Volume 19 Issue 48 | April 13 - 19, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Esther Martin

Preservation consultant Mary Dierickx, who will be delivering a free lecture on her work next week, near a mosaic column at 41 Broad St.

Federal program spikes business for preservationist

By Skye H. McFarlane

No one is quite sure why they did it, but sometime in the middle of the century, the owners of 37 Wall St. covered up their former banking hall’s ornate plastered ceiling and marble columns with a drop ceiling. They blocked off the two-story, copper-rimmed windows with an auditorium-style seating platform. They even painted the delicate ironwork on the windows’ exterior a garish shade of reddish pink.

“I guess this must have looked old fashioned to them,” said Mary Dierickx, pointing to the freshly restored ceiling vaults, which currently beam down over plywood, scaffolding and marble walls in various states of repair.

Dierickx, an architectural preservation consultant, is the woman that the new owners of 37 Wall have hired to bring the building’s stunning 1907 features back to life for its rebirth as a residential conversion. The restoration effort, which also includes the adjacent 43 Exchange Place, is one of a growing number of Downtown preservation projects that have come in the wake of 9/11, spurred by building conversions, historic cache and a new set of tax incentives.

Though not individually landmarked, 37 Wall and 43 Exchange were two of the city’s earliest high-rises. They topped out at a then-sky-scraping 25 stories and housed a series of financial firms before becoming vacant in recent years. As a part of their conversion into luxury apartments, the buildings’ owner decided to use a newly available tax credit to revive what was left of the towers’ historic character. Though the banking hall in 43 Exchange had been gutted beyond restoration — it will become a gym and lounge area for the residents — Dierickx was amazed at how much of the original interior was left under the ceiling panels and paint at 37 Wall.

The space was so remarkable, in fact, that iconic jewelry merchant Tiffany’s chose the hall for its second Manhattan location. Once Dierickx and the preservation team are done cleaning and replacing the marble, glazing the plaster and installing a new (but historically appropriate) entrance, Tiffany’s will swoop in to add a light sculpture, a staircase up to the second-floor balcony and, of course, lots of little blue boxes. The store plans to open sometime this fall.

“This sort of preservation work would not have happened if not for the tax credit,” Dierickx said.

The tax credit, which allows a building owner to claim 20 percent of the cost of restoring or preserving a significant building within a National Historic District, became available when the National Parks Service in February designated most of the Financial District on the National Register of Historic Places. Unlike a city landmarks designation, the national recognition cannot protect the buildings from demolition, but the program’s tax credit is meant to encourage preservation. The kind of meticulous repairs that qualify for the tax credit (both N.P.S. and the State Historic Preservation Office must approve the work) can add beauty and prestige to a property, but they can also be prohibitively expensive.

“Over the years, buildings weren’t respected. Their terrific features were not protected…As a society, I think we’re starting to respect these features more,” said Dierickx. “A lot of these buildings aren’t landmarked, but they are contextual buildings and a lot of them are disappearing. If that continues to happen, I think the neighborhood will suffer. One of the most important things about Lower Manhattan is its history.”

Though she has worked on preservation projects all over the northeast, Dierickx said that her Lower Manhattan jobs always turn out to be her favorites. A graduate of Columbia University’s masters program in historic preservation, Dierickx founded her consulting business, M.B. Dierickx Preservation, in 1977. She has run the firm out of her 125 Cedar St. apartment since 1979.

Dierickx’s Downtown portfolio in-cludes consulting for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on its South Ferry and Fulton St. subway projects. She worked on the renovation of Federal Hall, the conversion of 41 Broad St. into a school, and is currently helping to restore 10 historic warehouse buildings on Front St.

As a consultant, Dierickx can play a number of roles in a project. Sometimes she simply provides advice or analysis. Other times, like at 37 Wall, she supervises a project from soup to nuts. As the ebullient, blonde 57-year-old toured a few of her project sites Tuesday afternoon, she often whipped out her camera to photograph the transformations. Asked whether an ornate metal grate was wrought iron, she quickly pulled a magnet from her pocket to test the grate. It was steel, she said.

Part detective, part referral service, Dierickx uses historic photographs, building plans and a scientific analysis of remaining materials to determine what a space once looked like. She then instructs a building owner on how to restore the original look, including hiring specialty contractors — like the paint restoration firm that cleaned decades of nicotine stains off the Griffith Bailey Coale maritime mural in 41 Broad St.

Though Dierickx tries to stay true to a space’s history, she is occasionally forced to bow to the changing times. At 41 Broad, for example, she had to replace the original bank hall doors to meet current fire code standards. At 37 Wall, she had the ceilings glazed a bit darker than the original color because “no one likes yellow anymore.”

Dierickx will be speaking about her work on April 19 at Federal Hall. The talk is part of the Downtown Alliance’s Third Thursdays lecture series. The lectures, which pair architectural and historical speakers with Downtown buildings that relate to their work, are free but require advance registration at Dierickx hopes to use her lecture to spread the gospel of Downtown preservation.

“Downtown has some wonderful architecture that some people have recognized and are restoring,” Dierickx said. “My hope is that everyone else will recognize it, too.”

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