90 West Street

View from the north

90 West Street view from the north

By Carter B. Horsley

This distinguished structure was designed by Cass Gilbert in 1907, several years before he designed the magnificent Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway, known as the "Cathedral of Commerce" and for several years the tallest building in the world.

Both buildings have facades of white terracotta with Gothic styling, although this building sports a mansard roof.

The building, whose address is 90 West Street, was badly damaged in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a result of the collapsing of the nearby towers of the World Trade Center.

A December 4, 2001 article by James Glanz in The New York Times noted that Derek Trelstad, a structural engineer with LZA/Thornton-Tomasetti observed that the building's "archaic, tile fireproofing materials" protected much of the building.

The article provided the following commentary:

"Built five years before Mr. Gilbert's more famous F. W. Woolworth Company Building, which happens to overlook ground zero from the northeast and was undamaged in the attacks, 90 West Street has a Gothic facade made of two layers of terra cotta totaling more than a foot in thickness.

"The building originally boasted a top-floor establishment that billed itself as the highest restaurant in New York, according to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission -- a curious parallel with Windows on the World in the north trade tower.

"When the south tower collapsed, said Mr. Trelstad, the engineer, some of its huge columns fell and ripped out many of the steel spandrels, or cross beams between windows, on the north facade of 90 West Street. One series of spandrels, from the 11th down to the 3rd floors on the east part of the facade, was destroyed as if a giant claw had run down the front of the building.

"Whether because the heavy terra cotta acted like armor or because some of the blows were glancing, none of the vertical steel columns holding up the building were damaged in the south tower's collapse. But it was not until Mr. Trelstad ventured inside that he fully appreciated the building's resilience.

"He was first struck by the scale of the devastation and the eeriness of the setting. Fires set by the south tower's debris had gutted the 2nd, 3rd, 10th and 23rd floors, and much of the northern portions of the 4th, 5th, 8th and 21st floors. At least two people are believed to have died in the building, trapped in an elevator.

"….Both fire stairwells had been surrounded by four to six inches of heavy tile fireproofing and were virtually untouched by the blaze. Most of the dozens of steel columns holding up the building were encased in four-inch-thick blocks of tile much like the material of which flower pots are made.

"Except for four places on the upper floors where columns had softened and bent slightly in the heat, the heavy tile had done its job and protected the steel. And even though that kind of tile can be brittle, columns in the facade that had been exposed by the impact of debris still had their fireproofing in place.

"Fireproofing in the floors was still more impressive, with an archlike arrangement of tile a foot thick having stopped the flames from burning through one story to the next."

The building was designed by Gilbert for the West Street Improvement Corporation and its Gothic styling and ornamentation served to emphasize its 23-story height, and foreshadowed Gilbert's later work on the Woolworth Building. Its top floor was occupied by "The Garret Restaurant," which advertised itself as the highest restaurant in New York.

Located on West Street, between Cedar and Albany Streets, just south of the World Trade Center site, the building had a view to the Hudson River before Battery Park City was built on fill across West Street.

In 1998, the building's exterior was designated an architectural landmark by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Two office workers were killed when they were trapped in an elevator in the building at the time of the terrorist attacks and the firestorm raged out of control in the building for several days.

The building at the time houses offices and was completely gutted.

The building reopened in the spring of 2005 as a 410-unit rental apartment building and its meticulous restoration earned it in 2006 a National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the restoration of the lobby revealed some of Gilbert's original terra cotta work that had been covered over during an earlier modernization project.

The building has been widely regarded as an important example of turn of century skyscraper design as it was analogous to a classical column with its tripartite configuration of base, middle and top, with an added romantic mansard at its top. The tripartite arrangement of the exterior was reflected in the use of materials" the base is of massive "Fox Island" granite, middle of terra cotta with polychrome terra cotta as it gets closer to the top and topped off with a copper mansard roof.

Fašade Maintenance Design PC, Architects and Engineers, oversaw the exterior restoration and H. Thomas O'Hara designed the residential conversion.

Over 7,000 pieces of terra cotta were replaced.

Remnants of liquor bottles were found in wall cavities and were incorporated, along with a horseshoe, in the roof parging. It is assumed that the horseshoe provided a source of luck for the building.

The building's innovative design, along with Gilbert's super-solid structural sense, prompted owners Kibel Companies, Brack Capital Real Estate, and BD Hotels to invest $150 million in its restoration with the help of Liberty Bonds, tax incentives, and other downtown rebuilding benefits.

At the time of the terrorist attacks, the building was about 90 percent done with a two-year renovation and its north side was covered with scaffolding that helped protect it.

The restored building has a garden courtyard, a gym, a recreation room, central air-conditioning and a garage.

In November, 2007, residents had to be evacuated because a flood in the basement caused by a broken sewer forced emergency crews to shut off power.

After the fires had cooled and "the smoke lifted, an architectural inventory of the 1907 neo-Gothic building showed that the landmark had lost its gargoyles," observed Glenn Collins in a February 28, 2005 article in The New York Times.

"The truth is," Mr. Collins wrote, "some of the gargoyles may have succumbed long before: victims of age, neglect and entropy. No one knows for sure. But now it can definitively be said that as part of the $148 million rebirth of the former office building created by the architect Cass Gilbert, all those owls, goat heads, griffins, baby dragons, monkey heads, bats and other assorted creatures are coming back.

"Nearing completion are a new $4 million, 45-foot mansard roof, a $5 million, three-story granite base, and $11 million worth of new terra cotta tile and decorations.

Indeed, nearly 7,000 new pieces of exterior terra cotta had to be recreated for the restoration, "since so much of the terra cotta at 90 West Street was destroyed in the attack," said Gretchen E. Krouse, a vice president at Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, N.Y., south of Buffalo.

"The clay was shaped by computer-assisted design, but many of the new terra cotta pieces were pressed into molds, and then glazed, by hand, just as they had been in the early 1900's. 'You can see workers' handprints inside, just as you could on the originals,' Ms. Krouse said.

"Many of the more than 100 replacement gargoyles were also made at the Boston Valley factory. And in an homage to the playful exuberance of Gilbert's 1913 Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway, the gargoyle reproductions are being augmented with seven contemporary faces.

"The appropriately grotesque new caricatures include Peter Levenson, a principal of the Kibel Companies and one of the building's owners; Henry Kibel, another of the owners; Michael Y. Ahearn, president of Seaboard Weatherproofing Co., the exterior contractor; and Jeff Smith, Seaboard's on-site project manager."

Mr. Collins articled noted that the hoteliers Richard Born and Ira Drukier were also involved in the financing for the building's restoration and conversion," adding that "The depleted quarries that supplied the original granite could not furnish enough stone of the right color to permit complete replacements of the originals, said Christopher J. McConnell, president of Continental Marble Inc., who is the project's stone wrangler. There was, however, enough quarry granite to carve stone veneers."

The building has a doorman and some ceilings are 14 feet six inches high and some apartments have skylights.

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