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New York City Gem Sparkles Anew

Exterior rendering of the Corbin Building that will be connected via an interstitial building
The Corbin Building will be connected via an interstitial building with the $1.4-billion Fulton Center, currently under construction. Courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

The Corbin Building, once the tallest in the city at nine stories, undergoes a $67.4-million renovation to incorporate it into the Fulton Center mass transit project.

August 20, 2013— For decades, the Corbin Building, a nine-story Romanesque Revival gem on the corner of John Street and Broadway in New York City, faced an uncertain future. Once the tallest building in a city that would soon stretch to the sky, the building’s unusual triangular floor plates and long egress point presented formidable challenges that drove away those seeking to renovate the structure for modern uses. For a time, it even seemed that the tan brick, stone, and terra-cotta structure would be demolished.

The building was developed in 1888-89 by Austin Corbin, then president of the Long Island Rail Road, and was home to the Corbin Banking Company. The structure was designed by architect Francis Hatch Kimball, an influential pioneer of skyscrapers. Kimball had a reputation for incorporating the latest technological advances in his buildings and using elaborate terra-cotta ornamentation.

The Corbin Building was built to exacting standards, with thick brick walls and arched structures to increase strength and provide open interior spaces. The building was one of the first to incorporate gearless elevators developed by the Otis Elevator Company. The building also features dramatic vaulted ceilings with an innovative fire-resistant tile system developed by Rafael Guastavino Moreno.

Exterior rendering of the Corbin Building's elaborate facade, which features intricately carved terra-cotta

The Corbin Building’s elaborate facade includes intricately carved
terra-cotta, a signature element of architect Francis Hatch Kimball.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

When first built, the Corbin Building was an impressive showpiece in the heart of the city’s developing financial district. During the ensuing 124 years, the building’s technical innovations became commonplace. The elaborate facade, however, never lost its allure. The Corbin Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. 

Today, the building has undergone a dazzling renaissance led by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company. The structure has been extensively refurbished and structurally renovated as part of the larger $1.4-billion Fulton Center subway project by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“What we have done is stepped in the middle of what could have been a wrecking crew and [preserved] the life of a building that talks about the history of New York,” says Michael Horodniceanu, Ph.D., the president of MTA Capital Construction Company.

The global consulting firm Arup served as the engineer of record for the project and provided all engineering, including facade engineering, geotechnical and foundation engineering, structural and seismic engineering, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering, among other services. New York City-based Page, Ayres Cowley Architects, LLC, served as Page Cowley was both architect of record and historic preservationist to meet the Federal Department of Interiors and State Historic Preservation Office requirements.

The Corbin Building is 160 ft long and tapers from the east side, which is 48 ft wide, to the west side, which is just 20 ft wide. The building will be connected to the Fulton Center via a 20 ft wide interstitial building. Expansion joints will enable the structures to move independently. Connecting the structures not only solves the Corbin Building’s egress issues, but provides lateral support for wind loads at the site. Both the Fulton Center and the interstitial building are modern steel and glass structures, creating a striking visual contrast.

“This was very interesting architecturally that we were able to articulate the old and the new,” Horodniceanu says.

Image depicting initials of Austin Corbin that were incorporated into some of the elaborate carvings

The initials of Austin Corbin, then president of the Long Island Rail
Road, were incorporated into some of the elaborate carvings.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

The Corbin Building will provide access to the subway lines below via a pair of escalators that descend through the structure’s basement and sub-basement. To make this upgrade to a 124-year-old building, engineers from Skanska, in New York City, were tasked with bolstering the original foundations. This presented a pronounced construction challenge.

“The ceiling down there wasn’t high enough to bring in equipment,” explains Martin Tagliaferro, a program manager with Parsons Brinckerhoff, in New York City, who provided project management and construction inspection services in a joint venture with Lend Lease. “It was really the proverbial, old-fashioned hand digging and placing concrete. Material had to be put on a conveyer belt so that we could get it out.”

Workers excavated by hand a series of 4 ft by 5 ft pits, 25 to 40 ft deep to bolster the structure’s foundation, not only for the loads provided by the escalators and subway patrons, but also the forces generated by the construction of the interstitial building and the Fulton Center next door. Jet grouting was employed to stabilize the soil and provide waterproofing.

“If you look at the foundation that was there, it was relatively unimpressive,” Horodniceanu says. “It was good for the times and it would stand the test of over a century.” The building itself was more robust, with exceptionally thick brick walls and large inverted arches incorporated into the sub-basement to counteract uplift pressure for the area’s high water table.

The Corbin Building was once the tallest in New York City

The building, once the tallest in New York City, is a prime example
of Romanesque Revival architecture. Courtesy of Metropolitan
Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

Horodniceanu says he had some sleepless nights during the foundation stages of the project, which he refers to as a return to ancient Egyptian methods of construction. Although expected, the building shifted from side to side as the foundations were reinforced. “We instrumented the building,” Horodniceanu explains. “The building was moving left to right or right to left, depending on where we were digging. That was a very interesting thing.”

Was he concerned? “Of course I was concerned. However, the movements were within the expected range. So we did not think that the building was at risk at any point. While it was moving, it was never above a threshold that we established up front,” Horodniceanu says. He credits the building’s incredibly robust structure for enabling the project to move ahead smoothly.

“I believe when this was constructed, it was built to last,” he says. “Now the building is 124 years old. Though it went through a renovation, clearly it has good bones. We have done things to make it better. But, in effect, the building was built very solidly.”

The $67.4-million project included preservation and restoration of many of the building’s signature Romanesque Revival architectural elements, including the façade, which is embellished with intricate carvings in terra-cotta.

“The facade of the building... really you can look at it almost as an ornament of lower Manhattan,” Horodniceanu says. “When cleaned, it suddenly came to life.” The restoration included sourcing matching brownstones from a quarry in North Salt Lake, Utah. Windows that required replacement were painstakingly matched to the originals.

Inside, a dramatic D-shaped staircase extends the full height of the building, providing the interiors with natural light. The staircase clearly demonstrates the high quality of the original construction in 1889 and emphasizes the height of the building. Materials include high-quality wood, marble, and cast iron.

“If you go there and look at it, you will first see that the daylight streams through,” Horodniceanu says. On the banister, “you have these cast-iron squirrels. This is a playful [touch] on what is a very elaborate balustrade. We actually preserved the wood paneling in some areas and some marble wainscoting on the seventh or eighth floor. There are some fireplaces throughout. They do not work, but we preserved their look.”

Image of the Corbin Building's original fireplace, which is no longer functional

The project included preservation and restoration of some of the
Corbin Building’s lavish interior elements, including historical
windows, elaborate wood paneling, and the original fireplaces,
which are no longer functional. Courtesy of Metropolitan
Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

The project included new restrooms on each floor, replacement of all the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, the installation of new utilities services, and new interior and floor finishes. The building’s elevators were rehabilitated. Evidence of previous renovations that weren’t historically correct was removed.

“In effect, what we have done is bring this back to its heyday—a beautiful building that will [also] be useful,” Horodniceanu says.

Plans are to lease the ground-floor spaces for retail purposes and the upper floors for commercial occupants. The upper floors have been left partially unfinished to allow future occupants to tailor the spaces to their business needs. The renovations were substantially complete in April, but the building can’t open until the Fulton Center is complete, providing the alternative egress.

The project has been personally rewarding to Horodniceanu, Tagliaferro, and others who worked to return the building to its original grandeur. The team worked to highlight the Corbin Building’s history as much as possible. Escalator riders will have a view of the inverted arches in the sub-basement, as well as historical artifacts found during the foundation excavation.

“When we dug into the lower basement, we found a stone-lined well, and in the well we found all kinds of artifacts,” Horodniceanu says, adding that the project uncovered a newspaper from 1889, with an article about the new Madison Square Garden. Historical artifacts found during the project are on display on the walls, “to remind people that this is really a building with a rich historical past,” he adds.

Horodniceanu’s history with the Corbin building dates back to 2002, when he was the chief executive officer of the Urbitran Group, in New York City, which was hired to conduct a feasibility study of preserving and repurposing the building. The egress and floor plate issues caused that effort to be shelved.

“When I got to MTA in 2008, I felt an affinity for the building, and I was happy that my job was also to save it and rebuild it,” he remembers.



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