A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Bits and Pieces: Updates for the Lever House, the Kesner Building and 2116 Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn and an obituary

ROBERT PINART (1927-2017), Maître de verre vitrail

We are saddened to report that our friend, stained and dalle de verre glass artist Robert Pinart, died on October 1. 

Robert Pinart in Chartres, 1950s

Robert had been in deteriorating health for some time, and after ninety years his body was laid to rest in Gethsemane Cemetery in Congers, New York. His spirit and art will live on, however, in the stained and dalle de verre glass windows he designed for synagogues, churches, schools and residences throughout the United States and Canada. 


Every so often I receive a message about one of my blogs. Usually, someone has new information about a subject I’ve written about that significantly adds to that conversation. Below are two of these updates, and a third piece about a building that relates to a previous blog.

Jean Nison’s Fireplace Surround for Lever Brothers

(Photo taken and edited from: Jean Nison, "Fantasies in Tile", Craft Horizons, Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1953, p. 36+; edited by the author)

In my article about the mid-century modern ceramic tile artist, Jean Nison, I mentioned that she was commissioned to create a tile installation in the Lever Brother’s Boardroom in New York City’s landmarked Lever Building. According to Nison, she visited decorators, left tiles with them and hoped they would call her. This was how, she believed, Raymond Lowey Associates, the industrial design firm, asked her to make a wall decoration for Lever House, at that time the headquarters of Lever Brothers Corporation (now Unilever). I contacted the curator of the Lever House Art Collection, Mr. Richard Marshall, but he had no information about the fate of Nison's tile installation. Unilever Corporation moved out of the building in the 1980s, and may have taken the tiles with them. A request to Unilever for information, however, went unanswered.

Two of the tile designs from the Lever Brothers Boardroom fireplace surround illustrating the color scheme of the installation. (From the Mobile Museum of Art: Jean Nison, American, born in Egypt of French parents [sic]. Lever House, NYC, (Boardroom Tiles) (framed pair), c. 1952. Ceramic, Size 6 x 6 in. Gift of Eric M. and Joy Hart. G2005.21.13)

After reading my article, the Chief Curator of the Mobile (AL) Museum of Art, Paul Richelson, contacted me. Two tiles from the Boardroom Fireplace in Lever House had been donated to the Mobile Museum by Eric M. and Joy Hart in 2005. Either these were extra tiles that were not used in the installation, or the installation was removed when Unilever moved from Lever House to Connecticut and tiles were boxed and given to some of the executives. In either case, tiles from this installation may still exist.

To prove my point, a recent ebay auction listed a “replica” boxed tile of one of the donated Lever Brothers' fireplace tiles. Nison must have made extras to sell at Lever House as the box indicates.

The Restoration of the Hartford Faience Tiles on the Kesner Building (695-709 Sixth Avenue)

In 2010 I took photos of the Hartford Faience tiles on the Ehrich Brothers Emporium/J. L. Kesner Building, which is located between 22nd and 23rd Streets on the west side of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

The photos I used in my June 2015 blog were taken in 2000 and 2010, and many tiles were in poor condition--some even with holes drilled through them.

I again passed by the Kesner Building in 2014, and much of the street-level facade was obscured by ongoing construction. At that time I thought that whatever was happening would only further destroy the tilework on the facade. I was wrong!

The Sixth Avenue entrance to the Kesner Building with two pier columns of restored tiles.

"A restoration team from Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. [...restored] the facade of 105 W 22nd Street/695-709 Sixth Avenue. Xsusha Flandro, Senior Conservator, was kind enough to explain the process:

'The tiles are glazed ceramic tiles manufactured by the Hartford Faience Company... . The current building was erected in phases between 1889 and 1911. The tiles are ca. 1913 when Chicago business man J.L. Kesner (hence the 'K' on the tile columns) leased the building and submitted plans for alteration to the first floor store fronts. Oddly enough Kesner was never in the building as he backed out of the lease, but since the construction plans were already submitted the Ehrich Brothers (owners of the building) went through with the building plans and completed the tile columns. The building is a contributing member to the Ladies Mile Historic District.

'A lot of prep work goes into the restoration of tiles. The first thing we did were cleaning tests. We completed small cleaning test samples and then based on results proceeded with the most gentle and effective of the cleaners tested to clean all the tiles. We also tested paint strippers (all pH neutral – not acidic and not alkaline – because harsh strippers can damage the glazes) in the same manner as the cleaners because some columns had graffiti and general over paint. After cleaning and paint removal we moved into removing abandoned anchors (where signage and such had been attached over the years). Then we moved into patching. We utilized a repair system manufactured by Edison Coatings out of Connecticut. Edison Coatings provided us with custom colored patch repair material for each color of glaze, after the patching was complete the patches are sanded and shaped to the correct profile, and then in-painted (only painted where the patch is) using a polyurethane paint system (also by Edison Coatings) custom colored to the glazes on the tiles. This is where the artistry comes in and we blend the colors onsite to match the adjacent historic tile glazes. No coating is placed over the work after we are finished, as everything we use is specifically manufactured for outdoor use.

Three views of the cleaning and in-painting of the tile work. (Photos courtesy of Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., http://jbconservation.com/index.html)

'In this project we are conserving nine tile columns. All missing tiles or tiles which we could not successfully conserve are being replaced with custom tiles, manufactured by Shenfeld Studios, to match the existing. It took us approximately three weeks to complete all the conservation work on site. The replacement tiles are still a few months out.

'Ms. Flandro noted that the work requires extensive training.

'To be an architectural conservator you have to have a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation – and usually in the conservation sector of historic preservation, which is where you gain a lot of your materials knowledge. Similar to how art conservators go through school and then specialize in one material, we go through school and specialize in building materials. In our company in order to progress past junior conservator we are required to apply to be a Professional Associate with the American Institute of Conservation (of which I hold PA status and the owner of Jablonski Building Conservation, Mary Jablonski, is a Fellow.) AIC – Professional Associate requires at very least 3 years’ experience and your previous projects/works are peer reviewed and letters of recommendation are required.'”(1)

2116 Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn

(Clockwise from UL) 2116 Ditmas Avenue facade; main entrance; painted tilework on both sides of entrance(2); from foyer looking into the lobby. (Photo credits: Michael Padwee)

Recently, while on an errand in the East Flatbush and Ditmas Park sections of Brooklyn, I passed by an apartment house that caught my eye because of some architectural elements on its facade, parts of which had been painted over. On closer inspection of the entranceway I saw what looked like 12” x 12” tiles, which had also been partially obscured by paint. The building had been constructed in 1935 according to New York City records, but there was no indication of an architect.

Terra cotta ornamentation on the exterior facade of 2116 Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn. (Photo credits: Michael Padwee)

I entered the ground floor foyer and lobby, both of which had tile floors, as well as other wall decorations.

Five interior decorative wall elements in the building lobby. The column separating the two niches echoes the column and windows decoration on the facade. (Photos: Michael Padwee)

The foyer and lobby floors were composed mainly of hexagonal tiles with square and rectangular border tiles. There were at least seven hexagonal designs interspersed throughout the floors.

Some of the hexagonal insert tiles above were previously identified as Batchelder tiles in my October 1, 2013 blog post, “Ernest Batchelder in Manhattan”.

Ernest Batchelder's tile company in Pasadena, California, and later, Los Angeles, produced many craftsman-style tiles that were used in building construction throughout the country. I wrote of the use of Batchelder floor tiles in Manhattan apartment buildings, and published an article about the tiles in the RKO Keith's theater in Flushing, Queens in my October 2013 blog. I suspect there are many more such buildings throughout the city as Batchelder did have a showroom in Manhattan for architects and the construction industry, among others.


(1) http://www.newyorkitecture.com/restoration-in-progress/. Permission to reprint Ms. Flandro's remarks granted by Mary Jablonski, the president and founder of Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. 
(2) This 12” square tile is Stock #97, page 18 in Batchelder Tiles: A Catalog of Hand Made Tiles, Batchelder-Wilson Company, Los Angeles, California, Fourth Edition, 1923. (Reprinted by the Tile Heritage Foundation in the 1990s.) 


My thanks to the following for their help with these articles: Paul Richelson, Chief Curator of the Mobile (AL) Museum of Art; Mary Jablonski, Executive Director of the Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc.; Robert Shenfeld of Shenfeld Studios.


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About this blog:

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