Friday, February 1, 2013

Saving the Historic Corbin Building


The skyline of New York City is seemingly in a constant state of flux - older buildings are torn down and replaced by shiny new high rises, existing towers are updated adding a fresh and modern architectural spin, neighborhoods evolve from residential to commercial (and sometimes back again), and every so often nostalgia kicks in and inspires a movement towards preservation and renovation. Thankfully it was the latter that solidified the fate of the historic Corbin Building in lower Manhattan.
Located at 192 Broadway, the Corbin Building was built from 1888-1889 based on the design by architect Francis Hatch Kimball. Kimball was one of the more imaginative New York architects of his day and was posthumously credited by the New York Times as being “often spoken of as ‘the father of the skyscraper.’ " This historic former office building was named for Austin Corbin (the man who strung a series of railroads together on Long Island to form the super system that is the Long Island Rail Road) and, at the time of its completion, was allegedly the tallest commercial building in NYC. Its rugged Romanesque Revival architecture featured nine stories of sumptuous design details such as a brick, stone, and terra cotta facade and Guastavino tiled interior vaulted ceilings.

This bygone marvel was threatened in July 2003 when its location interfered with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plans for the new $750 million Fulton Street Transit Center. Faced with an inevitably hefty price tag for renovations and repairs ($59 million), the MTA contemplated the oft-employed solution of "out with the old, in with the new." Fortunately, the MTA Preservationists stepped in and allied with the New York Landmarks Conservancy to claim the building as part of the Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund. Advocates argued that because the new Transit Center was instrumental in setting the standard with which historical buildings would be dealt, the precedent must be set that potential landmarks, like the Corbin Building, are sparred and incorporated into post-9/11 redevelopment projects. Following a campaign reinforced with the testimonies of such experts as structural engineer Robert Silman and architectural historian Andrew Scott Dolkart, the Corbin Building was officially listed in the National Registers of Historic Places on December 18, 2003. Following the approval of a State Historic Preservation Officer, construction began to restore the Corbin Building's exterior and interior to pay homage its 19th century roots as well as to incorporate its ground and basement levels into the Transit Center below.

Following a long, arduous, and expensive overhaul, the shiny new masterpiece was revealed little by little as scaffolding was slowly removed like an architectural strip-tease. Now a fiery red, the Corbin Building's vibrant facade blazes in contrast to its steely neighbors and evokes the image of a triumphant phoenix rising above the ashes of disuse and ill-repair. Upon seeing it for the first time preservation advocate Frank E. Sanchis III, formally of the Municipal Art Society, vocalized the sentiments of many:

"The Corbin Building looks spectacular; its ornate design and materials are in dramatic juxtaposition to the simplicity and strong shapes of the transportation center next door. Aside from the sheer intelligence of preserving such a historically and architecturally significant building, this provides so much richer an urban result than demolishing Corbin would have yielded. It always amazes me that it’s such a struggle to get the preservation message across in the early stages of a project, when the end result is so obviously worthwhile.”

We at Wall Street Walks doubt that anyone- history buff, architectural enthusiast, neighborhood preservationist, or layman would disagree, and we are thrilled to add this building's rich history to our downtown storybook.