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NY Historical Society Gets $65 Million Makeover

June 16, 2011

The organization will open the doors to its renovated facility this fall, marking the end of a long, troubled saga.

By Laura Raskin

New York Historical Society
Image courtesy of Platt Byard Dovell White Architects

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Completed in 1908 by York and Sawyer, the New-York Historical Society’s classical, Roman Eclectic style building, on Central Park West, has long been known as a “bunker”—its elegant yet severe granite façade fails to extend a warm welcome to visitors and passersby. Though limited in the changes it could make because of a 1966 landmark designation, the Society aims to alter the building’s imposing aura through a $65 million makeover led by Platt Byard Dovell White Architects.

The updated headquarters will be unveiled to the public on November 11, after a two-phased, three-year construction period during which parts of the 197,000-square-feet building have been closed. The project—part of a strategic plan to make the building not only more welcoming, but also more user-friendly—calls for the renovation of an auditorium, gift shop, and the Great Hall gallery, along with the creation of a new restaurant and children’s history museum.

The renovations, announced in 2008, are tame compared to the Society’s abandoned and long-debated plans to build a 23-story residential tower and a five-story annex on top of or next to its West 76th Street building—both hotly contested by preservationists and neighbors. In the 1980s, a Hugh Hardy-designed limestone and granite, stepped-back tower was to sit on top of the building, but the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission vetoed that plan in 1984. In 2006, the tower was still in play. This time around the Society aimed to hire a prominent architect to design a tower that would rise behind the building. The Society was also hoping to add a fifth floor to its own building and erect a five-story annex in an adjacent lot. Those plans also were scrapped. In the meantime, Beyer Blinder Belle was hired to transform an exhibition area on the fourth floor into the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, which opened in November 2000.

Ultimately, Platt Byard Dovell White was brought in to revamp the century-old building. Its initial proposal met resistance: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission denied a scheme by the architects that included large openings on the Central Park West facade, says Ray Dovell, partner in charge. The designers returned with a more modest intervention that called for replacing the two windows flanking the main entrance with doors. They also created a wider, grander set of exterior stairs with two information kiosks, and they added lighting to a band of windows in the upper portion of the facade. “New textured glazing, LED lighting at the upper level, and the lit kiosks at the street level will mark the presence of the building in the evening,” says Dovell. Moreover, the space behind the entrance was hollowed out for a glass-ceilinged loggia that opens into the redesigned Great Hall.

The building’s basement level will be home to the only children’s history museum in the United States, according to the Historical Society. Designed by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, the vaulted, below-grade space—officially called the DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library—will feature artifacts from different historical periods, along with interactive elements.

The overall scheme for the building was revealed during an April event at Starr Restaurants-owned Buddakan. Starr will operate a 1,800-square-foot Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the Historical Society. In addition to hearing about the renovations, attendees got a sneak peek of a video about New York City history that will be shown on a 72-foot-wide screen in the Historical Society’s new 425-seat multipurpose theater.

The Society hopes the renovations will boost its attendance numbers. “This is the place where visitors of all ages can come and connect with their past and see the unfolding of American history through the unique vantage point of New York,” says Laura Washington, the Society’s vice president of communications. “It’s exciting for us to offer a new cultural destination for the whole family.”

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