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Home at Last

A divided 19th-century townhouse becomes a single-family residence once more.

Project: 31 East 38th Street, New York, NY

Architect: Cooper, Robertson & Partners, New York, NY: Manuel Mergal, AIA LEED AP, partner in charge; Christian Bolliger, senior associate

General Contractor: Scordio Construction, Brooklyn, NY

By Lynne Lavelle

In 1880, William R. Grace, Irish-born founder of shipping conglomerate W.R. Grace and Co., took up residence at a William Estabrook-designed townhouse in midtown Manhattan. Grace was not the first to occupy 31 East 38th Street, which was built in 1869 for Charles E. Butler, an attorney, but his time there proved oddly prescient; he was the city's first Catholic mayor, from 1881-1882 and 1885-1886. Today, 31 East 38th Street falls within the Murray Hill Historic District, and is the residence of staff members of Highland Study Center, a faith-based, non-profit organization whose programs are inspired by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Its transformation is the result of an intensive restoration and renovation by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the results of which belie the client's judicious budget.

Like many townhouses in the city, 31 East 38th Street underwent ill-advised renovations that altered or obscured much of the original building fabric. In 1937, all of the upper floors were severely compromised when the townhouse was converted to nine apartments. Beyond the permit for this subdivision, very little documentation about the building remained. Restoring it to a single-family residence was therefore a matter of careful editing and thorough investigation. "We examined the building very carefully," says Manuel Mergal, partner at Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

The selective demolition phase officially lasted four months, but was in reality an on-going process. Initially using 50 probes, the firm was able to determine what was behind the walls and what was and was not structurally sound. "We found a litany of construction issues," says Christian Bolliger, senior associate, "that had not previously revealed themselves." Among these were cut joists and brick removed from load-bearing walls – a result of squeezing plumbing for nine apartments into the building.

From a cosmetic point of view, the interior was often incoherent. "This was an Italianate house," says Mergal. "At the time, the Classical language of architecture was freely interpreted. It was hard to tell sometimes which of the moldings were original and which had been added during the course of renovations."

The firm documented every single molding in the house, many of which were obscured by layers of paint, to determine the original hierarchy of its rooms, from 9-in. casings on the garden floor to 6-in. casings on the upper floors and 4-in. casings at the top, which denoted servants' quarters. After some deliberation, the firm decided to re-create the 9-in. casings used on the garden and parlor floors and custom-designed 6-in. casings for the upper floors, with the exception of bathrooms and service areas, where 4-in. casings were used.

That the garden and parlor floors were in a state of renovation when Cooper, Robertson & Partners came on board proved useful in determining the timeline of the building. A portion of an existing stair had been cut and concealed, and evidence of relieving arches on several floors suggested that an addition had been constructed at the rear early on. "There were areas where either walls or ceilings were removed," says Bolliger. "We found pieces of the original single-family house."

To accommodate the client's extensive new program, the firm carried out a gut renovation of the upper floors, reconfigured them entirely, added an elevator, and changed the location of the dining room from the parlor to the garden floor. "We had to pack a lot into this building," says Mergal. "We had to accommodate 12 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a library, some office space, a private chapel, sitting rooms, a laundry room, kitchen, dining room, family room etc."

Despite space constraints, the firm found imaginative ways to retain beloved elements of the house. In the entry hall, for example, the memory of a mirror at the top of the entry hall stairs is a window that looks into a second-floor corridor beyond. Here, a new skylight was added and the entire corridor was moved to the west in order to accommodate bigger rooms.

"It is perhaps due to our urban design background that in this firm we have a sense of being stewards," says Mergal. "Stewards of the environment and stewards of what we inherit. So we have to take what is there very seriously, look at it, and think, 'What are we going to do about this?' so that there is a sense of continuity with what previously existed."

Perhaps the most unusual program requirement for a single-family home was the inclusion of a private chapel, in what was once the parlor room. After trying to incorporate the original pocketing door into the design, the firm designed a new three-door expression at the rear of the parlor, made to look as if they had always been there, added a platform for the altar and removed the fireplace. The firm re-created new ceiling moldings in plaster, which were finished to disguise differences in materials. In other areas such as where wainscoting is used, "the initial stripping led us to believe that curly maple was used throughout," says Mergal, "but after finishing stripping, we discovered maple and pine, used randomly. It was more cost effective to paint this area instead of staining it, as we had originally intended."

The new kitchen is a hybrid between residential and commercial; warm and welcoming, it has the capacity to serve a large party with no outside catering. Off the kitchen is the dining room, where new moldings, casings – which were integrated with the cornice and wainscoting – complement the restored original fireplace. "None of the fireplaces were working and all but two were removed," says Mergal, "but the clients were very proactive with trying to sell the mantles."

Though Cooper, Robertson & Partners was initially retained to work on the building interior only, the clients decided to bring the exterior up to historic district standards. The building had been painted, from the base and stairs to the roof slate. To make matters worse, the column recesses and entry pediment had been filled with concrete as a cheap method of pigeon control. "I have worked in stone buildings for most of my professional life," says Mergal, "of course I had a visceral reaction against painting stone. It was hard to tell what was stone, slate or wood."

As the building is Nova Scotia sandstone with a brownstone base, the firm looked at other historic two-tone townhouses for guidance in cost-effective cleaning methods. The lower half was worst affected by carbon staining, so required micro-abrasion, while chemical peeling sufficed for above. Excess cement was removed, revealing the articulation of the stone column capitals and pediments while the metal gates were sandblasted and refinished.

The exterior stone conservation and restoration was carried out by A. Ottavino Corporation of Jamaica, NY. Other suppliers for 31 East 38th Street included Elite Woodworking of Brooklyn, NY; Rejuvenation Lighting of Portland, OR; and Ball & Ball of Exton, PA, (lighting).

Since the completion of the project in 2012, 31 East 38th Street has been proposed for National Historic Landmark status. "Our design kept as much of the original structure as was possible," says Mergal. "The clients bought the house because of its character. Today, it is impossible to determine what was existing and what is new; thereby, the architectural integrity that originally attracted the owners to the house is preserved."

 

 

 
 

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