Places that Matter

Corbin Building

Corbin Building during construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, May 2011, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Corbin Building during construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, May 2011, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Renaissance Revival 19th century office building
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The Corbin Building was designed by Francis H. Kimball in 1888, and was named for Austin Corbin, the American entrepreneur who successfully, and profitably, consolidated Long Island’s rail lines under the aegis of the Long Island Rail Road. As of 2011, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which owns the Long Island Rail Road, is in the midst of constructing a new transit center around and below the Corbin Building. The new station, scheduled to open in 2014, will be a consolidating nucleus for twelve formerly disconnected subway lines. The project will include retail and office space, and as the result of a highly publicized early twenty-first century preservation battle, it will also include most of the historic fabric of the Corbin Building.

Kimball’s eight-story-and-penthouse Renaissance Revival edifice, located at the corner of Broadway and John Street, was considered a skyscraper when it was first completed. Towering over its four and five story neighbors, it was one of the tallest buildings in the city in the late 1880s. The structure is sited in a district that the Historic Districts Council has dubbed the “ancestral home” of the modern commercial skyscraper, and indeed, many of its sheer-sided tall office-building neighbors were constructed before the Zoning Resolution of 1916 imposed setbacks. From the late nineteenth century until the 1920s, the area, which is variously referred to as the Fulton-Nassau District and the John Street/Maiden Lane District, was a hub of architectural experimentation. Designers expanded the limits of material combinations and ornamental expression. By the turn of the century, skyscrapers largely replaced more modest earlier structures, including many residences. Henceforth the area was associated with commerce.

Francis H. Kimball was a prolific turn of the century architect who practiced predominantly in New York City. He is known for his pioneering skyscrapers as well as his explorations into the decorative use of terra cotta. If the Corbin Building’s environs are considered the cradle of the colossal commercial building, Kimball is often remembered as the ur-proponent of the clay-clad typology. The Corbin Building’s exterior displays a playful polychromy, the result of combing a stone base with tawny colored brick and extensive red terra cotta detailing. Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler praised Kimball’s aesthetic, saying that it was a building of “very high interest… we can scarcely see in New York, except in Mr. Kimball’s own work, so idiomatic and characteristic a treatment of terra cotta on so elaborate a scale.” The building’s interior features its original staircase, railing and Guastavino tiles.

However, as part of the post-9/11 push to redevelop and revive Lower Manhattan, in 2003 the MTA announced a plan to construct the $750,000,000 Fulton Transit Center on Broadway between Fulton and John Streets. The Corbin Building, which was not protected, was slated for demolition. The Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund, a consortium of five preservation groups including the World Monuments Fund, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York State, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, rallied on behalf of the building. The Fund hired Robert Silman, a highly respected structural engineer, to assess the Corbin Building’s stability so as to make a case for the its potential incorporation into the plan for the transportation station. Silman determined that it was possible to underpin the structure such that the transit center could be built underneath. As a result of the Funds efforts, the Corbin Building was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places by 2004, and the MTA agreed to integrate the cultural heritage site in the transit project. The basement and ground floor are to become entry and passageways leading from the subway platforms, and the rest of the building will remain intact.

As of 2011 the upper floors of the Corbin Building are ensconced in scaffolding. The shrouds shield the building from the surrounding construction, but they also protect the Corbin from watching its historic neighbors’ demise. The Girard (198 Broadway) and the Childs Restaurant Building (194-196 Broadway) were both demolished.

However the MTA is working to preserve their memory through the medium of the Corbin Building. In addition to cleaning and rehabilitating the rest of the edifice, original features like the boiler will be displayed for the public. The building is supposed to receive a new roof and new windows, and the storefront will be restored to its 1917 appearance. Commuters riding the subterranean escalators will be offered prime views of the historic fabric on a daily basis. To accommodate the historic structure, the MTA has had to extend the building’s supports an additional thirty-five feet below grade. The cost of the underpinning alone is approximately 75 million dollars. The restoration is supposed to be completed by the end of 2012, and the building’s upper floors will be available for occupation by 2014.