In Albany, New York, Collins + Scoville converts the State Education Building's library into office space
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Completed in 1912 and subject to four major alterations in the last half century, the New York State Education Building didn't reach its present glory until recently, when a three-decade-long, multiphase renovation effort reached a conclusion. The decisive change involved rehabilitating the second floor, home to the New York State Public Library until it relocated in 1970. In the intervening years, the second level was used as a swing space, assigned to staff dislocated by modernization work.
In 1993, Collins + Scoville Architects won the commission to handle a complicated seven-year transmutation. Paul Scoville, principal in charge, had participated in '88 and '92 renovations in the building while working at another firm, and he immediately realized that the second floor—though posing all manner of conversion challenges—was rich in architectural splendor, just right for government offices. The team's brief was to redesign the onetime library as a modern, high-tech environment without compromising the character of the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1912 architect of the New York State Education Building was Henry Hornbostel, whose studies at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris left their stylistic mark on the Albany masterpiece. A rotunda, Hornbostel's pièce de résistance, rises more than 90 feet to a leaded-glass dome and acts as the hub for four vaulted corridors, each 46 feet high, that radiate like the spokes of a wheel. Just north of the rotunda on the second floor, the corridors culminate in the former reading room, vaulted in the style of Spanish master builder Raphael Guastavino.
Now cleared of librarians, books, and library furniture—everything was moved to the Empire State Plaza, another government building, in the 1970s—the 75,000-square-foot second floor accommodates about 200 open-plan work spaces and 20 private offices for the Office of the Professions, which licenses and oversees 38 job categories, ranging from architects and engineers to nurses and podiatrists. The finished restoration has won citations from Historic Albany Foundation and the Preservation League of New York State.
The initial 18 months of this ambitious conversion were devoted to demolition. Collins + Scoville replaced or introduced HVAC equipment, cabling, wiring, filters, pipes, plumbing, and more. Asbestos was removed from plasterwork and from radiator insulation. Bookcases were modified to incorporate heat and light sources, bringing them closer to users' desks. The firm also installed new sprinkler and sound-masking systems.
A logical starting point for the interior decoration, explains Scoville, was to bring original colors back to life. Under the supervision of Brian Powell of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, more than 500 small pieces of plaster were taken from the various room surfaces. With the aid of microscopes and small scalpels, experts chipped away upper layers to expose those beneath; after more excavation, examination, and comparison, the pigments deemed correct were matched to standardized paint colors. More complex Dremel work (named for the maker of the tool used in the process) also guided the chromatic re-creation.
In keeping with the historic color palette, Collins + Scoville selected gray carpet and wall colors from pale blue to ocher, occasionally enlivened by metallic detailing. Placed against this authentic background, contemporary office furniture is not only the pragmatic choice but also, surprisingly, a visually compatible one. "There were no questions about furniture answering today's needs. We think that the new against the old looks just fine," says Scoville, who was assisted on the ex-library interior by designer Cathleen Peckham. (Pressman Design Studio's Amy Pressman oversaw space planning and product selection.) Optimal wire management, flexibility, and budget constraints set the norm for workstations with bonus features such as fabric-wrapped and glass-topped panels.
Original light fixtures were refurbished and/or reproduced. A special favorite is the bronze-and-plaster chandelier suspended from the third floor in the stairwell; inadvertently severed from a vital line during renovations, the piece dropped, shattered, and was miraculously put together again. Also notable, hanging above workstations, are three bronze-and-glass cylindrical pendants with colored lenses. Only task lights are of current vintage.