect match for Kimball’s creative ambition. The history and significance of his architectural gem, however, were all but forgotten under the accumulation of more than a century’s dirt and neglect (Fig 4); ironically, it was to be saved more by chance than by intent.



This proto-skyscraper also pushed the boundaries of engineering design. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had destroyed over three square miles (8km2) of that city, and examination of the NYC Building Code from this period reveals that preventing the spread of fire was the design consideration foremost in the minds of contemporary architects. Kimball thus turned to the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company to help solve the technical challenges of constructing a high-rise building rapidly in light fireproof materials while also using the benefits of iron framing to provide flexible internal spaces for his client.

The Guastavino Company was owned by a father/son team. The Spanish-born builder and architect Rafael Guastavino (1842–1908) — a contemporary of Gaudí — had arrived in the US in 1881. He immediately realized the potential of combining the strength and flexibility of traditional Catalan vaulted arch construction with the contemporary emerging iron-frame technology. He created the “Guastavino timbrel vault”3, a tile arch system that he patented in the US in 1885. This used multiple layers of thin tiles, laid at angles with mortar in between, to produce slender masonry arches with an inherent flexural capacity that significantly increased their load-bearing ability.



Guastavino and his son Rafael III were later to become famous for works at the Boston Public Library (1891, Fig 5), and New York’s City Hall station (1900), Grand Central Station Oyster Bar (1913) and Ellis Island Main Hall (1917). In 1888, however, this technology was radically new to a skeptical New York City Buildings Department, and Guastavino had to conduct full-scale load testing of his unprecedentedly thin timbrel arch system before he obtained approval for its use (Fig 6).



Following Austin Corbin’s sudden death in a horse carriage accident, his building lost much of its central importance and began its slow decline. Early in the new century (c1905), when New York City’s subway system was being constructed, a portion of the basement was acquired and converted to staircase access direct from the street to the northbound platform of the IRT Lexington Avenue Line, which runs directly adjacent to the building’s west façade on Broadway. In the 1920s a further portion of the street level and basement was purchased by the subway, which allowed the access stairs to be moved inside and the dangerously congested sidewalks reinstated.

As the century wore on the building lost its distinctive “pepperpot” tiled roofs and was split into individual stores and small-scale offices. In the 1970s the ubiquitous New York City iron egress staircase and ladders were hung from the south façade, and through-window air conditioners were installed.

1. The refurbished Corbin Building forms part of The Fulton Center, still under construction on the left (2013).
2. The Fulton Center is the focal point of 11 NYC subway services.
3. The Corbin Building, c1910.
4. The Corbin Building in the early 2000s, prior to redevelopment.
5. Boston Public Library under construction: Guastavino standing on a partially constructed arch.
6. Load testing of timbrel arches for NYC Department of Buildings.

Originally published in the Arup Journal, November 11, 2014. Authors include: Ian Buckley, Craig Covil & Ricardo Pittella.

Coming up next: The Corbin Building, Fulton Center: Rediscovering and Renewing An Architectural Gem – Part 2

Custom Terra Cotta Lampshades Are Being Modeled on Vintage Street Lights

January 29, 2015 in #ConsiderTerraCotta, Boston Valley ARCH Design Lab by Tricia Herby

Here at Boston Valley, we are always looking to apply our material in new and inventive ways. One way in which that is currently happening is with the fabrication of custom terra cotta lampshades. The project is part of a very limited production of high end lamps by Early Electrics. The lamp is modeled on turn of the century French cast iron street lights, scaled down to an appropriate size for interior use.

custom terracotta lampshade, boston valley terra cotta, Early Electrics

Profile sketch of the lampshade prior to modeling.

custom terracotta lampshade, boston valley terra cotta, Early Electrics

3D model of the design of the lampshade.

The small lampshades were 3D modeled and then the slip cast molds were fabricated using our CNC router. The top piece of the lamp is currently being slip cast now in Boston Valley’s mold shop.

The bottoms of the lamps are 100 year old antique milk glass that were acquired by Early Electrics as part of this limited production. Early Electrics selected a custom metallic sheen glaze finish for the shades. The lamps are specially designed and sold by Early Electrics – they can be found on their website here.

custom terracotta lampshade, boston valley terra cotta, Early Electrics

NYC Townhouse Mock-up Ships from Boston Valley Terra Cotta

January 16, 2015 in Boston Valley ARCH Design Lab, NYC Townhouse by Tricia Herby

Just after the holidays, manufacture of the mock-up for the custom terra cotta rain screen system, designed by Michael K Chen Architecture for the NYC Townhouse, was laid out on the floor of Boston Valley’s warehouse. Prior to shipping, the mock-up was checked for glaze color conformance as well as profile tolerances. As displayed in the layout below, panels increase in height in either direction as they flow out from the center of the building (the right most column of panels in the photo is the “center”).

Michael Chen architecture, architectural terra cotta, boston valley terra cotta, NYC townhouses

Assembly of panels shows what the aggregation of the façade will look like

After months of planning and rendering, seeing the design come to life is exciting for the project team here at Boston Valley. For more information on the new building, check out the project’s page on MKCA’s website, and stay tuned for more updates as the project progresses by clicking here.

Michael Chen architecture, architectural terra cotta, boston valley terra cotta, NYC townhouses

Closeup of the panel shows the custom glaze color.

New Asian Center Turning Ringling Green

January 5, 2015 in #ConsiderTerraCotta, Ringling Museum by Nick Haas

Article originally appeared in the Sunday Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, FL on Sunday, January 4, 2015. Written by Susan L. Rife

Workers hang green glazed terra cotta panels on the new Helga Wall-Apelt Center for Asian Art at the Ringling Museum of Art.

Three thousand handcrafted terra cotta tiles, glazed an iridescent green, are being painstakingly installed on the exterior of the future Helga Wall-Apelt Center for Asian Art on the campus of the Ringling Museum.

The tiles, made one at a time at Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, New York, weigh 60 to 70 pounds apiece, and are installed on a stainless-steel track and clip system.

…Bill Pottle, international sales manager for Boston Valley Terra Cotta, said the project is “all about how great buildings are built, a true collaboration with the architect, Boston Valley as the manufacturer, Steven High, even the board, working on the design and execution of the building in total.”

The building was designed by Machado and Silvetti Associates. Pottle said the green glaze color came from a magazine article Rodolfo Machado saw with a photograph of a man “standing in front of this magnificent 300-year-old fireplace and surround in green. ‘That’s the color I want,’ he said.”

Continue Reading the rest of the article here.

New Capitals for 250 Delaware Avenue Combine Old and New Fabrication Techniques

December 30, 2014 in #ConsiderTerraCotta, Delaware Court Building by Tricia Herby

Making components such as the pier capitals on the facade of the old Delaware Court Building shows the combination of old and new techniques involved in making highly detailed ornamental pieces. These, and many other intricate components involved in the replication of units for 250 Delaware Avenue have to be carefully and precisely detailed.

A point cloud scan of the facade (left) is used to extract a 3D model of the component (center) and then used to fabricate a final piece (right)

A point cloud scan of the facade (left) is used to extract a 3D model of the component (center) and then used to fabricate a final piece (right)

The process begins with taking a scan of the facade and then using that to make a CNC base file which will be used to create the plaster model and eventually, the mold.

File that was fabricated on the CNC router

File that was fabricated on the CNC router

It is apparent from the image the creation of the exact historic piece is twofold: the precise geometry is created by machine, and the handcrafted detail is added by skilled artisans. The plaster model is milled and additional clay is then sculpted onto this plaster base by the artists in the shop.

Finished capital on the production floor

Finished capital on the production floor

View of the detailed carving in the capital

View of the detailed carving in the capital

Follow this project along on our blog as it progresses, click here to see all of our posts on the Delaware Court Building.