Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: 211 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY

Architect: Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, New York, NY; Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, partners in charge

General Contractor: Ryder Construction, New York, NY



Residential Multi-Unit

Winner: Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors

Weight of History

By Lynne Lavelle

Much like its inhabitants, New York City's buildings are famed for their directness. From the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn, to postcard favorites such as the Flatiron Building, the city is populated with bold residential and commercial architecture, in every conceivable style. The city was shaped by a who's who of architecture's past three centuries, and it continues, not without some controversy, to be a showcase for cutting-edge Modernism. All things considered, when given the opportunity to design a multi-unit residence in the NoLita neighborhood, New York City-based Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors felt the weight of expectation upon them. "To be able to put a building on a site in New York City is a big honor," says Robin Standefer, a native New Yorker and partner in charge with Stephen Alesch at Roman and Williams. "I am hoping this building outlasts us."

Palladio Award-winning 211 Elizabeth Street shows every indication of doing just that. The seven-story, 70,000-sq.ft. multi-unit complex is a rare new example of American vernacular building in the city, but that may change, given its reception. "For us, better than being nostalgic we are just carrying on a tradition that we like to think never ended," says Alesch. "It seems things took a detour for a long time into convenient construction and easy ways out. We see this as a continuation of say, prior to the Great Depression, before beefy, strong, solid American architecture lost its way. All of our projects tend to be a bit pro-American in design and construction, which we believe hold great value. It's about character, you know."

Located at the southwest corner of Elizabeth and Prince streets, the richly detailed red-brick building – three commercial units at street level and 15 apartments above – is a complement to its historic neighbors, but not an homage. "If you really look at the neighborhood and to some of the better brick buildings downtown, that was something that was very inspiring to us," says Standefer. "And we felt that we wanted to keep that kind of language in the neighborhood and to the building, but it's not as though it specifically relates to something that is right across the street or down the street. But it uses a lot of very traditional New York historic material and approaches to design and the building arts."

In its pursuit of the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, the firm rejected modern construction trends, such as pre-fabricated brick veneer, in favor of a traditional approach. The façade is comprised of handcrafted bricks, laid by a family of Irish masons, and recalls the weighty proportions, texture and scale found throughout the neighborhood with serrated window jambs, 10-in.-deep by 20-in.-wide pilasters, cornices, soldier courses and beveled corners. It was one instance of many in which the firm fought for its key principles. "The most important thing we noticed out of the gate was that we had to make a good argument to developers for the amount of articulation and depth that we wanted," says Alesch. "So many traditional buildings these days seem to be just a skin. We weren't prepared to just build a flat façade with fake brick in a traditional language with flush windows, so we desperately made a plea for 18 inches of play back and forth to give it some character, shadows and interest, much like the Puck Building down the street – one of our favorite buildings – and a lot of great turn-of-the-century structures. That was our first argument, and we got it." As opposed to flush and complex windows, so commonly used in modern construction for ease of waterproofing, the firm selected wood double-hung windows by Bonneville Windows and Doors of Springfield, MA. They are recessed 10 in. to add depth and shadows.

In spirit at least, the firm was inspired by the tradition of European hotels. It is much in evidence in the entry hall, where black back-painted glass and trim, slab slate floors, a walnut and slate lobby desk and custom brass sconces speak to a more elegant age. The apartments themselves – 15 one- and two-bedroom units – recall pre-war circulation, when "premium" space was worth dividing for hallways, portals and the preservation of sightlines, and each is distinct from the next. "The grandeur of center lines and sightlines give a little formality," says Alesch. "When you come out of your bedroom door and there is a sightline from your window to your living room or dining room, it makes you stand up a little straighter, be a little upright. It's like putting on a jacket."

As on the exterior, the details are strong and deliberate: every living room features a wood-burning fireplace with surrounds by New York, NY-based Stone Source (the company also supplied the bathroom floors and counters); baseboards, casings and trims are painted with high-gloss black oil paint; herringbone walnut floors have an eight-in. border throughout; and nine-ft.-tall glass doors with transoms divide the living room from the dining room and bedrooms. Glass was supplied by Elmsford, NY-based Schott. "Because the apartments are almost loft-style, we used trim to compartmentalize them into separate rooms," says Standefer. "There is not an interest in having a warehouse vibe. The herringbone floor was a somewhat romantic, but elegant approach. And the casings, baseboards, trim and French doors create a classic pre-war flavor, even though the windows are larger. It was an interesting hybrid." All bathrooms and kitchens were custom designed by Roman and Williams, and reflect the building's overall sense of craftsmanship. Walnut-framed wood cabinetry brushed with high-gloss oil paint references the interior trim, next to edge-grain, oiled walnut countertops.

Completed in November of 2009, 211 Elizabeth Street is flying the flag for the NoLita neighborhood and thoughtful vernacular design. "A lot of the things we did were not that difficult, they just required a lot of perseverance," says Standefer. "I think that a lot of the time, people want to build things very fast. They take the simplest approach to zoning, the simplest approach to a paneled brick material, use the simplest aluminum window. And the end result is a building that doesn't have a lot of care put into it. We were not comfortable with that much compromise."


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