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 Carlos Perez San Martin, the general manager of the venue, to discuss the 3 ½-year restoration project and the team of architects, artisans, and other designers he engaged to bring the landmarked building back to its former splendor. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
My involvement with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank began in late 2010. My cousin, Juan Figueroa, discovered the building and assembled the investment group, bringing me in as the project manager. We were acting not only as the owners of the building, but also as the general contractors. The building was purchased in December 2010, and I moved from Argentina to New York just before the new year. My background was in a family business in Argentina, and I had no previous experience on a project of this scope or in historic preservation.
The two domes — the original 1875 building, designed by George B. Post, and the 1906 addition with the smaller dome — were separated by a sheetrock wall that we believe was added in the 1980s. The original dome was the bank, a branch of HSBC at the end, and the other side was abandoned for decades and full of trash. It had been rented to a nonprofit, Williamsburg Family Services, but had been vacant for many years.
The building is landmarked by the City, and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the exterior and the interior of the original dome are landmarked, but with the National Register it’s the entire building that’s registered.
We had to submit over 20 applications to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve each step of our work. I had an architectural designer, Flavia Bertorello, who worked on the Landmarks and National Register submissions almost exclusively. There were so many aspects of the Landmarks process that we never could have anticipated from the beginning. Only a few weeks ago I received the final sign off from Landmarks.
FIRST, WE CLEANED
The first thing we did was clean. We were cleaning for over six months, just removing stuff. Once the building was clean we had to make a decision about how to restore it. There are many ways to approach restoration — such as making the new retain the look of the old. Juan wanted the building to look as if it was brand new and I liked the idea. Juan was very attentive to detail, and he has a very developed eye for aesthetics too. He oversaw all the little things, details such as the cover of the keyhole or the lions’ paws on every bathroom stall.
Juan went to tour the Loeb House, a 1880s townhouse on the Upper East Side beautifully restored in the style of the Aesthetic Period. The architect of the Loeb House, David Scott Parker, guided the walkthrough. That was the beginning of our relationship with David, who then immediately came to work with us here. David, in my opinion, is the best restoration architect for that period in the country. Through David, I found most of the artisans. David introduced us to Michael Smart, who owns a company in Brooklyn called Urban Aesthetics and is a materials expert.
Every single square inch of every surface was touched by hand, on both the interior and exterior. The first milestone signaling the restoration was underway was putting up the scaffolding. Once we had the scaffolding, the restoration started from the top and moved downward.
STONE WALLS AND WOOD POLISH
All the walls from the ledge down had been painted white many times over the years. Michael advised us on the best materials to remove all that paint. We used this oxygen-based stripper that gets behind the paint and starts to peel it off. After that, we had probably a hundred workers just scraping whatever was left. We couldn’t use metal brushes, only plastic brushes. The other chemical used most in the building is a latex-based substance that smells awful and looks like white paint. You paint it on a stone wall, let it dry for two or three days, then peel it off like wax — with it comes out all the dirt.
Across the main space, we removed the paint and then patched the stone with mineral paint. There are probably thousands of patches in the whole building. If you stand here and look closely you realize it, but the intention is that if you just turn your head you would never see that there was a patch. The patches are painted in the same tones as the stone in order to match. The company that supplied most of the materials, Cathedral Stone Products, referred us to Michelle Quartin, who led the mineral painting team. She brought a team of three or four, mostly artisans, and one of her team specialized in French polishing for wood. Scott Holland put together the most skilled persons within our construction team and he taught them French polishing.
THE RESTORATION OF THE DOME
Michael introduced us to Sandra Spannan of see. Painting, who led the restoration of the dome. The cleaning process took around three months, using cotton balls and water-based cleaners. Once we cleaned the fresco, we had to make an analysis to see exactly which sections we would repaint. There was a lot of paint damage. All of the sky had fallen down, and until I was up in the scaffolding I never realized there were gold-leafed stars.
I remember being here with our team on a Sunday from early in the morning until night just looking at the different colors on each layer and matching every color to create the palette. While there are some archival descriptions of the colors that were originally used, they just say “blue,” and not which blue, so we were finding the different pigments in the remaining paint.
The way we approached the gold leafing and the French polishing was that we hired experts — Sandra and Scott, respectively — and they gave lessons to our construction crew. After the training, the rest of the gold leafing was done by my crew, including the moldings and the pilasters. We ended up with five or six gold leafing experts. For example, Luis Wigdorsky was one of our construction workers that has stayed on the team for maintenance work. He knew nothing of these trades before he started with us. Now he does both gold leafing and French polishing. This was for budgetary reasons, for sure, but also because it’s good to develop the skills of every worker.
RECREATING THE SKYLIGHT
The later dome, from 1906, was done in plaster. That portion is not landmarked, so we painted it the colors we thought best for the space. The glass panels in the dome were not there when we arrived; the opening was covered by plywood. The original panels were in crates in the basement, almost destroyed. We sent them to Ernest Porcelli, an expert in stained glass restoration, who cleaned what was there and redid the missing pieces.
MOSAIC MARBLE AND ENCAUSTIC TILE
The flooring in the main space is mosaic marble, a yellow marble from Italy called Giallo Siena. There was a portion of the original floor that remained but was extremely damaged. We removed all the existing mosaic stone in order to introduce radiant heating below the marble. There was no way to heat this space except from below. I priced out the top mosaic marble companies in the world, all Italian, to do the flooring, and the estimates were in the same range as the rest of the entire project. So instead I found a company in Lebanon, Mosaic Marble, that could hand cut the mosaic.
It took about two years from the moment I first contacted Mosaic Marble to the moment that we had the floor finalized. All of the tile we were able to salvage we put together and used it for the bathroom floors, so that is original. An Italian artisan named Danilo Bonazza, who has a company called Art & Mosaics, handled the mosaic work. He’s probably the best mosaic marble installer in the United States for sure but probably the world.
For some of the other spaces, where there is encaustic tile, we found the same factory in England that produced the originals, Craven Dunnill. It still has the same molds in all the same colors, so the new tile looks just like the original.
Most of the wallpaper is custom made for the restoration. We brought in Stephen Bauer from Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers to design the wallpaper. When he visited and saw the Wight mural for the first time, I remember him crying out, “I can’t believe this is here!” Only the papers in the President’s office, bathroom, and hall are P.B. Wight designs. The rest of the wallpapers are inspired by period designs, such as ones by Herter Brothers and Christopher Dresser, from Bradbury & Bradbury.
The wallpapers were a collaboration between Stephen and Federico Rozo, our creative and graphic designer. Together they created a flow through the building, beginning with a Victorian style that moves into the Aesthetic Period on the higher floors. The Cashier’s room has more of a Persian style, and that wallpaper is one my favorites. The most Aesthetic Period — and, in my opinion, beautiful — room is my office upstairs, which has not yet been finished and is inspired by B.J. Talbert designs.
I read in a Landmarks report that there was a fresco by P.B. Wight in the ceiling of the front entryway and in the ceiling of the balcony directly above. It had all been painted white, so with a really delicate technique we stripped the paint, found the original fresco, and took photographs. Federico re-created the design digitally. Painting it again was too difficult, so the covering on that ceiling is actually wallpaper also.
We sent Martina Giotta, who was part of our team, to school to learn how to treat bronze. All the bronze cleaning was done here; we had a shop downstairs. It was about five people just cleaning each piece. The center bronze grilles are original, while others had to be replaced. A bronze reproduction was unaffordable, so the ones on the sides are cast in aluminum and painted. You can see how much they shine, because Luis is an expert in polishing now, so he polishes them all the time.
The door of the vault, when it was finished in 1872, was submitted to an art fair in Paris. It won first prize as a design piece, and the medallion with the face of Napoleon III that’s now embedded in the door was the grand prize. Above, the names of the original Williamsburgh Savings Bank board of trustees are engraved. Practically all of those names are streets in Brooklyn now.
The birdcage elevator was really damaged; although it was working, we had to change all the mechanics. It is not original, because in 1875 there was no power for it. I hired a consultant to research the elevator, and while he found no records from the installation, he thinks it’s from 1911. The building inspector didn’t want to approve it because these birdcage elevators are considered dangerous. The chief inspector weighed in and allowed the elevator because of the building’s Landmark status. According to the inspector, it’s one of three birdcage elevators approved by the Department of Buildings in the whole city.
This is probably one of my favorite items. This is the old intercom system that allowed communication between rooms. You would blow into the little hole here, and there is another hole back here that would whistle on the other end. I have the other end in my office still. That’s fantastic, right? Unfortunately they’re all capped now.
We plan to build a hotel on the vacant lot next door. It’s not a common American practice, but we purchased the bank building without knowing precisely how we were going to use it and what the extent of the restoration would be. You look at it now and it’s a no-brainer, it looks perfect. But if I told you that I thought we would be here three years ago with this achievement, the answer is no.
We purchased the building knowing that we could demolish the last addition made in the early 1940s, which was on the west side of the building and was not landmarked. Combining that property with the existing parking lot, we had air rights that were valuable enough that even if we were to do everything wrong we could sell those and recoup our money. We were a little crazy, making a budget as we moved forward and trying to find money each step of the way. Our problem always was budget. But because we followed all the Landmarks standards, we received tax credits on the project, which ended up being a critical component of our financial structure. They made the project financially feasible.
We’ll break ground on the hotel, if everything goes well, sometime after next summer. We expect it to take two to three years to build. We’re also now working on installing historical street lighting in the neighborhood, which is being funded by the Borough President’s office. We also applied for, and fund the maintenance of, a temporary plaza on the corner of Bedford and Broadway. We’re working to make it permanent.
It’s very important to me that we help bring Broadway back to what it originally was, a bustling business corridor. For both this building and the hotel to be successful we need more pedestrian traffic, more retail, more activity in the neighborhood.
Carlos Perez San Martin is General Manager of the Williamsburgh Project, which includes overseeing all operations related to the landmark event space Weylin B. Seymour’s and a 150-room hotel construction planned on the adjacent property. He served as Project Manager of the award-winning restoration of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank. Carlos is from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
This post has been amended to clarify details of the restoration of the skylight, and a description of the design of a chandelier has been removed.