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Victorious Restoration for Harlem Armory

Friday, March 18, 2016

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The multi-million dollar restoration of the home of the New York Army National Guard's historic “Harlem Hell Fighters” will soon be honored with a prestigious award for historic preservation.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy will present the project team involved with the east facade restoration with the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award during a ceremony to be held April 28.

369th Armory
Photo courtesy of STV, by Chris Cooper

Standing guard over the Harlem River, the twin terra cotta eagles atop the 369th Regiment Armory Building in New York were replaced as a part of a massive effort to restore the building's crumbling eastern facade, according to STV, who took on the restoration task for the New York State Office of General Services.

The award program represents the Conservancy’s highest honor and is bestowed on projects that demonstrate “excellence in restoration, preservation or adaptive use of historic buildings, streetscapes, and landscapes that preserve commercial, residential, institutional, religious, and public buildings.”

The 100-year-old New York-based architecture and engineering firm STV commanded the Art Deco building’s $2.2 million east facade renovation. 

'Harlem Hell Fighters' of WWI

Originally built between 1922 and 1933, the structure housed the 369th Infantry, the African-American infantry unit which distinguished itself in France during the first World War.

Soldiers who made up the “Harlem Hell Fighters” received 171 medals of valor. The unit reportedly spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the war.

The structure now houses the 369th Sustainment Brigade. The building is also referred to as the “Harlem Armory.”

Repairs Needed

Before the renovation project began in late September 2014, the building was in sad shape, according to a project announcement from the Army and project details provided by STV.

“Paint is peeling from water damaged ceilings and windows are cracked and broken,” the Army report said.

STV also indicated the original terra cotta and exterior brick masonry had sustained “extensive deterioration,” including cracks, chips and spalls.

“This was due to failed repairs in the past […] exposure to the elements and pollution from vehicular traffic from two major highways on each side of the Harlem River.”

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the War Department

Originally built between 1922 and 1933, the structure housed the 369th Infantry, the African-American infantry unit which distinguished itself in France during the first World War.

The front entrance (east facade) restoration is part of a larger $42-million renovation project, expected to be complete in early 2017, designed to preserve the armory’s historic elements, while modernizing the structure, the Army related Monday (March 14) in an updated report on the project.

According to the Army and STV, the facade project involved replacing hundreds of pieces of terra cotta, as well as strengthening the underpinnings of the parapet wall, which had seen significant corrosion due to years of water infiltration and lack of waterproofing or flashing.

Two five-foot tall Art Deco eagles that perched atop the building were also replaced during the project.

Each bird consisted of 13 units of terra cotta weighing several-hundred pounds each, STV said.

Corrosion Discovery and Solution

The project involved forensic hands-on investigation as to the materials and construction methods originally used in construction of the facility.

Leonard Sherman, an associate with STV, told the Army that such investigations were the most joyful aspects of the project.

And sometimes, the investigations can turn up surprises, he said. For example, he said the team learned that unreinforced brick masonry, supported by several corroded steel beams lie behind the facade.

The team had expected to see steel framing. Thus, STV changed its course.

The engineers and architects decided to reinforce and repair some existing steel frames, as well as install new steel framing and waterproofing.

“We came up with a system of welded galvanized steel plates and poured reinforced concrete, which provided a more substantial structural support and simplified the installation of waterproofing,” Sherman told the Army.

“We believe that we have created a solution here that will prevent future water infiltration damage.”

Eagle Replacement

Moreover, the firm also discovered that the aging terra cotta had been coated to prevent water penetration; however, the coating used had locked in moisture, damaging the architectural details, the report noted.

Removing the coating from the eagles would remove the protective glaze on the terra cotta so the team opted to replace the eagles, Sherman said.

Boston Valley Terra Cotta, of Orchard Park, NY, hand-crafted the replacement eagles, the Army reported.

In order to do this, the company said on its blog it laser scanned the original figures to produce 3D images on which to base the new model. Then the replicas were finished with a customized glaze.

“Extensive sampling and testing were required to match the original terra cotta glaze, which had both smooth and stucco-like textures and was tinted with a multiple color blend varying from cream to burnt orange,” STV noted.

The new eagles were installed to the exterior in 2014 and the original birds found perches inside the armory on display.

Additional aspects of the project included repointing joint mortar, the repair and replacement of several hundred bricks as well as the removal and restoration of the oversized wood doors to the building, according to STV.

The structure was designated a New York City landmark in 1985 and was listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1994.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Awards and honors; Design; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Maintenance + Renovation; North America; Renovation; Restoration; Waterproofing

Comment from Catherine Brooks of Eco-Strip, (3/24/2016, 6:18 PM)

Gorgeous fortress to honor the Hell Fighters.

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