At first, the choice of avant-garde architects Herzog & de Meuron to renovate and restore the fabled Park Avenue Armory seems far-fetched. Even at second glance: “I hate preservation,” said Jacques Herzog at a press event to unveil what the firm is doing at the 1880s fortress and popular event space that contains unparalleled gems from the history of American decorative arts, including rooms and furnishings by Stanford White, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Herter Brothers and others.
In fact, the Swiss architects are proceeding with punctilious care and attention to detail as they “unlayer” the past and leave traces of what went before without adding much by way of their own interventions to the $200 million makeover to be completed in phases that have been underway since 2007.
The Drill Hall, modeled after the great European shed train stations, will end up looking even more so, once some awful stalls have been removed that have for years hidden the full arch of the iron struts and a delicate catwalk mezzanine is put in to accommodate full theatrical performances. (The shelter for homeless women on the fourth floor will remain in operation throughout construction.)
Disparaging the kind of preservation that matches swatches and zeroes in on a purely theoretical “original” date, Herzog described their approach as “revealing and accepting what has been and what we want it to be.” Each of the 18 period rooms will be dealt with on their own terms, neither reconstructed nor made contemporary in some jarring way. Two rooms, full-scale demonstrations of intent as it were, have been completed. Company Rooms E and D are so heavily paneled, molded, and wallpapered that one half expects to find Theodore Roosevelt on a stuffed steed in the corner. In one, the architects have stripped the paneling back to its brighter honey colored woodwork, but revealed the bare plaster with only a hint of mural—a face, possibly a tongue sticking out—to remain where there was once some garish gilt molding. In the other room, where a riot of Aesthetic-era wallpapers all jostle even more energetically through copper “overprinting” to reinstate some shine while damaged spots and patches are not hidden. The affect could be called extreme patina.
When asked why she chose Herzog & de Meuron who don’t even have a preservationist on staff, Park Avenue Armory president Rebecca Robertson said, “Because I love Stanford White.” She went on to explain that she admired that consummately American architect’s early experiments with materials and saw that same intense curiosity in the work of Herzog & de Meuron. Their intellectual rigor and thorough research also impressed her: “There’s not a mock-up they won’t do; not a detail too small for them to obsess over,” she said, pointing out the silky, linked-bronze chains that shield the rooms from garish daylight. (In a later phase, the architects will be adding an all steel room-sized elevator, the “Megavator,” rising through the front hall.)
For Herzog, the commission has been a great opportunity to show “we are not just producers of icons.” He even seemed surprised that this quintessential piece of Americana had been trusted to a European, telling the audience of journalists: “Imagine an American being asked to restore a Gothic cathedral in Basel.”