From Mission House Landmark to Cultural Catalyst: How Adaptive Reuse Created a World-Class Venue at Fotografiska New York

By Special Contributor posted 07-20-2021 08:55


By Theresa M. Genovese

For decades, New Yorkers walking up storied Park Avenue from Union Square would find a compelling sight on the corner of 22nd Street: an exuberantly detailed, six-story Flemish Renaissance Revival building, landmarked and quietly waiting for a new purpose. Designed in 1894 by architects Robert Williams Gibson and Edward Neville Stent as a mission house for the Episcopal Church, over time the property had shifted from tenant to tenant, ever-present but underutilized as the years wore on.

Until the Swedish photography institution Fotografiska sought a New York City location for its American flagship—and found the perfect location in this historic building. The design team was led by adaptive reuse experts at CetraRuddy and the completed project is now host to ongoing exhibits, artist residencies, and a diverse array of events. The revived Fotografiska building, which recently won a Lucy G. Moses Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, has given new life to an entire neighborhood, demonstrating once again the potential of adaptive reuse and historic architecture to generate excitement and value for cultural organizations and cities alike.

Black and white historic image of a Flemish Renaissance Revival building  in  New York. It sits in the background on a corner.
The Fotografiska New York building is a New York City Landmark, and was originally designed by Robert Williams Gibson and Edward Neville Stent. This historic photo shows the structure in 1905, less than a decade after its completion. | Courtesy CetraRuddy

Finding a Home for Fotografiska New York

In retrospect, the former mission house was a natural fit for Fotografiska. Sustainability is at the core of its ethos, and its leaders seek out existing buildings to renovate for many of their locations worldwide. After all, the organization’s vision is to inspire a more conscious world, and with a global awareness of climate change and sustainability, what is more appropriate than reusing a building that’s already part of a city’s fabric?

For the building’s adaptation into a contemporary cultural facility, architects CetraRuddy focused on exposing as much of the original structure as possible. This work involved stripping back non-historic elements while reinforcing that structure to accommodate its new use. | Credit: CetraRuddy

For the New York location, the selection of Fotografiska’s new home was hugely important—leadership wanted to find a building that could express the Fotografiska mission and support its programmatic needs, while at the same time speaking to the history of New York and representing the best of the city by creating renewed awareness of an architectural gem. With its architectural pedigree and ideal setting on a visible corner in one of Manhattan’s most accessible districts, the six-story former mission house building checked many of those boxes. 

Add to these considerations the good condition of its exterior envelope—as well as the fact that the interior was not landmarked, enabling extensive renovation work—and Fotografiska’s leaders knew they had found their New York home. But getting from vision to reality was not a simple journey, and in addition to extensive review and approvals by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and local Community Board, the project work entailed an entire gut renovation of the interior. An exploration of this adaptive reuse process in all its stages can offer a useful template for other institutional leaders and preservation and design teams considering a similar transformation.

View of one of the window spaces during construction at Fotografiska.
On the building’s uppermost sixth-floor level, the project team removed decades worth of non-historic plasterwork in order to reveal original beams and terra cotta walls and roof tiles. | Credit: Cetra Ruddy

Reinforcement of the Historic Building

Renovating a historic building often necessitates a level of structural remediation and reinforcement. This is an especially critical issue during an adaptive use process in which the building’s new function entails significant structural enhancements to support the new use under current codes. In the case of Fotografiska New York, it was clear from the beginning that the 1890s cast-iron and terra cotta structure could not support its new loading requirements; the facility was simply not built to accommodate the new occupancy and use.

In turn, stabilizing and reinforcing a landmarked property, where the envelope must be preserved, requires project teams to be strategic and precise. But what happens when original documents are nowhere to be found?

View of Fotografiska after construction.
This level now serves as an event venue and offers visitors a firsthand look into how historic New York City buildings were constructed. More than 90% of the exposed attic structure is original.| Credit: David Sundberg

The design team faced a challenging reality in which none of the archival building documentation was available. Overcoming this challenge meant a lengthy and sensitive process of collaboration with the structural engineers Gilsanz Murray Steficek and historic preservation consultant Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, in which extensive probing and analysis of samples from throughout the property eventually generated a picture of built conditions. A mixture of intense daily coordination and creativity was key here, for instance as the engineers assisted in decisions about where to penetrate the existing floor slab system so the overall floor structure and historic flat-arch terra cotta flooring would not be undermined.

This thorough analysis and coordination ultimately led to a complex solution: essentially putting a new structure inside the old building. First, because of the building’s use of terra cotta, which in the floor is held tightly in compression, between primary structural beams, the structural engineers decided that all demolition had to be done in small, discrete sections, one area at a time.

Exterior view of the rehabilitated Fotografiska building. The windows are lit up with a yellow light casting a glow on the building.
Entirely new lighting systems and a creative series of projections help activate the facade and window openings, turning the Fotografiska New York building itself into a public art show and highlighting its historic architecture. | Credit: David Sundberg

These restrictions added time to the demolition phase, but they were important because they prevented any significant undermining of the building’s stability. Additionally, this system of existing structural bays helped to inform new vertical infrastructural elements such as plumbing, electrical, and mechanical ductwork. 

Once the stage was set for additional structural reinforcement, the project team installed concrete plinths at the basement level to help reinforce the foundation. Since preserving the historic character necessitated retaining as many building elements as possible, rather than replacing existing columns the team encased them in new steel, with massive steel jackets wrapping the interior columns from the fifth floor down and becoming largest at the ground floor.

New steel reinforcement was also added to the existing exterior stair, and at all new floor openings. The architects, engineers, and contractors at Tri-Star Construction also worked closely together to reinforce the floor by strategically inserting new horizontal steel members that would support the new floor loads, while surgically placing in additional new steel vertical supports.

Respecting Character While Forging a New Identity

While the project team reinforced the building’s structure for its role as a cultural and event venue, simultaneously the architects explored how best to preserve and highlight its unique Flemish Renaissance Revival-inspired architecture and historic character, while also creating an appropriate flagship space for an international arts organization. The project team’s deep exploration of the property’s bones offered an answer: Add as little as possible, and in fact peel back the layers of time to let the building itself shine through.

Whereas the ground floor had been broken up into a series of smaller spaces, for example, the design team opened it up to create a large, free-flowing and highly functional environment that welcomes the community with a public cafe, wine bar, and art bookstore featuring several reading nooks and seating areas that can stimulate interaction and conversation. An entirely new exterior and interior lighting system aids in this process of discovery while allowing the building to also meet its functional needs.

A look into a building from the street. The view into the windows shows shelves lined with books as blurred people walk by.
A reconstructed ground floor offers a wide array of functions, including a public café and wine bar and a bookstore. | Credit: David Sundberg

And yet the building’s uppermost floor offered the most exceptional opportunity for exposing historic bones and expressing a uniquely New York experience.  The project team deconstructed an attic floor slab above the formerly enclosed sixth story, removing old mechanical equipment and stripping back layers of plasterwork to reveal and celebrate original beams and terra cotta walls and roof tiles. More than 90% of these beams and columns are the original attic structure, with only a small amount of added diagonal cross bracing to further support the structure.

 At the same time intimate and expansive, this is a unique and utterly transformed setting that embodies the rich character of historic places, and it is in this space, now a venue for talks and other public events and programming, that visitors can most viscerally feel the building’s period and era. Cast iron columns, structural steel, and century-old terra cotta tell a powerful story about the history of materiality in New York City’s built environment, and the activation of this space as an event area answers the question of how to create a genuine New York experience that also reflects Fotografiska’s  goals. 

Deconstructing various non-historical components also uncovered true hidden gems. In a room facing an airshaft, the project team found an original stained-glass window, hidden behind mechanical equipment and invisible from the street and to most users of the building. Following careful removal, cataloging, and historically accurate replacement of broken or missing pieces, the large window now sits in a prominent location on the second floor, inside the Veronika restaurant.

Creating a World-Class Venue for Photography

As is often the case with an adaptive use initiative, successfully realizing the new Fotografiska venue required a creative balance of program with the realities of the existing building, at every stage of the renovation process. In large part, the project team’s approach was driven by how visitors would experience the building. Ticketing and café spaces clearly would be on the entry level; the second floor has the greatest interior volume, so it made sense as the home for the main restaurant venue. The top floor, with its newly expressed volumes and historic bones, would be the event space. 

View of an art gallery in the Fotografiska building.
Fotografiska New York offers three levels of dedicated gallery space for rotating exhibitions. In order to effectively showcase the artwork, on each gallery level the project team constructed an entirely new set of internal walls, set back three feet from the exterior wall on all sides.| Credit: David Sundberg

This apportionment of space left three middle floors as gallery area, generating a series of interconnected challenges and opportunities. For one, the Fotografiska organization deliberately places works of art in dark galleries, to afford an atmosphere of intimacy and attention. This absence of natural light required the design team to build new interior walls for every gallery. Set back three feet from the exterior wall, the new floor plan solved one light issue but created another one: Would it really work for three floors of windows to always remain blank and dark to the street?

Playing on the relationship of windows and camera lenses—both are apertures—the design team activated the building with displays that are projected from within the building and are visible from the street, allowing the windows to serve as frames for a new type of public art show. As another benefit, the play of light and shadow has a dramatic effect on the historic architecture, encouraging people to see and view the facade in a special new way.

To resolve accessibility challenges, the project team added a second, larger elevator designed to accommodate the higher capacity needed for a cultural venue relative to a residential or commercial office use. This larger elevator was also necessary to facilitate the movement of art. The existing primary staircase was also expanded and rerouted at the ground floor to enable continuous open entry level and code-compliant egress. Its walls are now utilized as gallery space for photomurals that relate to current exhibitions while promoting connectivity between all the floors.

During the renovation, the project team discovered this dramatic stained glass window hidden away in a mechanical room. Carefully restored, it now serves as a focal point of the second-floor restaurant space.| Credit: Adrian Gaut

The project’s success hinged on another accessibility issue: providing a second means of egress. In a clever solution arrived at with expediting and permitting consultants Metropolis Group, the project team was able to utilize an existing exterior open stair and an adjacent building to provide a new, code-compliant exit out of the historic building. This also generated an exciting opportunity to enhance the visitor experience, as the stair now functions as a speakeasy-like way of moving between the restaurant on the second floor, and the adjacent ground level bar.

Fotografiska New York opened at the end of 2019 to eager crowds, who could explore compelling exhibits by leading photographers, have dinner and drinks at the restaurant or bar, converse in the lobby’s cafe, or see an artist-in-residence at work on the sixth floor.  The result of this complex and comprehensive conversion process is an exciting destination that encapsulates the entire project team’s approach to historic adaptive reuse: A focus on respecting the original building and helping people find joy in its authenticity and new purpose. For an organization like Fotografiska, which truly understands architecture as art, this commitment to creatively reimagining architectural heritage shows why an old building can make the perfect new home.

Theresa M. Genovese, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB is a principal at the architecture, interiors, and planning firm CetraRuddy, where she is a leader of the cultural and education design practice. She has extensive experience in overseeing renovation, preservation, and adaptive reuse projects for universities, public and private schools, libraries, and museums.


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