We walk through these streets every day, on our way to work, on our return home, but above the roar of street traffic, the glaring lights, the high tide of daydreaming tourists and jaded daily commuters, we hardly notice that it’s lined on all sides by an imposing steel, stone and concrete forest. These brownstone row houses, brick tenements and glass and steel skyscrapers are the trees of our great city.
The common expression is “couldn’t see the forest for the trees”, but in our case, that’s not the dilemma. All we see is the forest. So what’s it like to break the treeline, to venture into the woods, to examine a grand Methuselah up close and personal? Well, Open House New York offers an answer to that question.
Open House New York follows in the footsteps of a program pioneered in London, in which participants are offered “unparalleled access to the extraordinary architecture of New York and to the people who help design, build, and preserve the city”. This incredible opportunity is available through programming throughout the year, but also during the annual Open House New York weekend.
During our Open House New York weekend experience, we visited the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s 141-year-old sanctuary for a special feature called Restoring This Old Brownstone. The charming and informative lecture was delivered by Robert Henn, a trustee of the church, on the challenges of restoring and maintaining its magnificent brownstone facade.
Brownstone facades were incredibly popular throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and much of that stone originated in nearby New Jersey quarries. Architect Carl Frey’s incredible design for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, constructed in 1875, epitomizes the usage of this famous material in one of the more unique architectural sites in the city.
Unfortunately, as Mr. Henn elucidated, brownstone is also a relatively unstable material. The stone has a layered composition and high porosity, which means it isn’t particularly suitable for the harsh freeze-thaw cycles of the Northeast and deteriorates over time with exposure to the elements. And that leads right to the core of Restoring This Old Brownstone: the $8 million restoration of the church.
There was a burning question on everyone’s mind throughout Mr. Henn’s discourse, which was perfectly articulated by one of the attendees during the Q&A. If the material will simply continue to deteriorate over time, why not replace it altogether instead of restoring it? Well, there are two salient considerations. First, the cost to remove the facade and replace it with another material would be simply prohibitive. And second, the historic and aesthetic cityscape would be irrevocably changed. Particularly on that last note, we couldn’t agree more.
In just a few short weeks, much of the upper scaffolding will be removed. The rebuilt spire and reset cross, as well as the refurbished clocktower, will once again grace the city skyline. If you missed the presentation during Open House New York weekend, don’t despair. The church offers an insider’s tour monthly, and on all other Sundays (excluding Easter), docent-led tours of the Sanctuary, Kirkland Chapel and the Gallery take place following the 11 am worship service. Click here for a tour schedule.
7 W 55th St
Pair it with:
Brunch at Norma’s
Years ago, trying to get a reservation at Norma’s in the Le Parker Meridien hotel was like arguing with a bus driver: pointless. But we persevered. I ordered some absurdly rich and, admittedly, delicious French Toast made from slices of chocolate bread (quite possibly cake) and topped with strawberries, pistachios and chocolate sauce. It’s the type of thing a younger, less refined palate would find alluring. (It’s still on the menu, BTW.)
Fast forward nine years and Norma’s doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. Reservation requests are more like a conversation with a reasonably attentive concierge. In fact, we recently wandered in on Saturday morning and waited 15 minutes for a table, sans reservations. That’s not to say the food or the service has suffered. It’s actually still quite delicious and the service is still that of a high-end dining room. I ordered the Artichoke Benny: two eggs perched on top of artichoke hearts, with sauteed potatoes and spinach, drizzled with a light truffle porcini cream sauce. It was excellent.
During the Restoring This Old Brownstone presentation, Robert Henn joked that he had to warn the congregants to adjust their expectations because after the siding comes down, the church will still be brown. It’s not going to be shiny and new. Norma’s isn’t shiny or new, but therein lies its charm.
119 W 56th St