Working on Landmarked Buildings Historic Buildings Need TLC

Working on Landmarked Buildings

Historic landmarks offer striking examples of New York City’s rich architectural heritage and the vintage architecture is one of the New York’s greatest charms. But not all landmarked buildings are commercial or public structures—many house co-op or condo communities. While these historically and architecturally significant buildings are highly desirable places to live, they come with some unique concerns when it comes to maintenance and restoration projects.

What it Takes

Not every building that applies for historic landmark status gets its wish. If the owners of a building in New York City are considering asking for landmark status, there is a process that needs to be followed, starting with filing a Request for Evaluation of Landmark Potential with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). 

“Potential landmarks and historic districts are identified by the Landmarks Preservation Commission through surveys and other commission-initiated research. Commission surveys and research may include properties suggested by members of the public through Requests for Evaluation. Surveys serve as inventories of the city’s significant buildings, and as planning tools that enable LPC to establish priorities and set goals for designating the next generation of landmarks and historic districts,” says Damaris Olivo, the director of communications with the LPC.

There are 92 historic districts across the city, with the Upper West Side and Upper East Side each home to more than 2,000 landmark buildings. 

“The Landmarks [Preservation] Commission are building preservationists, and they care about the original design and what it was tailored for,” says Wayne Bellet, owner of Manhattan-based Wayne Bellet Construction Co., Inc., which has done hundreds of restoration projects of historic buildings in Manhattan. “I admire what they do.” 

Playing By the Rules

When a building wants to make a change to the exterior of a historic landmark building, there are special needs required and the contractors who work on the buildings need to be aware of what is necessary. 

“From a contractor’s point of view, you are somewhat at the mercy of the Landmarks Commission,” Bellet says. “If you know what you are doing, there are no surprises, but they are the entire authority on what is going to be done.” 

A co-op or condo’s administrators know whether their building is a historic landmark, or in a historic neighborhood, and should do a little research to learn if they’ll need to make special arrangements to have any work done on the façade, windows, or any other feature. 

It doesn’t matter who contacts the LPC—it can be a professional project expeditor, a managing agent, contractor, or a co-op or condo board president—but the owner does have to sign off on the permit and agree that the work will follow the guidelines and rules set forth. This process usually takes a month or two, which will keep work from getting started sooner than most want. 

Once a landmark permit is issued to a building, work can begin on the project by any contractor hired on behalf of the building. If a different company is hired to clean it, paint it or fix anything with the structure, they need to file for a permit.

“Owners can use the contractor of their choice when proposing work on their landmark properties. LPC staff provides technical assistance and guidance, and works with the owner and contractor so that, in 95% of the cases, the work can be approved at staff level. The commission reviews a wide range of applications from simple applications filed by individual homeowners who wish to make changes to their houses, to applications for significant enlargements and new construction by major developers with entire teams of professionals.  Our staff guide all applicants through the review process and provide as much assistance as is necessary to meet the applicant’s needs, while maintaining preservation standards,” says Olivo. 

Material Issues

Preserving that character is where the differences between working on a historic building versus a non-historic building come in. 

“The main difference is that any material used on a landmark building needs to be pre-approved by the commission,” says John Tsampas, executive vice president and principal of Skyline Restoration Inc. in Long Island City. “You need that one level of approval because they don’t want to see any changes to the original structure.” 

When work is ready to begin, the contractor will set up an appointment for an LPC representative to come to the building, where they will examine and approve the materials that are going to be used on the restoration project. 

“We’ll put a couple of samples onto the building so they can see how it looks in relation to what’s already there,” Tsampas says. “They can approve it, or ask for something different. Maybe they will want it lighter, maybe darker. We work with them until they say it’s OK.” 

Whenever Bellet works on a historic building, he makes sure to have options when he meets with the LPC agents to propose what he’s going to use on the structure. 

“They make you do samples, so I will use A, B, and C and mix them and apply them to the building and then call [the LPC] and have them examine it,” he says. “They will choose which they like, and if none are acceptable, I will do more. If they haven’t had a pleasant experience with a particular material, you can have your day to try and convince them, but they have successful track records with several products, so you try to use those.” 

The LPC has specific rules on how certain aspects of a landmark building can be restored, and there are specific things you can and cannot do. 

“The manner of how you go about restoring things matters,” says Lina Gottesman of Altus Metal and Marble, a St. James-based company specializing in refurbishing and maintaining metal and marble accents on historic buildings. “If you’re aiming towards conservation and want to maintain some of the original product, you don’t want to alter the original metal or stone significantly. You want to remove the dirt and incrustations without destroying the original tone of the metal. You don’t want to totally grind down natural marble—whereas when we restore for non-historic structures, we totally grind down the stone to a new layer, and it can make it look quite new.” 

Color My World

Since many of New York City’s buildings were built long ago, sometimes the colors used to decorate the building when it was constructed are no longer readily available. Time and weather conditions could have also affected the building’s hue, so you need to be very careful when choosing what color to use on a project. 

“Color also needs to be approved by the commission,” Tsampas says. “Some of them are available commercially. You can buy colored mortar, but sometimes you have to make it in your shop and use artisans to mix and match to get an exact match.” 

Bellet remembers a time when he was working on the sidewalks outside the Bergdorf Goodman department store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and it took him 12 tries to get a shade of black that was acceptable to the commission. 

Gottesman says her company once renovated the entrance doors of the historic New York City Public Library, and they were faced with the huge challenge of matching the exact color and finish of the existing metal. 

“We retained as much of the original 100-year-old color as possible, blended it so we could retain the original shade, and re-coated it to protect it,” Gottesman says. “The LPC was very emphatic about the fact that we had to retain the original tones and so on. That was a far more tedious process and more expensive, since it took more manpower and you have to be far more careful when doing this type of project.” 

Cleaning is another process in which great care must be taken, because materials like limestone and other precious metals and stones can be damaged if too much product or the wrong cleaning method is used. 

“One of the tough parts about landmarks is when you are cleaning them,” Tsampas says. “You can power wash and use chemicals to restore it back to original limestone or look, but you can’t clean it too much or you will harm it. Although you can probably get it cleaner than you do, the LPC does not allow us. It’s a fine balance between the owner being happy and what we are allowed to actually do.” 

Final Thoughts

Bellet admits that there’s a certain thrill in working on a historic building and bragging to his friends. 

“It’s great at a cocktail party to throw around that I worked on a place like the Guggenheim Museum—although truthfully there’s not much difference between working on that and working on a building on Seventh Avenue,” he says. “But you get a kick out of the name recognition.” 

With guidance from the LPC and an appreciation for maintaining the beauty of the city’s beautiful buildings, contractors, restoration experts and maintenance professionals will continue to preserve the architectural and historical integrity of New York for the next hundred-plus years. 

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Staff writer John Zurz contributed to this article. 

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  • I am president of a small co-op (8 resi units + 1 co-op commercial + 1 co-op rental) in the SoHo historic district. Our landmarked building, along with a number of others in the neighborhood, is the subject of a lawsuit alleging non-compliance with ADA legislation. The suit was filed by an out-of-state law firm that advertises on national TV on behalf of a serial plaintiff in Westchester County, who as far as we know has never visited the building. While our O&D insurer will defend our case in this particular situation, they have indicated that we must address future ADA compliance to avoid suits that may arise down the road. Has the Co-operator, or the author, encountered similar cases, and, if so, what advice can you bring to our situation? We are loathe to alter the historic appearance of the building with ramps or elevators, especially since the entrance to the building has only one step up from the sidewalk. We are also interested in knowing how "grandfathering" may affect our situation, especially since any alterations we may undertake to comply would also be subject to Landmarks approval. Thank you for any guidance the Cooperator and/or the author can provide.