Boss Tweed's Courthouse restored in N.Y.

Surprises abound in structure built with 19th-century graft

Project costs $85 million

Probe for utility lines turns up 8 graves

April 12, 2001|By David W. Dunlap | David W. Dunlap,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- No one, not even 120 years later, is prepared to say that the citizenry got everything it paid for at the New York County Courthouse behind City Hall.

But an $85 million restoration of that notorious landmark, better known as the Tweed Courthouse, has uncovered a surpassingly vibrant 19th-century civic structure. Disdained and underused for so long, it was preserved by default.

Now that it is coming back to light, one can marvel at just how much of a building New York received in exchange for lining the pockets of the political boss William M. Tweed and his Tweed Ring confederates.

"To see the care in craftsmanship and the amount of attention to detail, you have to conclude that while they poured a lot of dough in it, there is at least a lot to show for it," said John S. Dyson, who is Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's adviser on the project. "Perhaps not every penny's worth. But a lot."

Home for museum

The restoration, which began in May 1999 and is to be finished this year, will pave the way for reuse of the building as a new home for the Museum of the City of New York.

Tweed Courthouse will also serve as a ceremonial space for functions that now crowd City Hall. John G. Waite Associates are the architects. The construction manager is Bovis Lend Lease.

"I think we're going to get what we paid for this time," said Jennifer J. Raab, chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though city officials acknowledge that the price more than doubled in five years, from an initial estimate of $37 million, they said that reflected the expanding scope of necessary work, including two new sets of fire stairs and the replacement of a marble cornice that was beyond repair.

"It's a significantly different project than the one priced out in 1996," said Michael G. Carey, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the job.

`Full-scale restoration'

At first, the city envisioned stabilizing the roof.

In the end, Carey said, it undertook "a top-to-bottom, full-scale restoration of a building that has been neglected for years and years and years."

The county courts moved out in 1929, and the Tweed building served as a city courthouse until 1961. After that, it was used as a municipal office building. But 28-foot-high rooms were scarcely suited to that purpose, and that bedeviled numerous earlier renovations.

"The scale of the rooms is astonishing," Raab said.

So is the scale of the current restoration.

It has ranged as far afield as a farm in Sheffield, Mass., that was once a Tweed-controlled quarry and had supplied some of the stone for the New York courthouse. (Other marble came from a quarry in Tuckahoe, N.Y., where a shopping center now stands.)

About 120 blocks of marble -- up to 3 by 4 by 8 feet, weighing 9,600 pounds -- were still at the farm. Some had apparently been destined for Chambers Street in the 1870s, said Donald Curtis, a vice president of Bovis Lend Lease and project executive at the courthouse renovation.

They were bought from the owner of the farm, Craig Moskowitz. With the help of a local excavator, Bovis Lend Lease built a road to cart them away. Twenty-five trailer trucks from Granite Importers of Barre, Vt., hauled the stone to the Georgia Marble Co. in Tate, Ga., for carving.

Grand stairway

Granite Importers is also furnishing stone for what will surely be the most noticeable exterior feature. The grand stairway leading to the central portico, truncated in 1942 to allow the widening of Chambers Street, is to be restored.

Seventeen missing steps will be replaced. To accommodate the stairway, the sidewalk will be widened 11 feet into a no-parking, no-standing lane. Work is to begin soon, with completion expected by October.

For the rotunda, a 52-foot-wide octagonal stained- and etched-glass skylight is being fashioned by the Cummings Studios of North Adams, Mass., to replace one that was removed long ago. Based on surviving fragments, it will have two rings of amber, ruby and emerald panes depicting birds, squirrels, frogs, fish and flowers. This is to arrive in July.

At the moment, on scaffolding 65 feet above ground, a dust-covered, three-man crew from B&H Art-in-Architecture in Brooklyn -- Shi-Jia Chen, Muneto Maekawa and Patrick Mahon -- is recarving pilaster capitals that either crumbled or were lopped off.

Blocks of snowy Georgia Cherokee marble lie on the scaffold. In Chen's hands, a piece of stone 11 by 12 by 24 inches will yield a broad acanthus leaf supporting an 8 1/2 -inch curlicue scroll. "We are artists," he said. "That's why we're here."

Two building styles

More than anything, the restoration has revealed that the courthouse is really two buildings in one: an elegant Renaissance composition of pediments and pilasters designed by John Kellum, who died in 1871, and a wildly exuberant Romanesque counterpoint, with powerful arches and polychromatic brickwork, by Leopold Eidlitz, who finished the job a decade later.

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