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Terminal wellness

Building team returns to yesteryear to restore the Hoboken Terminal waiting room

September 01, 2001 |

For nearly 100 years, travelers have surged through the main waiting room of the Hoboken Terminal in Hoboken, N.J. Immigrants from Ellis Island flocked to a new life in the United States and locals to and from New York City, a ferry's ride across the Hudson River.

Thanks to a recent renovation, today's wayfarers can experience the waiting room much as it appeared in those long-gone days. The project is part of a complete restoration of the 64-acre Hoboken Terminal complex, which also includes a two-story ferry terminal, the concourse and platforms.

As is typical of all restoration projects, matching original designs in both composition and style was difficult. The windows in particular presented a challenge, according to members of the design team. "We wanted to restore the main waiting room to what it looked like in 1907, including the same type of glass in the windows, the same door design — some had been damaged and replaced and were no longer what they originally looked like," says John McNamara, project manager for engineering firm STV Inc. in New York City.

Currently owned by the New Jersey Transit Corp., based in Newark, the Hoboken Terminal is listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.

Constructed in 1907 in a Beaux Arts style, the waiting room is housed in a fireproof steel-and-concrete structure clad in copper. The interior walls consist of marble and limestone and each façade holds a multistory wall of windows. Adorning the ceiling is a 40-by-50-ft. stained glass laylight, a skylight that in this case is artificially illuminated.

The entire project is budgeted at $300 million, half of which will be used for the terminal building, according to Frank J. Smolar, director of restoration for New Jersey Transit. Code-required updating along with preparations of the master plan began in 1995.

Windows are center of attention

As the centerpiece, the waiting room was the first major portion to be undertaken.

The windows in the approximately five-story-high structure begin about 12 feet above the floor and rise almost to the ceiling.

In poor shape, the window frames had to be entirely reconstructed. The original windows were made from three types of glass — vertical ribbed, amber ripple and patterned swirl. Many panes were either cracked or completely broken. Finding manufacturers that could make the same type of glass that was used in 1907 was difficult, "because so much of it was unique to its time," says project manager Peter Scaglione, an associate with New York City-based architect Beyer Blinder Belle, the general design consultant for the restoration.

Chicken wire, the same type that the firm had used on the 1996-1998 restoration of the Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, was contained within the glass.

Mississippi Wire Glass Co. in New York City had manufactured the original glass, according to documentation a railroad buff had scavenged from a Newark warehouse set for demolition.

"It had details and pictures of the glass and also pictures of the main waiting room at the time it was under construction," Scaglione says. "We used that to supplement what little other documentation we had to try to match things."

Various manufacturers were provided samples to match the texture and lines, but an exact match was impossible. A conventional wire glass came close, Scaglione says.

Each façade of the waiting room presented a different problem. For instance, workers first tried to remove the amber ripple glass on the east wall using instruments similar to jewelers tools, but were breaking the panes in the process. Eventually, all had to be replaced. According to McNamara, a glass manufacturer with a standard mold closely matched the curvature and waviness of the original panes. "It wasn't exact," McNamara says, "but it was so close that without a micrometer you're not going to be able to tell the difference."

Reflective film now covers the interior of the east panes to mask an interior room of old offices and lockers.

"The sun hits it coming in through the west windows, and it has a golden glow. But you don't see through it," Scaglione says. "And, the texture and the color are pretty close."

The new west window frames, which replaced copper-clad steel, are constructed of rust-inhibiting steel. The façade contains a clock that was removed piece by piece, shipped to a metal shop, restored and then replaced with new hands and a new mechanism. "So, the west windows are probably the real highlights of the windows, beside the laylight," Scaglione says.

The north and south facades contain both original panes that were in good condition and new glass. The old panes underwent a series of cleanings to remove years of city grit and grime. The challenge was to color match the old panes and new panes.

"If you really look at it, you can notice a slight difference between the two, and in some ways that's a good thing because you want to know what's a replacement and what's original from a historic preservation perspective," Scaglione explains.

Withstanding the test of time

While the windows give the room its grandeur, the doors of the heavily used waiting room offer both style and durability.

Six pairs of swinging doors leading from the waiting room to the railroad concourse get the most traffic. A north passageway that leads to a park-like area behind the ferry terminal has four pairs of double doors. Interior doors include those of men's and women's restrooms, plus one set of double doors and a set of single doors that lead to the train operator's rest area. "There's also a florist shop, and we redid the doors on that, too," McNamara says.

Some of the massive, red oak doors were original, while others had been replaced. Samples of the wood were tested in order to match the stain. Scaglione says the team wavered between using a solid wood construction and a composite, and decided on composite for the panels because the material better resists warping and damage. The composite is an engineered core of lumber strand laminate that is covered with a 1/4-in. red oak veneer.

The architects also considered using white oak for the bottom of the doors because of its resistance to warping, but eventually decided against using two types of oak.

Success at last

The completed project was so successful it has won two awards. The New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office named the Hoboken Terminal waiting room as one of 14 historic preservation projects of merit for 2000. The project was also named restoration project of the year in 2000 by New York Construction News.

Meanwhile, restoration of the rest of the terminal complex continues. Smolar says the transit company is hoping for completion in 2007, just in time to mark the terminal's centennial.

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