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Reopening the Vaults

Project: Federal Hall National Memorial, New York, NY

Architect: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering, New York, NY

Construction Manager/ Contractor: Humphreys & Harding, Inc., New York, NY; Aaron Bethea, project supervisor

By Eve M. Kahn

If the walls and subbasement of Federal Hall National Memorial could talk, they'd give eyewitness testimony about more turning points in American history and architecture than almost any other single place in the country. Revolutionaries first met at a 1690s city hall at this intersection of Wall and Nassau Streets in lower Manhattan in the 1760s. The brick Colonial building was upgraded in high-relief stucco during the 1780s for George Washington's inauguration by no less a luminary architect than Pierre Charles L'Enfant, planner of Washington, DC. The government razed L'Enfant's work in 1812, and in 1833 the versatile Greek/Gothic Revival pioneer Alexander Jackson Davis won a competition to fill the site with a custom house, where annual transactions soon totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

That temple of imports became a subtreasury in 1862, then a passport office and, after World War II, a National Park Service-owned museum. The structure has held firm despite anarchists' attempt in 1920 to dynamite J.P. Morgan's headquarters across the street and a few crashes of the Stock Exchange down the block. When the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11 and Federal Hall withstood a Richter-scale quake force of 6.3, its Corinthian-columned rotunda sheltered hundreds of wounded or dazed survivors all day. The building has been lauded for its "unparalleled grandeur and beauty" (per an 1842 critique in the New York Commercial Advertiser). And in The New York Times, streetscape-historian Christopher Gray has called the rotunda "as inspirational a government interior as any other in New York," graced with "some of the richest Corinthian capitals in the city." The Park Service, however, must stretch its budget thin to steward thousands of landmark buildings. Federal Hall had already needed some cosmetic surgery before 9/11, but that morning's shocks widened the hall's existing cracks to nerve-wracking proportions.

"If the structure had continued on the path it was on, the damage would have been irreversible," says Aaron Bethea, project supervisor for Humphreys & Harding (H&H), the New York City construction manager/contractor that just finished a $16.5 million, two-year overhaul of Federal Hall orchestrated by Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering of New York, NY. The work not only stabilized a masterpiece, it also created opportunities for the Park Service to restore long-concealed lavish ornament and create new galleries and program spaces. The hall promises to be as crowded in 2007 as it was when mariners filled the rotunda in the 1800s, lining up to file import-permit papers.

Davis' 16 rotunda columns, each carved from a single marble chunk, rest on hefty granite piers in the basement. High-relief plaster palmettes and rosettes on the dome are visible close-up from mezzanine balconies, where the railings consist of metal mermaids dressed in seaweed gowns. Three floors of offices are tucked around the dome, each ornamented with different Classical orders: stone piers or columns are trimmed with egg-and-dart moldings or Egyptian Revival lotus petals.

"The Custom House was often the first New York building a sea captain would step inside upon arriving at the harbor," explains Michael Callahan, a park ranger and historian at Federal Hall. "It had to look strong to represent the strength of the new country's government, and it had to be beautiful, to prove that the U.S. could produce architecture as beautiful as any these captains had seen elsewhere on their travels."

When the Subtreasury took over in 1862 (the Custom House was moved to an Isaiah Rogers-designed 1842 temple down Wall Street), Federal Hall's subbasement was reinforced with steel. "At one point," Callahan notes, "there were 1,178 tons of gold and silver stored here, which probably helped weaken the foundation." The harbor-front neighborhood's soil is silty, and skyscraper and subway construction in the early 1900s further rattled Federal Hall's bones. So did occasional breaks in local water mains and steam lines. In 2002, a parks-watchdog group added Federal Hall to its most-endangered list.

When H&H closed the building for repairs in November 2004, they "found the cracks were definitely larger than expected," Bethea recalls. "There were timbers holding up the stone vaults in the basement. To shore up the structure, we had to drive 36 piles, each one either 7 or 9 in. wide, 60 ft. down, right past the subway tunnels, mainly on the west side of the building that had taken the brunt on 9/11. Drilling in such a confined space was really a challenge. There was no room for a rig at the subbasement level, so we cored through the basement floor and the subbasement's arched ceilings. We saved any stone disks we took out and grouted them back in – a layperson would not be able to tell that any work had been done."

H&H meanwhile replaced all mechanicals (9/11 dust had hopelessly clogged the rooftop HVAC) and resurfaced the interior plaster. Where institutional shades of light blue or brown had crept in, painters put back Davis's original cream palette. In the basement and upstairs offices, crews tore out partitions that had long concealed pilasters and columns and ripped up carpets to expose checkerboard marble floors.

Rockwell Group, a celebrated hospitality-architecture firm, designed a ground-floor visitor center pro bono, a deal orchestrated through a nonprofit called the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy. Photos and maps explore local history and the Park Service's huge range of properties. Panels in the 1,500-sq.ft. gallery don't graze Davis' vaulted ceilings, and at the center of the room, an upholstered donut-shaped sofa wraps a column while leaving the fluted marble a few inches of breathing room.

The National Archives will be establishing its first outpost outside of Washington, DC, in Federal Hall's basement, a dramatic, low-ceilinged space that Christopher Gray observes "could be a German expressionist set in a Fritz Lang movie." As ever more exhibits fill the building, Callahan reports, "we've been having up to 300 visitors a day, and we expect up to 1,000 by mid-2007. We're planning on having some rotating photography shows about New York and putting in temporary displays about theaters and their role in New York's colonial life. We have a 1930s replica of an 18th-century printing press that a woman in Colonial costume can operate for visitors, and I sometimes give talks dressed as a British soldier garrisoned here."

A growing percentage of his audience members, he adds, live in the neighborhood, where office towers and warehouses keep turning residential and a new grade school has opened. "We can show all the new people moving down here what the culture and feeling of this area have been through history," Callahan says. "And everyone who works here loves how much air and light comes into their workplace now." TB

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