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Best Face Forward

A late-19th-century New York City townhouse undergoes an historically appropriate facelift.

Project: Residence, New York, NY

Architect: Page Ayres Cowley Architects, LLC, New York, NY; Page Cowley, principal

Contractor: Patshar Management & Construction, Brooklyn, NY

By Lynne Lavelle

In 1981, following numerous public hearings and lively debates, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the Upper East Side Historic District, thereby preserving the diverse architecture and unique character of one of New York City's most beloved neighborhoods. Bounded by 59th Street, 78th Street, Fifth Avenue and Third Avenue, its footprint contains some of the finest examples of residential architecture in the country, from brownstones and townhouses to mansions and grand apartments.

While landmark designation halted jarring renovations, it came too late for the many façades that had already been stripped of original details or subject to "modern" upgrades. Such was the case with a row house on East 63rd Street designed by David and John Jardine in 1879 as one of three identical structures and converted from a single-family residence to a multiple dwelling by Wechsler & Schimanti in 1954. During the course of the conversion, the façade was completely removed and the building extended almost six ft. toward the street, becoming flush with a neighboring, and taller, apartment house. The result was a "no style" brick façade. "It was 1960's supreme," says Page Cowley, principal of Page Ayres Cowley Architects. "It was contemporary in every sense, with a continuous brick bond, no articulation around the window openings and a continuous strip of connected horizontal jalousie and fixed panel windows. All traces of a grand townhouse were removed."

By 2005, the current owner had completed an extensive interior restoration and was in search of an architect to transform the façade. He met Cowley at the local community board's Landmarks Committee meeting, where the architect's reputation preceded her. "We had worked on two other properties," she says. "I kept seeing our prospective client at these meetings, where we were presenting on behalf of another client. He eventually approached us to see his property to determine if what he wanted was feasible. He said, 'Your mission is to take the front of my building off without disturbing the interior spaces and to reattach a replacement façade so that it aligns with what I have on the inside.'

"The interiors are exquisite – mahogany handrails, a lovingly restored staircase, and beautiful cornice moldings and strapwork on the ceilings in the parlor. He inherited the façade and had renovated the building from the inside out. He was now ready to tackle the exterior."

Cowley was inspired by the many lovingly restored façades within the historic district as well as nearby art galleries and the highly stylized English Neoclassical work of Robert Adams and Sir John Soane. But ultimately, none were more influential than the client himself, whose inquisitiveness and commitment was evident at every step. "He is a rather extraordinary man," says Cowley. "He would go around the neighborhood and take detail photographs of Classical ornamentation that he admired or write down addresses and send them to me and say, 'I want you to look at these and tell me what you think.' We would then talk about the derivation and shapes of Classical architecture and how these could be translated to fit his desire to create a new façade with a portico, fluted columns, ionic capitals, balusters and alternating incised panels at the parapets and window openings with alternating curved and triangular pediments."

In the Classical tradition of Andrea Palladio, Cowley designed a new load-bearing limestone façade that grew out of the building's own proportions. Determining the openings was a difficult assignment, as the building's basement level was approximately 3½ ft. below street level and the extended façade would not allow for a stoop to be reinstalled (following its removal, the footprint of the original stoop was reverted to the public thoroughfare). "In order to place the window openings correctly," says Cowley, "we measured where his interior wall had fake openings and then we projected the optimal rough opening onto the façade, as if we were looking at an x-ray through the wall."

Obtaining the required permits and approvals was a further challenge, as the project came under the purview of the city's Department of Transportation, Department of Buildings and the LPC. While the LPC was "ecstatic" about the prospect of a high-style design, the Department of Transportation had no record of the original façade's encroachment onto the public thoroughfare. "We had to do a lot of research and document paperwork supported by deeds and earlier surveys to re-plot and legalize the areaway," says Cowley. "We were then able to create steps going down to his existing basement level and accommodate the portico. Had we not been successful with the Department of Transportation, we would have ended up with a flush pilastered opening."

The construction process proved to be more complex than anticipated. Upon removal of the brick façade, the structural engineers, Severud Associates Consulting Engineers P.C., discovered that the foundations were in poor condition and could not safely support the new load-bearing limestone walls that were varied between six to nine inches in depth. "The original idea was to only remove the brick façade, keep the back up wall and re-attach the new limestone to it," says Cowley. "But we didn't realize how poor the foundations of the existing brick building were, so everything had to come down." The engineer then carried out a mini supportive excavation, and engineered a new concrete masonry unit back up wall from the ground up to hold the weight of the new stone.

Aided by the client, Page Ayres Cowley Architects located Argyle Cut Stone of Morton Grove, IL. Not only did the stonemasons handle removal from the quarry, but they also created full-sized shop drawings and carried out the ornamental carving at their shop prior to shipping. "The client wanted to visit the quarry himself," says Cowley. "He is a perfectionist, and he wanted to see how things looked prior to installation. For him, watching all of the details and components come together on the site was like watching a work of art come to life." Additional materials included western red cedar casement windows and a mahogany entrance door, both by Belisle Ancestral Doors & Windows of Quebec, Canada.

With its elegant new façade, the house at East 63rd Street is now a fitting presence within the Upper East Side Historic District, and a testament to a successful client-architect partnership. "He knows his mind and he was not afraid to make decisions," says Cowley. "He liked to see progress, and I think that is reflected in how he approached this project. He got it."  

 

 

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