By Katherine Malishewsky
One of the most important things we can do to encourage the preservation of our historic buildings is to keep the programs within them relevant and functional. When a building fails to meet user needs, this is often the start of a careful dance where owner, architect, and preservationist consider modification, addition, and most controversially, demolition.
There are several points within any modernization project where it becomes inevitable that historic materials must be altered or destroyed in order to incorporate modern systems. It is this delicate balance between new and old, with architect and preservationist working together through dialogue and compromise toward project goals, that leads to a truly successful modernization project. This collaboration often results in unique and unexpected results that exceed what an architect or preservationist could complete in isolation of each other. The process doesn’t come without challenges as is illustrated by the recent work at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City.
Rejuvenating Trinity Church Wall Street
For the last 80 years, Trinity Church has undergone limited scope projects, repairing and altering the church on an “as needed” basis. Today the church is undertaking a rejuvenation project, which is the first comprehensive master planning campaign of the site in over three-quarters of a century.
The priorities of the project include enhancing the overall worship experience, establishing the church as more welcoming, improving accessibility for visitors and clergy, creating more supportive spaces for the clergy, stabilizing the historic building fabric, upgrading technologies and infrastructure, and improve the building’s sustainable performance. Our mandate was to root all these priorities in historic research and precedence.
The history of the building and site is complex. The church as it stands today is an amalgamation of the 1846 building and three additions, dating from 1877, 1913, and 1966, each designed to accommodate additional programmatic and religious functions. The interior has undergone numerous modifications over time to accommodate the evolving church messaging and to add functional upgrades in electrical, lighting, and HVAC systems.
The site’s complex tapestry meant that every square inch had intrinsic value needing evaluation and careful coordination. The following examples are a few of many such coordination challenges the design team faced.
Invisible Modernity and Hidden Upgrades
One major component of any modernization is the integration of technological upgrades. Thousands of linear feet of new conduit were needed to replace old and obsolete wiring, to support new LED lighting and broadcast equipment as well as new systems like heat trace and security cameras. Conduit can be installed in two ways: mount it on top of historic finishes, or remove historic finishes to conceal it. Although surface mounting requires far less disturbance to historic materials, the result obscures building interiors and highlights the least appealing aspects of modernization. Concealing conduit allows the space to read as historic without being obstructed by modernity. The cost to do this, both fiscally and to the historic fabric, can be high.
At Trinity Church, routing conduit became one of the most challenging aspects of the project. Finding space within historic building finishes to conceal conduit isn’t always an option, but in some areas of Trinity it was. The strategy included utilizing existing space (for example, in the furred interior plaster wall assembly), and creating new space by removing surface layers of historic material to install the conduit within or beneath them. The project began as a surgical trenching operation on historic plaster and flooring. This approach was quickly reassessed, however, once the final volume of conduit was understood. Fortunately, the pews removed from the church for rehabilitation sat directly on grade, allowing a mountainous amount of conduit to be concealed under them.
Beyond the pews, much of the stone tile flooring within the nave required removal, with nearly all being salvaged for reuse. In these areas, conflicts arose with barrel vaults, knee walls, and piles, requiring a herculean effort of twisting and maneuvering of conduit. In areas where trenching was undertaken within plaster, conduit installation required less removal than originally anticipated. This was because space between the furred plaster and behind ornamental moldings was larger than anticipated, significantly limiting damage to sound historic material. The design team also opted for more flexible conduit to maneuver more effectively behind existing finishes. Throughout the project, the architect, preservationist, and contractor closely collaborated to map out appropriate pathways. The result retained the original design intent of the architecture with little evidence of intervention.
Some of the most successfully integrated elements of invisible modernity occurred when reducing energy use and meeting sustainability objectives. The sustainability strategy focused on creating a higher functioning HVAC system and archiving a tighter building envelope, resulting in a higher performing building without compromising historic materials. Selecting local materials for both new and restored finishes and using less toxic cleaning and conservation products was also prioritized to reduce the environmental impact of the project. Enhancing energy performance is often perceived as difficult or obtrusive in historic buildings, but incorporating attainable sustainability measures can result in more environmentally responsive building with minimal impact to the historic character.
The interior modifications were designed to be in keeping the historic character of the church. A different approach was taken with a new exterior canopy. The canopy was conceived to accommodate the “procession,” an important part of Episcopalian liturgy. Research showed that historically, Trinity Church parishioners placed high significance to these processions and had even used the graveyard pathways for extended processions during major holidays. The church wanted to formalize a space with a new canopied pathway for this procession between the Sacristy to the narthex, which is the area behind the pews near the main entrance.
While previous modifications set precedence for new building additions, the architectural history of the church itself provided no clues for interventions quite like this. From the architect’s perspective, the best approach was to create a unique structure that used the building as context but would be read as a modern element. From the preservationist’s perspective, the highest priority was to preserve the design integrity of the historic church. This dilemma between two opposing viewpoints was resolved by establishing the design criteria as creating a detached structure from the building that was recessive to the church.
As the design of the new canopy unfolded, distinguishing what “recessive” meant for the structure and materiality proved challenging. The design landed on a thin, free-standing bronze dendriform type structure that celebrated its contemporary form while remaining deferential to the church. The Landmarks Preservation Commission agreed to approve this design with the condition that the proposed bronze, seen as too visually dominant, be replaced with powder coated steel painted to match the color of the brownstone building.
Bringing a building into the 21st century can be incredibly complex as they are often layered with multiple historic interventions and include strict expectations of comfort and functionality. For these projects, often what is “right” in respect to treatment of the historic character of the building tends to not necessarily be what is easiest. Therefore, when these types of projects arise, collaboration and communication between the owner and the design team are crucial. Successful collaborations like the one that occurred on the Trinity Church rejuvenation project provide examples for future owners, architects, and preservationists on how to responsibly care for our aging building stock while ensuring their relevance for the future.
Katherine Malishewsky is the Director of Preservation at MBB Architects. She has been integral to the firm’s work on significant historic buildings including Trinity Church Wall Street and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.