By Julie Shapiro
To picture what the Corbin Building looked like when it opened more than 100 years ago, a little bit of imagination is required.
Rising eight stories plus the penthouse at the corner of Broadway and John St., the stately terracotta building was one of the tallest in the city when it opened in 1889.
“This used to be a skyscraper,” said Michael Horodniceanu, president of capital construction for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as he stood on the roof of the Corbin Building this week. As Horodniceanu spoke, he was surrounded by the shadows of more modern skyscrapers, from the 1913 Woolworth Building to the recently topped out Beekman Tower.
While Horodniceanu can’t return the Corbin Building to its prominent place in the city’s skyline, he is working to restore everything else about the building as part of the M.T.A.’s Fulton Transit Center project. The Corbin Building abuts the site for the future glass-domed Fulton St. station, and was once scheduled for demolition, but preservation groups banded together in 2003 and got the M.T.A. to preserve the building instead.
While the M.T.A. was initially against saving the building, the project team now could not be more enthusiastic about the historical details they are uncovering.
“This is once in a lifetime for us,” said Uday Durg, program executive for the M.T.A., as he and Horodniceanu gave Downtown Express a tour this week. “This is not the kind of building you see every day. For an engineer, this is the highlight for us — for our whole career.”
The Corbin Building, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still has many original features, including brick arches and terracotta ornamentation. When M.T.A. workers pulled down part of one wall, they discovered an old cast-iron fireplace.
The M.T.A. has not done much work yet in the aboveground portion of the building since using eminent domain to remove more than 40 commercial, residential and office tenants several years ago. A mattress and a broken mirror coated in dust still sit in one of the penthouses, and bundles of telephone wires still protrude from the walls of the office floors below.
But the belowground levels of the building are a hive of activity, as the M.T.A. builds a new foundation of steel and concrete to ensure that the building remains safe.
“The foundation left quite a lot to be desired,” Horodniceanu said. “It was great for the time it was built, but not for today.”
The building’s brick supports originally went down only 20 feet below street level, and the building started sinking as the M.T.A. worked on the adjacent Fulton Transit Center. M.T.A. crews are digging down another 35 feet to underpin the building, a painstaking process that should be complete in August.
Then the preservation work will begin: The ornate reddish-brown facade will be cleaned; the intricately decorated grand staircase will be restored; and hidden historical gems, like the original boiler, will be displayed. The building will also get a new roof, new windows and a storefront restored to look just like it did in 1917.
“The whole idea is to expose people to the beautiful construction done so many years ago,” Durg said as he pointed out brick arches in the building’s basement. “Nobody builds like this anymore.”
Straphangers will eventually see those brick arches and the century-old boiler as they ascend a massive escalator from the Fulton St. and Broadway/Nassau subway platforms through the Corbin Building to street level. The underground Dey St. corridor will also connect with Cortlandt St. and other World Trade Center stations a block away.
Horodniceanu hopes to have the escalator running by the end of 2012, when the restoration of the Corbin Building is scheduled to be complete. He also hopes to open 2,500 square feet of retail in the building’s ground floor by then as well. But the upper floors likely won’t be occupied until 2014, when the full station connecting 12 subway lines is scheduled to open.
Horodniceanu said that in addition to retail, the M.T.A. is considering everything from condos to a museum for the Corbin Building, though New York City Transit is likely to get at least some of the space for offices. And it’s possible that the Christian Science Reading Room, which used to be on the ground floor, will return.
The underpinning and restoration of the Corbin Building will cost $75 million, not including design fees. The M.T.A. just awarded a $59 million contract for the bulk of the work to Judlau Contracting last month. The entire transit center costs $1.4 billion and is fully funded out of the capital budget thanks to $424 million in federal stimulus money, which enabled the Corbin Building work to move forward.
The Corbin Building is named for Austin Corbin, a New York banker and businessman who founded the Long Island Rail Road and commissioned the building. Architect Francis Kimball’s artful plans won immediate acclaim, and Kimball went on to design many of the city’s other early skyscrapers, made possible by the invention of the elevator.
Horodniceanu noted that the Corbin Building has now come full circle under the ownership of the M.T.A., which runs the Long Island Rail Road.
“It stays in the family,” he said with a smile. “We are bringing this building back to life.”