On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we sat down with Michael Smart, the materials conservation consultant for the restoration, to discuss the development of treatment and preservation guidelines within Landmark regulations and the work of his art and antiquities conservation company, Urban Aesthetics. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
I was brought onto the Williamsburgh Savings Bank project by preservation architect David Scott Parker to serve as a conservator. I didn’t know a lot about the building before that, though it used to be my bank when I lived on Broadway in the ’90s. They chopped it up pretty badly by the end of its use as a bank and the interior was all painted white. I knew that it was a George B. Post building, and that it was a great building, but that’s about the extent of it.
My primary role in the beginning was to analyze the scope of the project, identify all of the landmarked elements, and then write treatment proposals and guidelines for craftspeople to follow in the treatment and preservation of said elements, which is pretty much everything in the building.
In a nutshell, if you need to do any work on or touch a landmarked building, you have to get a conservation professional like me to write a proposal for the work you want to do that you submit to the Landmarks Commission. They look over the proposal to make sure it’s okay, and once they approve it you go ahead and begin work. Even after giving approval, they check in and make on-site visits to make sure the work is being done properly, in the right sequence, materials are at the right temperature, whatever it is. So that’s how Landmarks in New York works. It’s kind of strict, but not too strict — it could be a little stricter actually.
I had to do a survey of the entire building, so I was in every nook and cranny. I was up in the steeple, underneath all of the eaves; it was all great fun. Working in the space behind the domes was my favorite. There’s actually about 8-10 feet of space in between the dome you see when you’re inside the building and what you think is the same dome on the outside. There’s not very much space in there, but you can see how they tied everything back to the plaster dome and all the steel structure.
Some of the treatment proposals I made were pretty straightforward, and all carefully followed best practices in conservation. For example, cleaning the interior stone is done with this rubberized poultice that has a rubber binder with various chemicals and cleaning agents mixed in. You spread it on a surface and then wait a certain number of hours until the rubber cures enough that you can peel it off, and all the dirt comes off with it. Making the stuff is complicated, and knowing what to do is complicated, but the actual application is not that complicated. There was a lot of grunt work, a lot of surface area to cover. The outside of the building was cleaned with a low-pressure water system. We developed the system, found the right machines and cleaning solutions, but after that it’s just a matter of standing there with the machine, slowly going over the surface. Carlos had a crew of maybe 70 people working for three, four, five months just on the stone.
Usually – and in the case of this project – the work that I do is reversible, which means that on painted and wallpapered surfaces, barrier coats are applied. After the see. Painting team and I outlined the cleaning of the dome, we put a barrier coat over what was there and all of the overpainting was done on that barrier coat, so it can be removed at some point if need be. All the work in the bank building was done in that manner.
There are some other large-scale projects I do, but by and large I don’t do that many building-scale projects. Mostly I work in a studio setting on house-scale wood and metal. I work on a lot of chandeliers, lighting, gilt mounts, and lamps. The woodwork includes tables and chairs, cabinets, secrétaires, mostly 18th and 19th century stuff, some 20th century — I’m trying to take on more mid-century stuff actually. I used to peter out around Prouvé, but times are changing and tastes are changing. That sculpture right there is a Franz Hagenauer sculpture. The wood split on his face, so there was a big crack all the way around his face and neck.
I also do a little bit of fabrication, which ranges from small little reproduction projects, like cast lamps I’m making for a client, to commercial work such as bar tops, things like that.
There are some great details in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building for sure, really beautiful castings, stone work, all the incised border work, the cast-iron. You can pick out anything you want. My concern was that it be treated properly and that it work as a whole, because I think that was the intent of the building.
It’s funny, I’ve worked on very corporate Landmarks projects, where money isn’t a problem, and there can be real active effort to flout the rules just for convenience’s sake, or expediency, or whatever their reasons are. Almost every preservation project has financial limitations, this more so than most given the scale of the undertaking. We had to be thoughtful in finding ways to preserve and properly conserve the highly important historic features of the building, and are proud of the end result. I think the building found good owners, and I think they’ll do right by it, which is good to see. It’s always better for a building to be lived in. Hopefully it will have a lot of longevity.
Michael Smart founded Urban Aesthetics, LLC, a company concerned with the restoration and conservation of antiquities and art, in 1996. He holds a degree in Art History and Fine Arts, and attended school in Florence for restoration. His specialty is in wood and metal and encompasses furniture, sculpture, objects, architectural objects, and lighting. He is also the owner of a small fabrication company that produces limited custom work, of a particular sort, for commercial and private clients.