A Very Old Wall and New Bracing

by Don Friedman on August 11, 2016

I keep talking about the Park Row Building at 15 Park Row (again and again and again) because not only is the work we’re involved with interesting but the building itself is fascinating. The boring picture below (click on it to make it bigger and boringer) contains a great story:


That’s the east* face of 15 Park Row, which has always been exposed above the sixth floor because the recently demolished building next door was only that high. The demolition is the first phase of work for a new high-rise. The brown area with windows has been an exposed facade since completion in 1899; the gray** area without windows was exposed for the first time by the recent demo. Our work here is visible as the darker gray stripes, which are actually structural steel beams on the outboard face of the wall.

First, let’s look at that wall’s history. I don’t off-hand know when it was built, but it was already there in 1855 when this land-use map was published (click to enlarge):

1855 nypl.digitalcollections.5e66b3e8-7d10-d471-e040-e00a180654d7.001.g

Grid north is to the right and you can see the foot of Park Row angling off toward the lower right corner. Here’s a blow-up of the block in question (click to enlarge) with the wall helpfully marked by an enormous aqua arrow:

1855 nypl.digitalcollections.5e66b3e8-7d10-d471-e040-e00a180654d7.001.g 2

The block was a series of five- and six-story buildings mostly running through from Park Row to the very narrow Theater Alley. The buildings are all one structural bay wide, with wood joists spanning between the side masonry walls. The buildings at 13, 15, 17, 19, and 21 were demolished to create the site for the Park Row Building; the buildings at 23, 25, and further east survived but were modified again and again between the mid-nineteenth century and today. They were old but anything historically interesting about them was buried long ago.

The Park Row Building is quite modern in the sense that it has a steel skeleton frame and brick curtain wall. But the people who designed and built it weren’t fanatics and were willing to forego curtain walls where the circumstances dictated. The old side walls on this block were party walls, and therefore the projection of the 23/21 wall onto the Park Row Building site could not be removed, as it was part of the neighbor’s structure. So it was kept intact and used as the enclosure in this area, directly abutting the steel structure. No connections were made between the old wall and the new frame, maybe because the builders decided that they weren’t needed, maybe because they felt that connection of the more flexible steel frame to the more rigid walls might damage the lower building, maybe because no one thought about it at all. The new wall above – the brown brick in the photo – is supported on spandrel beams rather than resting on the old wall below it in the same plane.

Now, some 117 years later, the 23 building was scheduled for demolition. The 23/21 wall couldn’t be removed because it is the enclosure for this portion of the Park Row Building. It has become an orphan wall***. But to keep it stable, it has to be tied to 15 Park Row. That’s where the new steel beams come in. They are tied to the steel frame of 15 Park Row and are designed solely to keep the old wall stable in its plane. That pre-1855 wall is going to remain as a part of the Park Row Building enclosure even though the two buildings it separated and supported are now gone.

* It’s east if one is looking at a map with a north arrow on it. The logic of the street grid says that Park Row runs from the southwest to the northeast, which makes this the northeast facade in grid orientation.

** The gray is stucco put up to waterproof the wall during the construction period. When the new building is complete, the wall will again be invisible.

*** This is actually a common phenomenon in parts of the city where big buildings replaced rowhouses. We find orphan walls trapped between two 1920s buildings maybe once or twice per year.

Previous post:

Next post: