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Superior Court

Project: United States Post Office and Courthouse, Brooklyn, NY

Architect & Interior Designer: R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects, New York, NY; Robert Kliment, FAIA, lead designer; Frances Halsband, FAIA, collaborating designer; Michael A. Nieminen, AIA, partner in charge; Richard L. McElhiney, AIA, project manager; Karl A. Lehrke, AIA, project architect

By Hadiya Strasberg

From 1885 to 1887, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department Mifflin E. Bell supervised the design and construction of a string of post offices, courthouses and other government buildings from Sacramento, CA, to El Paso, TX, and Manchester, NH. The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Brooklyn, NY, constructed from 1885 to 1892, was one such building. An example of Romanesque Revival architecture, the four-story post office and courthouse features granite façades with terra-cotta ornament, heavy arched exterior doorways, steeply pitched slate roofs and a corner tower.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and Eastern District Courts were soon pressed for room, so in 1927 government architect James A. Wetmore designed a seven-story addition. When it was completed six years later, the building covered an entire city block. This past summer, a second addition was finished; working for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), New York City-based R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects designed a four-story glass structure that was inserted into a courtyard of the Wetmore building. Kliment & Halsband also designed new exterior stairs and entrances and renovated both interior public and office spaces. An adaptive-reuse plan was designed, which reorganized the space of the four tenants: the USPS, U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Trustee and U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

When the firm initiated the design work in 1996, the post office and courthouse building was underutilized and space was misappropriated. The Eastern District Courts had moved across the street in 1964 and, in 1988, the USPS had transferred the majority of its operations to another Brooklyn location. "The post office did not need as much space as it once had, but the courts had grown," says Michael A. Nieminen, AIA, partner in charge at Kliment & Halsband. "We restored courtrooms in the renovated building and reorganized the space to meet each tenant's needs."

As the tenants function independently, Kliment & Halsband designed separate entrances for each. "Originally, access to the building was limited; it was gained primarily from the front of the 1892 building," says Nieminen. "Access along Cadman Plaza was less than grand or welcoming, and as the sidewalk sloped on the west side there was no access at all." What had worked for earlier tenants was clearly not ideal for four with distinct and different requirements. To accommodate all of the occupants, Kliment & Halsband created a level plaza with stair access along the west side of the building. New bollards, along with site lighting and railings, call attention to the entrances. Some of the entrances are entirely new, while others were enlarged to permit an increase in pedestrian traffic.

The steps – in granite to match the building's façades – were a solution to a few challenges. "The stairs were added to mediate the slope of the building," says Nieminen. "Their addition allows the structure to touch the ground all along Cadman Plaza, making it more porous and welcoming as well. It now addresses the park across the street, in a new, more connected, way." The extended stairs provide yet another amenity: a short ramp on the southwest corner of the building seamlessly links the sidewalk to the entrance level to discreetly meet ADA regulations. "Even from the U.S. Attorney's Office entrance, which is furthest from grade at the adjacent sidewalk, someone who is physically challenged can access the entrance without a mechanical lift or extensive ramping," says Nieminen. "This design seemed much more architecturally sympathetic to the historic building."

The most significant addition to the building – a four-story, U-shaped, painted-aluminum and glass curtain wall that encloses offices for the U.S. Attorney's Office – does not imitate the historic building but meets the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the design of additions to historic buildings. Both the 1892 and 1933 portions of the post office and courthouse building are listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and are designated New York City landmarks, which meant that the exterior design needed to undergo many approval processes. But it didn't complicate matters much, Nieminen says: "We carefully considered the style of the addition and how it would relate to the historic building, but choosing a modern approach – a curtain wall – wasn't a problem. We were consistent with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards concerning restoration versus addition work. We wanted what was new to be clearly new and seen in contrast to what was old." He says that the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the addition because its height "remains below the existing roof line" and it can not be seen from the street.

An 85,000-sq.ft. four-story addition was built within the courtyard of the 1933 building. "We decreased the size of the courtyard slightly, but retained the shape of the building," says Nieminen. "Though we gave up some space, we made it more visually pleasing." Over the years, the roof of the lower floors had filled with mechanical equipment, which Kliment & Halsband relocated to the mansard roof. "We wanted to relieve the courtyard of clutter so that it could once again be a place one wanted to look out on," says Nieminen. The firm worked closely with engineers to coordinate the move of the HVAC equipment. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems were updated throughout the building. The placement of the equipment on the roof freed up valuable floor space and allowed for unobstructed views of the courtyard. A series of skylights was also installed; they light two of the bankruptcy courtrooms and a library below.

Other exterior work included the installation of replacement slate shingles in areas where they were damaged or missing. Glen Head, NY-based Nicholson & Galloway, Inc., supplied the new slate, which was carefully matched to the existing. Historical wood windows were in fairly good shape and were refinished. "The sash was replaced on a few of the windows," says Nieminen, "but the majority of them were reparable." The entry doors, however, were deteriorated, so new entry doors were fitted around the perimeter of the building. "It was also a security issue from a door-hardware standpoint," Nieminen explains. The original material – glazed statuary bronze – was respected. Exterior rehabilitation of the building, subsisting mainly of façade improvements, is scheduled for the near future.

As for the interior, the 1892 building was adapted to house the Trustee and Bankruptcy Court, the latter of which also shares some space in the 1933 building. The remainder of the 1933 building was converted into office and public space for the USPS and U.S. Attorney's Office.

A triple-arched entryway opens into the Bankruptcy Court's public lobby, which has a 22-ft.-tall coffered ceiling and new marble flooring and lighting. The historic paint colors of the walls and columns – muted yellows, ochres and reds – were restored based on careful conservation research. Four of the Bankruptcy Court's seven courtrooms, located on the second and third floors surrounding an atrium, feature restored carved-mahogany doors, surrounds, transoms and screen walls to regulate circulation. The marble fireplaces and wainscoting were cleaned and restored. The other three courtrooms, which are on the second and third floors of the 1933 building, have new mahogany paneling. Custom mahogany benches were designed and built for all of the courtrooms.

The ground and first floors of the 1933 addition, as well as the new mezzanine, are utilized by the USPS. Kliment & Halsband renovated the public gallery, which now features new marble flooring and walls, new lighting and restored decorative metal gates. Light from operable monumental arched windows gives the appearance of a grand space and provides views of Cadman Plaza to the west.

The curtain-wall addition now occupied by the U.S. Attorney's Office was also designed to take advantage of natural light. The waiting areas that open onto the light well feature floor-length windows "to bring natural light to the interior," says Nieminen.

A major undertaking was the restoration of the three-story atrium. Masonry balusters, columns, ornamental bases and capitals and friezes were restored, as were the woodwork, gilded friezes and original wall colors – the same as those throughout the building. "I most enjoyed working on the atrium," says Nieminen. "We had historical images at our disposal, which showed both a skylight and a laylight, but we found them boarded up and floored over. It was fun to figure out how to bring them back in spirit but with new technology." The new skylight is a sophisticated glazing system reminiscent of the original overlayed with new technology. The new laylight, also similar to the original, has ceramic-fritted glass and a strong sun-shading component so that the Bankruptcy Clerk's Office below is not overwhelmed by sunlight.

Though each tenant's program differed, Kliment & Halsband maintained a consistent interior design to preserve the unity of the building. The majority of floor and wall tile were replaced throughout the building in lobbies, atrium corridors, main stairs and restrooms. "Many floors had been compromised over the course of the life of the building," says Nieminen. "In the atrium corridors, there were areas of water damage where the flooring needed to be replaced. In other areas, there was even less material left."

For the replacement tile on the first floor, Kliment & Halsband specified marble, the material of the original flooring, but softened the color, using a new Solar Gray and the original Imperial White marble on the first-floor lobby. The original Black Champlain and Imperial Danby marble were restored and extended on the atrium corridors. All marble was supplied by Georgia Marble of Tate, GA. "We choose lighter tile for the lobby in response to the use of a polychromatic color scheme that was restored in the walls and architectural features," says Nieminen. The flooring tile was laid in the original diagonal checkerboard pattern. Marble that matches that of the Bankruptcy Court's new lobby floor was also specified for a new grand stairway, which connects the lobby with public waiting areas on the upper floors. Existing marble on the atrium corridor walls could be salvaged and was restored.

The existing stairs in the 1892 building were restored and painted to match historic colors. In fact, original colors were also restored on all of the ceilings and columns in the lobbies, courtrooms and atrium. "Layers of over-paint had long since obscured the original decorative finishes and paint," says Nieminen. Kliment & Halsband worked with an historic-detailing consultant, Integrated Conservation Resources (ICR) of New York City, to arrive at a color palette. ICR did a comprehensive finishes analysis, which utilized the stratigraphy of paint samples and pigment and media identification.

New York City-based EverGreene Painting Studio, Inc., restored the original decorative schemes, including decorative painting, murals, gilding and stenciling. Evergreene painted in its studio on canvas, which was then feathered to the plaster walls or ceilings at the post office and courthouse. "The murals and stenciling were originally painted directly onto the plaster and not onto canvas," says Nieminen, "but after consulting with EverGreene we felt that the quality control was better than if the painters were working in the field."

While the decorative painting could be restored, Kliment & Halsband was not so fortunate when it came to the lighting – none of the fixtures were original. "When we started the project, we found so-called 'schoolhouse' lighting in the courtrooms – low-quality pendant fluorescents," says Nieminen. "We didn't come upon any original lighting." The firm ordered custom ambient lighting fixtures from New York City-based Rambusch Lighting for the lobbies and the atrium. Other types of fixtures included downlighting and task lighting; because they were not historically styled, they were limited to offices and other private spaces. "In a lot of areas where we used downlights, it wasn't always clear what the original lighting source was," says Nieminen. "Downlighting was considered the most unobtrusive in this case. It is used in areas where it is important to light the floors, not the ceilings or walls, such as in some hallways and circulation spaces."

In the atrium, there was a hint of the original lighting design, where a continuous pattern of ceiling rosettes was still in place. This gave Kliment & Halsband a clue about where the lighting had been, aiding in the location of new fixtures.

To comply with ADA requirements, nine elevators were inserted into the building. Another modernization was the addition of fire stairs, which are also used for convenience.

One of the challenges of working on a large project in New York City, says Nieminen, is juggling so many different trades. "This project was not easy to construct and involved a lot of unusual types of trades, such as decorative painters and ornamental metalworkers," he says. "We were heavily involved in construction administration, far more so than is typical of a government project, so we could control the quality of work as much as possible. The government was kind enough and smart enough to let us stay in the process so that what we had labored so long to do could become a built reality."

For a total construction cost of approximately $200 million, the post office was completed in 2003 and renovation of the courthouse was finished in the summer of 2005. The 575,000-sq.ft. building has received numerous design acknowledgments, including a GSA Design Award, an AIA New York City Architecture of Justice Certificate of Recognition and an AIA Committee on Architecture for Justice Citation. TB

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