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 spoke with Preservation Architect David Scott Parker of David Scott Parker Architects to discuss the responsibilities of a preservationist, rehabilitation standards, and the importance of rescuing this iconic building. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
We became involved in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank restoration through a previous project. We restored an important 1880s New York City brownstone, the Loeb House, which received a lot of attention. I was asked to give a tour of that structure to Carlos Perez San Martin and Juan Figueroa, and they subsequently asked us to consult on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. So it was a little bit happenstance, as a lot of things are.
Preservation architecture is a major focus of our work. One reason for that is that it’s inherently sustainable, which we think is very important. We’re currently working on two institutional preservation projects. We are the restoration architects for the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, and we’re also helping the Greenwich Historical Society in Greenwich, Connecticut with their master plan. Depending on when we’re brought into the project, we are sometimes both the preservation architects and the architects of record.
We were the preservation architects on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank project. They had already engaged an architect of record for code review and those aspects of the project. We were responsible for analyzing the historic structure, advising on restoration procedures, identifying conservators, and ensuring the restoration work occurred according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which are considered best practices in architectural preservation here in the US. Because we’ve worked on so many preservation projects, I have a lot of contacts in the field, and one of the first people we brought on was the conservator Michael Smart, who is terrific.
As Preservation Architects, we were also responsible for researching the period as well as the details associated with the restoration and recreation of the original building. This was an iterative, ongoing process, since the Williamsburgh Savings Bank is such a large building with so much rich material. We were there to make sure that everything was done as accurately and responsibly as possible. My office has about 15 people, and there were three or four engaged on this project. We’re located in Connecticut, about an hour from New York, which is a convenient trip, so we were on site frequently.
The scale of the restoration project was a little daunting, especially as it was all being done with private dollars, which is very different from a non-profit or something that receives grant funds. I was impressed that they were able to get the necessary investor funding. My firm drafted the historic tax credit justification submission, which helped garner approximately $6 million in addition to the private investments. It was a labor of love, not a huge money-making project. It is an important structure that we all wanted very much to see revived.
I of course knew the building as one of the great George B. Post buildings of the 19th century. The exterior was what I was familiar with; the inside was a great surprise. It’s extremely rare to find a building as intact as this building was, both externally and internally. Almost 100 percent of the original structure remains.
The entire exterior is landmarked but only the original circa 1875 portion of the interior is landmarked. Regardless, to the extent that it was financially possible, we treated the two domes in the same manner and approached them with the same general preservation standards. The original dome, of the 1875 building, has the extremely important mural that is the only remaining intact example of P.B. Wight’s work. That was all carefully conserved. The later dome space is just painted, coffered plaster. For budgetary reasons, the delaminating decorative painting of the 1906 coffered ceiling was stabilized, a barrier coat applied, and then these surfaces were overpainted. The new colors were modified slightly from the original. Specifically, areas that were green are now bluer in hue. Other than that, we used a gold finish on the moldings and painted the ribs in a stone color that is close to what was there originally.
In a preservation project, it’s always a relative decision how much to do and how much to restore. With the Williamsburgh interiors, the intent was always to conserve and to restore. Juan and Carlos really felt from the beginning was that this should be returned to its original condition to the extent possible. The Landmarks Commission was very pleased to see this building being saved.
Several years ago, we advised on restoration work at the United States Treasury in Washington. The building is from about the same era as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which is a really interesting period in American banking architecture — it’s all to suggest the solidity and institutional character of these financial institutions. So I have a strong interest in banking architecture from this period and, realizing how significant this structure is in the history of American architectural history and of American interiors, I really believed it was important to rescue.
My favorite aspect of the building is its iconic dome. I believe a community’s identity, especially a community as historic as this one in Williamsburg, is intrinsically linked to its architecture. The upkeep of its architecture matters — when historically significant buildings are allowed to fall into disrepair, the sense of community starts to crumble, which is what happened in Williamsburg. In its prime, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank was Williamsburg’s symbolic neighborhood institution. It’s been a local financial resource for so long — when we started working on the project it still had the neon HSBC letters on the exterior. This building is such an icon in Williamsburg and I hope its restoration will reverberate. I absolutely see preservation as an economic development tool, and already here you can see improvements to the nearby sidewalks and streets.
David Parker, AIA is Principal of David Scott Parker Architects, a 15-member multi-faceted firm with broad experience on prominent preservation, adaptive-use restoration, and major residential commissions across the US. His team has worked on hundreds of projects, ranging from significant residences to well-known National Historic Landmarks, which have garnered numerous, prestigious awards including: two consecutive New York Landmarks Conservancy Moses Preservation Awards; a Preservation League of New York State Excellence in Historic Preservation Award; an Institute of Classical Architecture & Art Stanford White Award; a Palladio Award; and several AIA awards in Connecticut and New England.
Parker is licensed in eight states and holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has served on the Board of Directors of numerous museums and not-for-profit institutions, including presently the Merritt Parkway Conservancy.