CRM Journal

Book Review

Tweed Courthouse: A Model Restoration

By John G. Waite with Nancy Rankin and Diana S. Waite. New York, NY, and London, United Kingdom: W.W. Norton, 2006; 176 pp., photographs, drawings, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $59.95.


Tweed Courthouse cover

My first impression, upon seeing that an architect-author had titled a book on his own project as a "model" of its type, was the entirely cynical expectation that the book would be a thinly disguised marketing tool. I am happy to report that I was wrong, and I applaud John Waite and his co-authors for a remarkably humble and helpful case study of the restoration of the Tweed Courthouse (officially called the Old New York County Courthouse)—a case study that should benefit anyone involved in the restoration or adaptive reuse of an historic structure, especially one in the public sector. The numerous illustrations are attractive enough to qualify the book as coffee table worthy, while the text's case study approach gives the authoritative weight of specificity and experience to the authors' judicious definition of key principles and practices of a successful restoration project.

The book begins with an extensive history of the building's construction, culminating in the public scandal over the endemic graft that brought about the downfall of New York County Board of Supervisors member William M. "Boss" Tweed and came to symbolize governmental corruption in New York's Gilded Age. While this story might seem like mere fodder for the history buff, it serves here as an important basis for understanding the recent restoration as not only a renewal of the architectural fabric but a kind of exorcism of the building's negative associations with bad government. These associations persisted through the 20th century and contributed to the building's alteration and disintegration.

In retrospect, the moral of the story of the design and construction of the Tweed Courthouse in the 1860s and 1870s is not merely an archetypal tragedy starring Tweed as a man tempted by power into corruption, hounded by the furies of the press into disgrace, and repenting of his sins too late (Tweed died in jail in 1878). It is also a cautionary tale of endless bureaucratic wrangling and posturing amongst government entities, squandering so many years and resources under the aegis of fiduciary trust that they unwittingly created the stalemate that allowed a character like Tweed to step in to take charge in the first place. Tweed's corruption, as it turns out, was a momentary crime of limited impact. His enduring legacy was the terror it engendered in governmental authorities of the taint of corruption, especially in construction contracting.

The building's deterioration can be attributed, at least in part, to reluctance by public officials to appear to endorse the values of Tweed by allocating taxpayers' dollars to care for "his" building. As the authors note, "Even in the 1970s, a century after Tweed's trial, the building was still such a powerful symbol of municipal corruption that its designation as a city landmark was considered too controversial." As if shifting architectural fashion and urban wear-and-tear were not enough to contend with over its first century, the building's remaining strength was as a rhetorical negative, the political equivalent of the plague.

This history underscores the significance of the choice of an appropriately civic-minded use for the restored building. As with so many restorations, the reflexive choice was to cede the structure to museum use, in this case to the Museum of the City of New York. The plan to display artifacts of the city's past in a building that played a significant role in its history also seemed to make sense from an interpretive standpoint. Redefining the building as a museum would have effectively cast any lingering negative associations with government corruption into the past, re-contextualizing the building as a denatured artifact.

Studies revealed, however, that museum standards for collections stewardship and display (developed by and for purpose-built museum buildings) would have required such extensive intervention that it would have severely compromised the historic integrity of the structure. Fortunately, the building turned out to be suitable for use as the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education, an indisputably wholesome civic function. And so, the restoration began by determining a use that not only worked functionally but also served as an antidote to any lingering taint of Tweediness. [As for the museum, it stayed put and commissioned a purpose-built modern addition.] It's a tale of adaptive reuse with a happy ending, and a lesson to ponder for any community thinking that the optimal way to preserve its historic buildings is through conversion to museum use.

Subtly, Waite, Rankin, and Waite take note of another inadvertent Tweed legacy, namely the morass of federal, state, and local government procurement and contracting measures enacted in the effort to prevent graft in public building projects. For example, New York's Wicks Law (enacted 1912) essentially requires separate bids and contracts for each trade in a governmental construction project, theoretically ensuring the broadest access to public contracts and dollars. In practice, however, this system has long been deemed unwieldy, as it means that no single contractor maintains authority over the others to coordinate work or maintain uniform standards of execution.

The authors deftly note that the success of the Tweed Courthouse restoration depended greatly on then-Mayor Guliani's willingness to cede control of the project to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, an independent public-benefit entity which, through its exemption from the Wicks Law, could manage the project efficiently and economically. It would have been interesting to learn in more detail about the process and debate through which this arrangement came to fruition, since it clearly stands as the precondition for all the successful work that followed. It was a bonus to learn that the Tweed Courthouse restoration process now stands as a model of the crucial role of public-benefit private management entities in allowing effective implementation of government building projects.

The bulk of the text outlines the actual process of restoration, from planning through assessment, problem solving, technical experimentation, and implementation. Each chapter provides the benefit of experience and offers great suggestions, often in numbered statements at the beginning. Chapter 2, "Developing a Restoration Plan," not only notes the application of sound preservation principles to the material aspects of the project, but also the decision "to minimize permanent new construction so that the building would have maximum flexibility to accommodate changing uses in the future." Later chapters bear out the commitment to making provisions, particularly in systems design and installation, for the building to grow and change with future occupants. It is welcome to see the thoughtful and practical application of the usual preservation rhetoric about future generations defined as a guiding principle.

Another principle that emerges clearly is the importance of assessment, study, and testing before new materials or techniques are implemented. While this preparatory work may be apparent to cultural resource management professionals, too often clients and owners perceive such measures as unnecessary academic exercises that drive up project costs. Just one example, the description of the water testing of a new window and the corrective measures taken as a result should assure any building owner that the long-term benefits of a scientific methodology in preservation technology is worth the short-term costs.

Historical research as an applied principle features particularly prominently in the account of the design of reproduction lighting for the interiors, but the importance of historical as well as material evidence is a thread that runs consistently through the account of the restoration process. It was particularly heartening for this architectural historian to read such a convincing account of the importance and value of the historian's craft in a successful restoration.

The book's attractive design and narrative structure make it accessible to a general reader while the information is detailed and practical enough to benefit preservation students and professionals. The book would serve as an excellent introduction to sound principles, strategies, and processes for trustees, board members, executives, and public officials about to embark on an architectural restoration project. While every project has its own set of administrative and technical challenges, Tweed Courthouse: A Model Restoration not only defines good practices, but it also illustrates their effective implementation in a way that should benefit anyone involved in the restoration or adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

J. Laurie Ossman
Vizcaya Museum and Garden