December 2, 2020
BKSK Architect’s Tammany Hall Restoration Draws on Lenape Symbolism
In a recent restoration project, the Manhattan-based architecture firm inserted a glass dome in the likeness of a tortoise on top of the Union Square building.
Sometime in the 17th century, a Dutchman asked a Lenape patriarch about the origins of his people. The Lenape first drew a circle on the floor, then added four paws, a head, and a tail. “This,” he said, “is a tortoise lying in the water around it.” One day, the tortoise rose from the water to form what would become Turtle Island, or what we now call North America.
Today, a glass dome in the likeness of a turtle rises from the roof of Manhattan’s Tammany Hall Building—the former headquarters of a political group long associated with corruption and graft. By restoring the building and crowning it with Lenape symbolism, local firm BKSK Architects is telling the full story behind Tammany Hall, whose namesake is actually Lenape Chief Tamanend, a pacifist who was instrumental in the establishment of peaceful relations between the Native American tribes and 17th-century European settlers.
Standing at the northeast corner of Union Square Park, the neo-Georgian structure was built in 1929 to house the Democratic Party machine that played a major role in controlling New York State politics from the late 18th century into the late 20th. Until 2016, the building housed the New York Film Academy, the Union Square Theatre, and several retail shops on the ground floor. And while the new owners, Reading International RDI, are still looking for the right tenant, the building has now been gutted and transformed into a Class A commercial building with the historic brick facades restored.
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In 2013, the building was designated a landmark for its historical and political significance. This year, BKSK worked with engineers from Thornton Tomasetti, Buro Happold, and CNY Group to decouple the historic walls, brace them, and reattach them to a new concrete structure behind it, which carries the added load of the glass dome. BKSK then restored the historic facades (using bricks from the same foundry as those from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home), recreated the bronze storefronts, and preserved an original fan window on the ground floor.
At the foot of the glass dome, they then built in a hipped roof reflecting the height of the building’s former slate roof. Dressed in terracotta sunshades, its tapered profile mitigates that of the glass dome, which becomes less visible as you approach the building. “[Tammany Hall] was really designated for its social history, so that was another gateway for me to really focus on Chief Tamanend, which led to the Lenape, which led to reading about their creation story,” says BKSK partner Todd Poisson, who led the design and who, during the design development, would draw turtles with his daughter in his lap.
While the dome’s form is symbolic, it also increases floor area by about 30,000 square feet and introduces natural light deep into the building. To protect against glare and unwanted solar heat gain, BKSK looked at a series of glass domes from Norman Foster’s British Museum and his “encore” at the Smithsonian Institution, to Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. The latter, which uses fritted glass, provided a lesson in physics: when fritted glass is too close to your eyes, “you start perceiving the dots, which means the sun can get between the dots and your eyeballs,” explains Poisson. The final result, then, is a free form dome made up of 850 insulated glass panes with solar coating on the outside, and tinted glass on the inside.
Early in the process, Poisson consulted with The Lenape Center‘s cofounders Joe Baker and Hadrien Coumans. “One of our raison d’être has been to counter the invisibility and erasure of our people in the homeland,” says Coumans, an adopted member of the WhiteTurkey/Fugate family of the Lenape. Baker, who is the Center’s executive director and enrolled member at Delaware Tribe, concludes, “Our history is complex, one of the diasporic branches stemming from a trunk of many thousands of years of indigenous presence in the homeland, to resistance and survival through the centuries of colonization. The turtle dome of Tammany Hall is a beacon for the future, calling the grandchildren home to Manhattan.”
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