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All’s Well That Ends Well

A revival finally opens in New York’s Union Square.

By Clifford A. Pearson
July 30, 2014
Photo © Chang Kyun Kim
The restored pavilion at night.

Nearly four years after it was painstakingly restored by Architecture Research Office (ARO), the Beaux Arts pavilion at the north end of New York City’s Union Square finally opened to the public in May. Delayed by a lawsuit over its use, the open-air building serves as a restaurant from May through October and then as a multiuse space for educational and community activities the rest of the year. Critics of the project said a commercially-operated restaurant was inappropriate in a public park, while supporters countered that it would enhance the mission of Union Square’s four-day-a-week greenmarket, serving dishes made from ingredients bought there. The restaurant also provides the city with rental income ($300,000 for the first year and sliding up to $450,000 at the end of the 15-year lease, according to The Daily News) that can be used to maintain the park. Commercially-operated restaurants such as The Boathouse Café and the newly reopened Tavern on the Green have been fixtures in Central Park for many years.

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When ARO was hired by the city parks commission and the Union Square Partnership in 2007, the pavilion was in “awful shape,” says Stephen Cassell, one of the firm’s principals. “Much of the limestone was buckling and some of the steel was severely rusted,” he notes. Built in the early 1930s as a bandstand and often used as a speaker’s rostrum for public events, the structure faced south, toward the rest of the park. From the 1990s to 2006, an outdoor restaurant, Luna Park, operated from a pair of shed-like structures backing up to the south side of the decaying pavilion. “We had to take apart much of the building, then put it back together,” says Cassell. For example, the architects stripped the pavilion’s Ionic columns of their limestone capitals, inserted new stainless steel in the structure, then put the original stone back in place.

The project also entailed significant modifications and additions to the historic structure. To better connect the pavilion with the city and a plaza that accommodates the farmers’ market, ARO added a new stair on the north, which serves as the entry to the restaurant. The firm also excavated below the building to create maintenance-and-operations space in the basement for the Parks Department and a kitchen for the restaurant. A new comfort station with public restrooms stands apart from the pavilion at street-level, but connects underground. Cassell and his team used the park’s original ashlar wall as the base of the comfort station, then added translucent walls made of eco-resin and vertical steel slats. At night, LEDs backlight the resin walls so the small building glows from within. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which was involved in the project from the beginning and helped guide it through the city’s approvals process, redesigned the plaza just north of the pavilion and created a playground on the south.

The restaurant, appropriately called The Pavilion, occupies the covered space of the 1930s structure and spills onto the north plaza with tables and colorful umbrellas. Scott Kester designed the restaurant, using a long zinc-topped wood bar on one side of the entry stairs and a combination of wood- and stone-topped tables on the other. Potted palms, suspended planters, and wicker chairs establish a casual, al-fresco setting. “When the pavilion was built in the ‘30s, the Beaux Arts had already come and gone, so its style was actually a fantasy,” says Kester. “My attitude was to respect what was here and don’t do too much.” When the end of October rolls around, everything—including the bar—will get packed up and stored until the following May.

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