The Corbin Building, Fulton Center: Rediscovering and Renewing An Architectural Gem – Part 1

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This is part 1 of 6

Introduction

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.

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History

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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.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.
http://www.arup.com/News/2014_11_November/10_November_Fulton_Center_celebrates_opening.aspx

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

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