Restoring a Landmark
By Frank J. Prial, Jr.
The restored lobby of the Empire State Building closely resembles the original 1931 design while meeting twenty-first century needs
New York’s Empire State Building is perhaps the most iconic image of sky-aspirant architecture that could ever have been imagined. It is a symbol of the city. Visitors come from around the world to share in its energy and spirit.
The architectural icon is a product of the best of times and the worst of times. It was conceived in the 1920s during a period of extraordinary economic growth and optimism, both in New York City and throughout the country, but it was built during a time of severe economic depression. Yet a tremendous amount of energy, optimism, and good will went into designing what was to be the tallest building in the world. The availability of labor allowed construction to be completed in only 14 months, from demolition of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that had previously stood on the site, to the pouring of the foundation, to the placement of the steel superstructure and cladding, to the opening in May 1931. This remarkable achievement was a testament to the labor force that constructed the building, the skill of the architects who designed it, and the contractors, the Starrett Corporation, who devised precedent-setting methods for increasing the efficiency of construction, many of which are still being used today.
The architects, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, were schooled as Beaux Arts classicists. In designing the Empire State Building, however, they adopted a new form, a novel approach to design that we now call Art Deco. Art Deco was based on classical principles but introduced the concepts of speed, energy, efficiency, and the Machine Age, expressed through both form and materials.
In 2006, Anthony E. Malkin, president of Empire State Realty Trust, the building’s current owner, commissioned our firm, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, to lead a team of architects, historians, artists, and artisans in the restoration of the Empire State Building’s historic lobby. For Malkin, the building is not just a real estate asset but also a landmark, a remarkable and significant piece of architecture, and it was his vision that guided this project.
The restoration presented many challenges. Although the building we inherited was structurally sound, a number of inappropriate modifications had been made over the years. In addition, because the lobby is a New York City Landmark, any changes being considered required approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The paucity of historic images of the original lobby further complicated the restoration effort. Fortunately, a series of photographs taken immediately after the building’s completion was available. The restoration team repeatedly consulted these images to understand the intent of the original architects. We asked ourselves, what would Shreve, Lamb & Harmon do today if given the opportunity to rethink and reinterpret their work of the 1930s to make it suitable for today’s users?
Our objective was to create an interior that closely resembled the 1931 lobby and at the same time operated more efficiently to meet twenty-first century needs. The first item on our extensive list of proposed changes was the reception desk. After examining the marble and the Art Deco detailing in the lobby, we designed a piece of furniture capable of integrating the vast amount of sophisticated technological equipment required for the safe and smooth operation of the building. The marble panels on the front of this desk were carefully bookmatched, that is, placed to mirror one another, creating the impression of an open book. The garland-like design was similar to existing patterns elsewhere in the lobby. Glass artist Denise Ames created a mural for the former storefront directly behind the desk. Her design, made up of six layers of etched glass illuminated by LED lighting, incorporates motifs complementary to others found in the lobby.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission had previously approved the subway-style turnstiles that led to the elevator banks. Although we were obligated to use these turnstiles, we could relocate them. After studying the movement of tenants through the building, we replaced the single, common point of access with a series of separate small elevator halls.
Moving the turnstiles back into these halls made them less obtrusive and allowed unobstructed circulation through the major corridors on West 33rd and West 34th Streets. The careful detailing of the turnstiles—stainless steel cladding and Rosso Levanto marble tops—complemented other materials in the lobby.
The lobby ceiling was the most significant art restoration effort within the project. Our team worked closely with EverGreene Architectural Arts, the preeminent mural restoration firm in the country. At the onset, we were attempting to restore something we weren’t sure had ever existed because the ceiling had been completely covered over. Two fortunate events provided important clues. First, we found a photograph in the building archive showing the original ceiling mural, and second, restorers discovered a remnant of it. Over time, smoke or water damage had caused the mural’s delamination, or separation from the ceiling, and in the 1960s it had been covered with a lead-based paint, followed by installation of a dropped tile ceiling and a fluorescent light fixture.
Laboratory analysis of a sample from the remnant identified multiple layers of paints, glazes, and aluminum and gold leaf that allowed us to understand the imagery. The original mural had depicted the heavens filled with suns, moons, stars, and planets, all against a background of small squares that had not been visible in the photograph. With the aid of a computer, we were able to determine the repeating pattern over the full length of the mural. The design was reminiscent of the constellations on the great sky ceiling at Grand Central Terminal. In the case of the Empire State Building, however, this theme was reinterpreted for the modern age. Stars became gears and planets became wheels. It resembled the machinery found under the hood of an automobile or inside a finely crafted watch. After recreation of the mural, members of the paperhangers union installed it on the ceiling using an organic, clay-based adhesive more durable than glues used in the past.
Lighting was another aspect of the lobby restoration. The historic linear glass light fixtures once above the elevators had been replaced with plastic acrylic sheets in the 1950s and 1960s. Corning Glass Works, which had provided the 1930s fixtures, has an extensive library and archive and was able to retrieve images of the original raised pattern, which California glass artisan Joan Irving used to recreate the design. The cost-effective fluorescent lights now installed behind 12,000 linear feet of the new glass are controlled by a dimmer that lowers the lighting to the original theatrical level during the day and raises it at night when maintenance is performed.
The new reception desk with bookmatched marble panels and the etched glass mural
created for the wall behind it
Historic photograph of the original mural (left) and the mural remnant discovered
during the lobby restoration (right)
Sketch of the chandelier originally intended for the lobby bridge (inset) and the
new chandelier based on this design
An archival photo documented two chandeliers over the pedestrian bridges at the upper level of the lobby. Curiously, these fixtures were more Beaux Arts than Art Deco. Construction documents, however, included a sketch of the intended design, which had a staggered profile resembling the top of the building. We worked with the Rambusch Decorating Company, a fourth-generation firm recognized for its expertise in the restoration and creation of historic lighting, to interpret this small sketch, and the chandeliers originally envisioned for the building now hang in the restored lobby.
Medallions on the lobby walls crafted by metal artist Oscar Bach honor the tradesmen, such as masons and painters, so instrumental in the building’s construction. He also fabricated the mural of the Empire State Building in the Fifth Avenue Lobby. To highlight the medallions, we worked with lighting designers who ingeniously hid spotlights in reveals and setbacks.
Original cove lighting above the elevators
Historic light fixture fitted with an acrylic lens prior to the lobby restoration
Restored lighting with decorative glass replicating the original design
Locating marble to match stonework installed 80 years ago was especially challenging. Surprisingly, we discovered 32 slabs of the original material in a small shop outside Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but we needed much more. It took a trip to Forte dei Marni near Carrera, outside of Pisa in Italy, but we were able to find sufficient quantities of a marble closely resembling the original.
One of our top priorities in restoring the lobby was to remove the illuminated artwork depicting eight wonders of the world—the seven classical wonders plus the Empire State Building—that were installed in the 1960s. They were predominantly blue and backlit by a fluorescent light that cast a very unflattering reflection. The Landmarks Commission agreed that the panels were not appropriate to the restoration but asked that they be relocated. The building’s owners are planning to move them to the eightieth floor where visitors headed to the observation deck can view them.
Signage using the font created for the Empire State Building
Once the illuminated panels were gone, we faced the task of replicating the bookmatched marble patterning on the other walls. We photographed all of the more than 80 slabs of marble we had acquired and worked with an artist who used Adobe Photoshop to select specific portions of the slabs and align and bookmatch them. The building owners could then choose the individual panels they wished to use and decide where those panels would be placed. These images also became technical roadmaps for the artisans cutting the marble slabs.
One of the exterior aspects of the restoration was the signage used for the building’s storefronts. We worked with graphic designers Two Twelve to develop a new Art Deco-inspired font specifically for the Empire State Building. The lettering is illuminated and mounted on black granite above the retail spaces. All tenants must use this font for exterior signs, and building management also uses it for advertising and events.
We commend Empire State Realty Trust and the Malkin family who had the vision to recognize the value of this iconic landmark and undertake the restoration of its magnificent lobby. Restorations of such architecturally significant buildings increase appreciation of these historic treasures. And with increased appreciation, more of these buildings will be saved.
Interesting in seeing more? Frank J. Prial Jr. gave an illustrated talk for the Art Deco Society of this same topic and the video can be found on our Videos of Interest page.
About the Author:
Frank J. Prial, Jr., is an associate partner with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners. He has led and contributed to many of the firm’s most celebrated historic preservation and revitalization projects, including the Empire State Building lobby for Empire State Realty Trust and Grand Central Terminal for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
All Photos: Courtesy of Empire State Realty Trust except where indicated.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.