For more than a century, the New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room has been an elegant research haven for award-winning writers, Nobel laureates, inventors and students. But the historic space in New York, New York, USA started to show its age three years ago when a 16-pound (7.3-kilogram) plaster rosette from the decorative ceiling crashed 52 feet (16 meters) to the floor in the middle of the night.
The damage was minimal, but the fallout was resounding: With 2.9 million visitors a year, the city-funded library had to launch an urgent project to preserve the 106-year-old Reading Room and the adjoining Bill Blass Public Catalog Room. Backed by private donors and city funds, the two-year, US$12 million project restored expansive ornamental ceilings in both rooms, including reinforcing 900 rosettes with steel cables. The teams also re-created a massive ceiling mural in the Catalog Room and refinished 22 chandeliers in both rooms, upgrading them with LED lighting.
“As a long-term institutional owner, the library was committed to obtaining complete information for making sound, well-informed decisions.”
—Kim Lovejoy, EverGreene Architectural Arts, New York, New York, USA
But project managers had to facilitate a precise—and innovative—preservation plan. Teams from EverGreene Architectural Arts; Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) Architects and Engineers; and AECOM Tishman devoted one year to identify and prioritize all repairs, says Kim Lovejoy, vice president and restoration project director, EverGreene Architectural Arts, New York, New York, USA. And the companies developed repair strategies by pooling knowledge from their vast experiences in plaster projects nationwide, including EverGreene's previous Reading Room restoration in 1998.
“The WJE and EverGreene team had to look into every possible way to prevent the risk of anything falling ever again,” says Ms. Lovejoy. “It was pretty amazing that the library could commit to doing such a huge capital project on such short notice. As a long-term institutional owner, the library was committed to obtaining complete information for making sound, well-informed decisions.”
The project finished on time and within budget, allowing both rooms to reopen in October 2016.
A massive scaffold system (top photo) lifted workers 42 feet (13 meters) above the floor.
The first task during execution: Shrink the rooms. Teams spent more than US$3 million to erect a massive scaffold system that filled each room and allowed them to create a false floor that held workers 42 feet (13 meters) above the floor—high enough to work on the ceiling. Having a full scaffold system in both rooms provided protection for workers below, gave teams better access to work areas at all times, and helped them complete ceiling work—and the entire project—more quickly, says AnnaMarie Prono, project manager, AECOM Tishman, New York, New York, USA.
By the Book
2014: Rose Main Reading Room closes after debris falls from ceiling. Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) Architects and Engineers is hired to assess damage and plan renovation project.
2015: EverGreene Architectural Arts and WJE begin testing and develop plans to repair murals and decorative finishes.
March 2016: Overnight work completed to apply varnish in Bill Blass Public Catalog Room.
April 2016: New mural replica installed in Catalog Room.
August 2016: EverGreene completes final repairs.
October 2016: Reading Room and Catalog Room reopen.
Ceiling work included reinforcing all 180 rosettes, removing asbestos dust and re-creating a mural in the Catalog Room.
Some cracks had to be repaired from the attic, so workers had to access the back of the ceiling. But the construction manager and the library's capital projects office worried that bringing water to the attic to mix plaster could cause ugly water damage. During the bidding and planning phase, Ever-Greene and AECOM Tishman developed a system to mitigate the risk.
EverGreene's plaster crew created small mixing stations for plaster that were limited to specific areas, Ms. Lovejoy says. Work areas were covered to protect the ceiling from any water or plaster spills. Crew members carried water to, from and around the attic in enclosed containers to prevent accidental splashes or spills.
“Plaster has a short set time,” says Sarah Kloze, project manager, Ever-Greene Architectural Arts, New York, New York, USA. “The mix needed to be applied to the back of the ceiling as soon as possible, so we had to handle all the materials carefully.”
“The [plaster] mix needed to be applied to the back of the ceiling as soon as possible, so we had to handle all the materials carefully.”
—Sarah Kloze, EverGreene Architectural Arts, New York, New York, USA
All painted plaster surfaces in the Catalog Room required a new coat of varnish that would match the same finish and sheen that was applied to the Reading Room during the 1998 renovation. The EverGreene team achieved a true side-by-side varnish comparison by cutting a large section of a plaster ornament from the Reading Room and carefully hauling it up to the Catalog Room ceiling, Ms. Kloze says. EverGreene conservators in collaboration with WJE architects determined which of four test samples applied to the Catalog Room most resembled the Reading Room's sheen.
“Everyone on the team was compelled by the motivation to get the aesthetics right,” she says.
“Everyone on the team was compelled by the motivation to get the aesthetics right.”
The custom varnish used to provide a consistent sheen and protect decorative ceiling painting gave off noxious fumes, so EverGreene conservators had to apply it at night when no other personnel were present, Ms. Lovejoy says. AECOM Tishman construction managers, building engineers and library security also collaborated to reduce air-safety risks.
During varnish work, building ventilation systems in the work area were shut down so the fumes wouldn't spread to other parts of the building. Air scrubbers and enclosures were installed within the work area to contain the odor, and ductwork fed to windows below the platform also were opened to provide natural ventilation.
“All of this work helped us make sure we weren't affecting any adjacent spaces,” Ms. Lovejoy says.
During renovations, Ms. Prono managed a separate US$2.6 million project to install a new delivery system for books and materials to and from the library's underground Milstein Research Stacks. But the trolley-like conveyer system's 950 feet (290 meters) of vertical and horizontal track had to wind through the middle of the Reading Room—and the jungle of scaffolding.
“There was scaffolding everywhere, and it was right where the lift for the book conveyor was going to be,” Ms. Prono says.
The conveyer project had to be completed before the Reading Room reopened. But moving the scaffolding wasn't feasible because ceiling work was still ongoing. So she met with decorative painters to expedite their work in the affected area. Next, the scaffolding contractor agreed to remove the center sections and create a large hole atop the scaffold floor to accommodate conveyor construction. Ms. Prono also enforced a controlled access zone on the work platform once the opening was made, which protected the painters working on the platform during conveyer construction.
A conveyer system moves books and materials to and from the Milstein Research Stacks.
Symbols drawn with chalk identified the repair type.
On the Mark
Tracking and documenting the status of more than 2,500 ceiling repairs had to be efficient so the work could stay on schedule. But the team's first attempt—using colored tape to identify 20 different types of repairs—failed as some tape simply fell off the uneven rosettes or caused damage to paint. So after conferring with her team, Ms. Kloze opted for a technique used in masonry restoration: chalk marks.
Symbols drawn with white chalk identified the repair type, such as consolidation or patching, Ms. Kloze says. She and her foremen used training sessions to get team members up to speed on the new technique, which included specific symbols that identified completed work. EverGreene also assigned a team member to document each repair made and create an as-built drawing set so that project teams who tackle future renovations could review previous repairs.
“It's highly unusual to have such detailed, as-built documents on a plaster restoration project,” Ms. Lovejoy says. “But the documents will be available to evaluate the performance of treatments over time, or for reference should anything happen to the ceiling in the future. They'll already know what's been repaired—and how.” PM
project manager, EverGreene Architectural Arts
Location: New York, New York, USA
Experience: 20 years
Other notable projects:
■ Renovation of Cooper–Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, New York, USA, completed in 2014. Ms. Kloze served as project manager for conservation and repair of multiple features.
■ Renovation of Rainbow Room restaurant in New York, New York, USA, which was completed in 2014. Ms. Kloze served as project manager for the installation of custom decorative finishes.
Career lesson learned: “Identifying talent within the crew and putting people in a position to make valuable contributions is crucial to dealing with unforeseen risks and developing on-the-spot solutions.”