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 Joel's Blog

Woodwork at City Hall


I was at City Hall on Monday morning, testifying in front of the City Council subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. This was a slightly different subject than the one I testified about a few weeks ago, but the concept is the same - resist intrusion on what little manufacturing space is left in New York City. This was the first time I had ever been in City Hall and the first time I was in the Council Chambers. Built between 1803 and 1812 and remodelled several times since, New York City's City Hall is actually a pretty small building and isn't used much for the day-to-day running of the city. That happens across the street in the giant Municipal Building.

I don't know how much of the wood, stone, and plaster architectural details date from the original building and how much is from a pre-Civil war rebuild, but it is all awesome!

The hearing was about the merits of allowing as-of-right self-storage units to be built in Industrial Business Zones, areas in NYC that are specifically restricted to manufacturing uses. Currently it is legal to do so, but a new zoning law would ban it. The Council was holding a hearing about an amendment to the law that popped up recommended by the City Planning Commission to allow self-storage as-of-right after all, negating the law. Thankfully, most, if not all, the City Council members present felt that manufacturing jobs are better than self-storage dead space. They also expressed their views that sneaking in an amendment to the new zoning law (which was carefully debated and then approved by almost all the City's local Community Boards, neighborhood advisory groups that weigh in on issues like zoning) is kind of dirty pool. The sentiment was against the amendment.

My testimony was the same as before - you can put self-storage units anywhere in the city, but we are desperately short of manufacturing space. And by dangling possible exceptions in front of developers, you just drive up the price of property and rents based on anticipated speculation.

What I really want to do in this blog entry is just show off the woodworking and architectural detail of the space. My (ancestors') tax dollars at work! It is wonderful and worth every penny!

It's actually stonework but this is a really graceful spiral staircase

The white paint makes the doors pretty sedate but the detailed carving is amazing

In the old days the windows would be open. There is an abundance of paneling and wainscotting. Sort of Federalist - but not really.

Look at the huge book-matched paneling, the columns and the Captain America shield chair seat.

Sitting in the public speaking chairs - in the gallery are visiting students from a local school

View from my seat giving testimony

More details about a door. I assume the mirrors were there to increase the room light in pre-electric days. A candelabra might go on the stand in the center.

Wonderful carved insert placed in various intervals along the molding atop the wainscotting around the room

Carved detail above the podium

Desks for the Councilmembers - a traditional design - probably from day one. Not in use today we sat on folding chairs. What a comedown.

Large panels of book-matched wainscotting are everywhere

Some of my favorite details - the crown molding.

Not to be outdone by the joinery, the ceiling has stars all over it with giant low relief panels in each order. The detail is wonderful, I am not sure if the carvings and stars are plaster or applied wood carving.

I'm not big on selfies, but here I am in front of City Hall. It's a really elegant building.
Join the conversation
11/22/2017 Danny Hellyar
Thanks for sharing this. It really is wonderful. I'm wondering what the significance of the Castle is over the podium though ?
11/22/2017 Marshall Brodsky
It is truly a beautiful building. For those of us in the west, though, the great gem is the Iowa state capital building in Des Moines. It is gorgeous, and the law library astoundingly grand.
11/22/2017 Carter choate
I recently got a lesson in black smithing, it is interesting to note that the hay-buddenn wrought iron anvil is the Cadillac of American anvils. Marked made in Brooklyn NY
11/22/2017 Jeff Polaski
Spectacular building and contents -- and the photos are not too shabby at all.

What I admire the most is your standing up and speaking your mind about an important issue. Great going and I hope you succeed!

11/22/2017 Dan O'Sullivan
The panels. Hide glue, veneer hammer, veneer cut with a framing saw, and lots of pride in workmanship. Just so much skill and talent joined together with all the trades. Thank you for posting.
11/22/2017 Jim Uber
It's beautiful. Any idea what wood the book matched panels are?
11/23/2017 Gav
Thanks for the photos Joel. It may sound odd with my support for what you are doing coming from the other side of the world but good on you. I think it is rather fitting - your testimony , the location and why you are doing it. Some things do not and should not need to be lost to the passage of time, irrespective of what the money says.
11/23/2017 Ariel Jacala
Thanks for sharing this Joel. Wonderful looking woodwork - eye candy.

11/23/2017 Dale Griggs
Outstanding! I’m very thankful these old buildings are not only still being used for their intended purpose but also being preserved as Nation Treasures.
When I saw the picture of the ceiling I first thought it was a huge dental molding like is seen on some buildings on the eves. The close up reveals the intricate carvings and rich wood tones wonderfully. All of the pictures reveal even more to those of us who appreciate and work with wood and that is the skill and dedication of the old Masters of our craft.
Makes you wonder how many people pass through a building without giving it a second thought.
Well done Joel!
11/23/2017 Dan Moerman
The clock on the wall between Washington and. . . ? can't tell . . . is beautiful. Thanks for such a magnificent display. Stunning. And thanks for your citizenship!!

11/23/2017 AAAndrew
Lovely, Joel. Thanks for sharing all of this great detail. Also, thanks for standing up for NYC manufacturing. I'm currently researching a topic in early American industrial history (the steel dip pen industry, see my website if by some freak of nature you're interested) and find that even in the early 19th-century, manufacturing space in NYC was at a premium. In the 1830's if you ran out of space you might have to go across the river to Brooklyn to find space. One fellow even ran out of space in Brooklyn and ended up expanding, gasp, into New Jersey! Mt. Vernon, NY was another go-to place that was still close enough, but cheaper than in the city.

Good luck, and thanks again for the pictures.
12/11/2017 Mike Shirey
Joel, thanks for the beautiful tour of the NY City Hall, I was particularly interested in the old desks that were pushed aside. Any chance you could get some measurements and other photos of the desks? I for one would
be interested in building a replica. Thanks
01/10/2018 Paul
Given the date when the building was built, there is a good chance it was built using slave labor in the same way as the White House in Washington. If slaves did the woodworking, it puts an interesting perspective on the quality and beauty of the workmanship.
Your raise an interesting point , although most of the woodworking we see today dates from i think a mid - nineteeth century remodeling.
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