By: Taylor Sim
July 28th, 2021
The Flatiron Building is one of the most iconic landmarked buildings in New York City. The Flatiron Building is known for its unique triangular shape and architectural features. It is considered an individual landmark building that is also located in a landmark district.
The Flatiron Building was built in 1902 and designed by the Chicago-based Architect, Daniel Burnham. The steel-framed triangular building stands 285 feet tall and is comprised of 22 stories. The exterior façade features limestone at the lower floors and is fully clad with glazed terra cotta. The Flatiron Building was designated as a New York City landmark in 1966 and a national historic landmark in 1989. Aside from minor restoration projects throughout the years, this is the first time that comprehensive repairs have been performed at the exterior of the building. I took a trip to the Flatiron Building to observe the progress of the exterior repairs and to see the transformation that is underway of this historic landmark, firsthand.
Currently, this historic building is undergoing a comprehensive interior and exterior renovation. Performing façade repairs on any landmarked building can be challenging. Factors such as intricate architectural details, matching materials, and material lead times can greatly impact the project budget and schedule. In addition, an important factor in restoring a historic building is finding qualified contractors to perform the work.
When working on a building as well-known as the Flatiron Building, it is that much more important to preserve the character of the façade. People travel from all over the world to see this landmark. The building must be kept clean and routinely inspected to ensure that it is properly maintained. For all landmarked structures, it is essential that the history and character of the exterior be maintained to ensure it remains as close to its original form during the lifetime.
The current restoration of the Flatiron Building has a budget of more than 50 million dollars for the interior and exterior repairs. The project is inclusive of interior renovations, heating and cooling system replacements, as well as façade repairs. The building is used for commercial office space as well as retail space on the ground floor. The main focus of the exterior repairs includes terra cotta patch repairs and terra cotta unit replacement. The architecture feature on the exterior of this building that is most notable is the detailed decorative terra cotta units.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the anticipated completion date of the project to 2022. The project started in 2019 and was anticipated to take approximately 1 year to complete. The prominent driving factors for the length of the project include approval process from the Landmark Preservation Commission, occupants’ temporary relocation from the building, and the terra cotta replacement effort building-wide.
The façade of the Flatiron building is mostly made up of terra cotta material which was a very popular choice for building facades during the early 20th century. Steel frame structures with terra cotta attachments were the prevalent construction of that day. It is a light weight, porous clay-fired body, that was cost effective with impressive architectural aesthetics. Stone age and weathering are the most common causes of terra cotta deterioration. Moisture intrusion in the terra cotta bodies can cause expansion and contraction, and eventually lead to cracks, crazing, or spalling. With proper maintenance, the clay-fired units can last up to 75 years. Annual freeze-thaw cycles in the northeast can be quite severe and have impacted the lifespan of many terra cotta buildings.
Due to its unique shape, the Flatiron Building can be viewed from all sides. From the street, I was able to identify openings where terra cotta units were previously installed along the façade. As the wall flashing membrane was installed behind new terra cotta units, this step will help lengthen the lifespan of the building. Until 2022, the restoration of this iconic landmark will be underway. It took about a hundred years to arrive at this time period of restoration; a comprehensive effort may indefinitely extend the lifespan as long as there is regular maintenance to minimize the decay cycle.