Ghent artisan restores landmark NYC building

Summary

A well-known building in Manhattan is getting a much-needed makeover thanks to the know-how of a craftsman from East Flanders

Cast iron man

The building at 54 Bond Street in Manhattan, on the corner of Bond and Bowery, is one of the finest examples of cast-iron architecture in the world. And now the facade is getting a much-needed makeover thanks to Ghent craftsman Peter van Cronenburg.

“This is a project that I wish would never end,” says van Cronenburg. “It’s a chance you only get once in your life as a restorer, and as a company. You don’t choose such an exceptional building to work with; the building chooses you.”

54 Bond Street is quite unique, he explains. “The location itself fires the imagination. This is NoHo, not far from the famous cast-iron district of SoHo, a place that attracts visitors and architecture enthusiasts from around the world.”

The building is a bit of a curiosity. The facade is made entirely of cast iron, in keeping with SoHo’s cast-iron district, the largest collection of such architecture in the world. Yet it has its own identity. It was built as a bank by the German architect Henry Engelbert in the Empire style and was completed in 1874, the heyday of cast-iron architecture.

Previously, it was called 330 Bowery, and for a time it housed the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. In 1963, it was recognised as an official landmark, but the necessary restoration of the facade was delayed. It had to wait for decades, even though the state of the front was already a problem back in the 1970s. The building now houses three luxury apartments and ground floor retail space.

An appearance of wealth

“You can clearly see that it wasn’t intended to be a storehouse like many other buildings in the area,” says van Cronenburg. “It’s very rich in decoration and ornament, and all five floors are different in their details. This ornamentation was intended to give an appearance of wealth, while the cast iron creates an image of reliability.”

The restoration is a spectacular feat. In the first phase, the facade was given a makeover. It wasn’t an easy task because the entire front of the building is composed of individual metal parts. All the ornaments and pedestals consist of separate moulded pieces that fit together like a puzzle, making restoration more difficult because the pieces give each other strength and stability.

To restore the facade as it was, van Cronenburg carried out a detailed study. Next, his team made 164 unique moulds and cast 2,890 pieces in iron.

In the second phase, which is being carried out now, three sets of stairs are being restored – “monumental cast-iron entrance stairs that were meant to impress visitors,” says van Cronenburg. “On the basis of a few remaining fragments and old historical photos, we were able to reconstruct what the steps looked like.”

You don’t choose such an exceptional building to work with; the building chooses you

- Peter van Cronenburg

In the final stage, the railings around the building will be reconstructed to comply with today’s safety standards. “But the artistic character will be preserved,” says van Cronenburg. “We never make any compromises in terms of quality and aesthetics in our projects. It’s very important to stay true to the architect’s original design.”

The final phase will be completed in July, four years after the project began.

How is it that a Flemish company has been asked to carry out such an important restoration on the other side of the world? “One of the owners, Rob Heyvaert, is Belgian,” van Cronenburg explains. “The initiative to restore 54 Bond Street came from him. He owns several floors of the building, and we had already provided him with metal architectural hardware, door handles and so on.”

Jeroen De Schrijver of the New York architects office  D + DS, which is in charge of the project, also has Flemish roots and asked van Cronenburg to look into restoring the facade.

Van Cronenburg began his career making furniture before specialising in the restoration of churches and abbeys. There he learned to work with classical forms and architectural details. Gradually he started collecting and reproducing architectural hardware in metal using traditional methods. The company has its own workshops and foundries and focuses on specific restoration projects at home and abroad.

“There are not so many specialists in this sector,” he says, “and Belgian craftsmanship is highly regarded abroad.”

Photo: van Cronenburg