Late last year, construction was quietly completed on a new facility for JBI International. Located on 30th Street between Park and Lexington avenues, the building represents an unusual project type. Founded in 1931 as the Jewish Braille Institute, JBI operates a library for the blind and visually impaired. The organization manages a mostly volunteer staff that creates, archives, and circulates books, magazines, and cultural programs in audio, Braille, and large print.
The new facility is a retrofit of two converted brownstones that JBI has occupied since the 1960s. Fink & Platt Architects were hired to update the facilities to contemporary standards and to increase square footage to make room for two-and-a-half floors of tenant space, an important revenue generator for the not-for-profit. The architects also designed a new facade for the structure, which, all told, comprises 20,000 square feet.
The most important programmatic element of the design was the 1,200-square-foot recording studio, where volunteers come to lay down books on tape. While antiquated, JBI still uses cassettes that it mails to its membership because they can be labeled in Braille, though it is steadily transitioning to digital forms of recording. Situated on the top floor of the seven-story complex, the studio is wired for group and individual readings. To create a sound dampened environment, the architects acoustically segregated the recording booths on raised floors that rest on isolation pads. They also placed a new energy-efficient HVAC system on the front part of the roof (the recording studio is at the back) and supported it on new dunnage beams on vibration dampers.
To make room for tenant space, which was allocated to the fifth, fourth, and part of the third floors, the architects added two stories in the backyard and tied them seamlessly into the existing structure. The roof of the addition was turned into a garden for the use of the institute staff. The architects teamed with graphic designer Whitehouse & Company on the interior, where signage, a world map in the entrance library, and some custom wallpaper are all informed by a circular motif inspired by Braille dots.
The new facade, a highly insulated curtain wall with operable windows, replaced its 1960s predecessor, a cracked and leaking skin of brick spandrels and glass. It extends 12 inches onto the sidewalk beyond the original property line, putting a thoroughly modern face forward and completely concealing the fact that behind its placid exterior stand walls first erected in the 1890s.