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Common Ground Community
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At the Prince George Hotel ballroom in New York City, a non-profit organization turns the clock back on a long-neglected jewel.

By Greg Hafkin

 
 
 

Photo © FCharles

 
  See how the ballroom was restored to its historical condition in our web-exclusive image gallery.
 
  Links:
Common Ground Community
Beyer Blinder Belle
 

When it opened in 1912, the ballroom of Manhattan's Prince George Hotel was the largest indoor open space in New York . But in the constantly evolving city, where neighborhoods can transform in the blink of an eye, the building's elegance faded away, dragging the ballroom down with it. By the 1980s, the New York City government was housing 1,600 homeless people in the Prince George, which has just over 400 rooms. The 14-story Flatiron District jewel became a sinkhole of poverty and a haven for crime, with up to 90 percent of the local police precinct's budget being spent on the site. As the building deteriorated, the neo-renaissance ballroom became a makeshift basketball court. In 1990, the hotel closed for good, only to be restored and reopened nine years later as supportive housing for 416 low-income or previously homeless adults. The ballroom, however, remained in its decrepit shape, as the New York-based nonprofit Common Ground Community, the building's restorer and owner, steered its focus toward providing affordable housing, not dabbling in historic preservation.

In the mid-1990s, the ballroom looked more like a subway station than a historical landmark. The plaster on the columns was completely chipped away, resulting in black featureless pillars. "Physical deterioration compounded by water leaks made the ballroom a mess," recalls Rosanne Haggerty, the founder and president of Common Ground. "Going in it was like a waterfall." The building's listing on the National Register of Historic Places obligated Common Ground to save the ballroom, but estimates for its restoration ran from $4 to $7 million, a huge amount for a nonprofit organization. After entertaining proposals from restaurants and nightclubs eager to get their hands on the space, Common Ground concluded the best way to save the ballroom would be to restore it to its original condition. Luckily, they were not alone in this undertaking.

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A capital fund drive helped lower construction costs to $1.5 million. Architectural students and high-school interns contributed labor to the project, and Common Ground's choice of the design-build delivery process cut the budget even further. For the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, one of the biggest challenges was to return the parquet floor to its original herringbone pattern, a task made even more complicated by years of unchecked water damage. "We literally had to restore the structural integrity of the floor," says Carlos Cardoso, the project executive of the firm's design-build division. The architects paid close attention to historical detail, such as through their search for original light sconses. Since they are no longer produced, they had to be built from scratch using historical photographs. The only major change to the original design came about because of the necessity for modern comfort. Historical-landmark rules prohibit the tearing up of walls, so the air conditioning duct was placed right below the ceiling.

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