Earlier this summer when I started working as an intern at Aurora Lampworks Inc., in Brooklyn, I never imagined I would get the chance to work in some of the most celebrated historic preservation projects in the country, some of which include Carnegie Hall, Yale Sterling Library, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Light fixtures are key elements in the inherent language of any building, but their actual contribution lies in the experience of light as it adds layers of human energy in architecture.
The first few days I was in charge of organizing and gathering existing information about past projects in conservation, repair, and custom work while going through folders in the interest of preparing an update of the company’s website. While I learned about project management, I was also asked to carry out further research of the original light fixtures of the 1921 US Mortgage and Trust Building in the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Work on this project is still in progress, but the retail space is expected to open sometime soon.
During the following weeks, I learned about the bidding and pricing process while assisting Aurora’s principal, Dawn Ladd. One of those new job bids was submitted for a restoration proposal of two exterior sconces on the main entrance of an Upper West Side residential building. A small team went on site to inspect and evaluate the condition of both fixtures, which still had paint fragments on the surface and most of the cast iron corrosion had affected the lantern structure, fracturing 2 pieces of glass. The recommended procedure at the workshop was to sandblast the surfaces, repair, straighten, replace, and refinish components, and finally rewire using UL standards.
I did some further research and coincidentally I was able to locate the catalogue with the fixture specs from 1932 on the Building Technology Heritage Library online at The Association for Preservation Technology International (APTI) website, a resource that Mary Jablonski pointed out during our Architectural Finishes class last semester. The restoration proposal and the original drawings provided the Building Board with sufficient information to encourage them to maintain the deteriorated fixtures despite the considerable cost to carry out the job.
Likewise, this summer, as part of Carnegie Hall’s extensive Studio Towers Renovation Project, the company was responsible for the restoration of all the exterior historic light fixtures on the ground floor including the replication of two historic sconce lanterns and brackets. A significant upgrade throughout this city landmark is taking place in order to meet “contemporary standards for safety and accessibility,” and while the cleaning process took place at the workshop I had to document the whole restoration process and submit condition reports. I learned about different vacuum alternatives and the use of commercial and industrial cleaners applied to ferrous and non-ferrous metals, even glass, as recommended by Aurora’s restorers.
I prepared a group of detail photographs and graphic schematics before the replication process started. The tasks involved tough cleaning methods, disassembly, molding, casting, and final re-assembly plans. Experts in the field of mold making and casting such as Tom Ryan, Joe Reginella, and Matt Riley, (Historic Replicas Mini-Course at Columbia U.) were asked to participate in this project due to the short timeframe available. Seeing how easily cast iron corrodes and witnessing how the slightest touch can affect not only the mass but also the finish of any light fixture, I have understood the importance of conservation practices and the challenge of our work as preservationists in protecting the vulnerability of buildings and their components.
In these last weeks I assisted Dawn in submitting a thorough conditions report for the current phase of light fixture restoration for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and even though conservation procedures were approved almost one year ago for a prior phase, the remaining work for 18 fixtures of the current phase is pending. We selected photographs and submitted a detailed document with recommendations for the existing 900+ pieces of glass, rewiring to meet UL lighting standards, and the status of finishes overall. Similarly, with Yale Sterling Memorial Library, I was able to document the process, assist in the preparation for delivery of finished work, and I even had the opportunity to photograph a few original pieces of Samuel Yellin’s work.
This internship has broadened my views of preservation by integrating this first year of academic training with a vibrant professional field I have just discovered. I am glad I was able to experience one of the many ways how this discipline welds and fuses its intentions with contemporary ideas in architecture, construction, and design, despite our recurrent urge to erase and start over. I’d like to thank the team at Aurora, especially Dawn Ladd, for sharing their experience and knowledge this summer and I’m sure we will work together in the near future. Fellow Columbia H.P. graduate Lisa Renz joined the team last week and will take part in what will become the new Aurora over the next few months. The new workshop location in Brooklyn and the updated website will definitely help promote all of their great work in the lighting industry within the dynamic architecture of New York.