Folly Into Building

by Don Friedman on May 24, 2017

Artist’s representation:

We are proud to have recently completed an investigation of structural conditions at Belvedere Castle for the Central Park Conservancy as the first phase of a restoration project. It’s been fun so far and promises to be more so as we get into the design phase.

Belvedere presents a peculiar issue in conservation: what is it? It was built as a folly, open to the elements and meant to bring to mind ruined castles of Europe. During a 1980s restoration it was turned into a useful building, with real windows and doors installed for the first time. The enclosure changed the building’s interior climate in unexpected ways, partially because it is uninsulated. Even though it was meant to be exposed to the weather the interior has weathered badly since it was enclosed.

The simpler a building it, the more difficult adaptive reuse can be. In a large and complicated building, it’s easy to hide new mechanical systems, new elevators, even new stairs. Main spaces can have their appearance kept intact while secondary spaces are sacrificed to provide services. In a small building like Belvedere, there basically are no hidden spaces. The walls are solid ashlar masonry, exposed on both the inside and outside face; there are no secondary rooms; there is generally no space to spare. Short of turning the building back into an uninhabited folly – which would deprive the park of a much-needed visitors’ center – there will be visible changes to the interior.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of knowing too much about the building and thereby reading too much into every aspect of it. The vast majority of visitors are tourists, who hang out on the main terrace, take pictures of the exterior, and stop inside to get a park guidebook. They do not agonize about the visibility of face-mounted electric conduit, nor should they. They want it to be pretty, and picturesque, and accessible.

Finally, as I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this project as it moves along, I promise to put up some photos of the actual building, and not a twig sculpture.

Previous post:

Next post: