Restoring the Plaza: Covered Up Never Looked So Good

July 19, 2016

by Joan Berkowitz


The Case of the Plaza Hotel

HLZAE was retained by the Plaza Hotel and Plaza Condominium to restore the hotel’s grand street-facing facades. Prominently located where the southeast corner of Central Park meets Fifth Avenue, The Plaza is a white mass of marble, terracotta, and white glazed brick that anchors one of New York City’s great public squares, providing a gleaming focal point for tourists and locals alike.

Designed by Henry Hardenbergh in the French Renaissance style and begun in 1905, this outstanding example of early 20th century American hotel architecture has been designated a New York City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Often mentioned in literature and seen in films, the beloved NYC icon cried out for an innovative alternative to the dreary black netting commonly draped over scaffolding during restoration campaigns.

Time-lapse video of the artistic netting being installed on pipe scaffolding during restoration of the plaza.

Safety netting is designed to protect pedestrians from falling debris and or tools. As such, the sturdy black netting must meet NYC Building Code and fire resistance requirements, as well as wind load and mesh size requirements. Imagine viewers’ surprise in the summer of 2013 when a safety net the size of one-and-a-half football fields was draped over the Fifth Avenue facade, leaving the facade in full view.

In lieu of traditional safety netting, HLZAE proposed wrapping the building in a trompe l’oeil mural, a full-sized, architecturally correct image of the Plaza Hotel itself. The ownership of the Plaza was captivated by the idea. The 60,000 square feet of decoratively printed mesh would not only allow light to pour in, but maintain the building’s distinctive presence on Grand Army Plaza, reassuring visitors that “we are open — please shop, eat, and stay.”

The large-scale digital printing used to transform the appearance of safety netting is now widely available. Printed with works of art, the nets create an attractive barrier between the building and the street. They can be opaque (creating an air of mystery by obscuring the project) or transparent and revealing (as at The Plaza).

To create the net, artists sketched the Plaza by hand on site, then augmented their work with photographs and architectural drawings. After they had accurately replicated almost all the details of the facade, they manipulated the drawings using Photoshop. Finally, they printed various iterations of the renderings as sample panels in order to adjust the architectural details, colors, print density, and shading.

Safety netting is available in widths up to 16 feet, so it was possible to create long runs of mesh with just a few seams. All in all, the Plaza required just 18 widths of a highly versatile PVC-coated polyester mesh. The specific mesh was a large-hole fabric that met all relevant code requirements and could be printed on both sides with solvent, eco-solvent, or ultraviolet inks. A special pattern in this mesh catches extra ink, allowing for enhanced coverage and color density. The mesh allows 70% of air to pass through and weighs only 7 oz. per square yard, making it ideal for large-scale images and building wraps.

Balconies, set-backs and other facade details were carefully accommodated in the design. After mockups and revisions, the mesh was printed using large-scale digital printers, trimmed, rolled, and shipped to the job site for hanging. A full model of the Plaza was constructed to show necessary cuts in the mesh and to serve as an installation guide. It took two days for workers to drop the net and secure it to the scaffolding. The sections were then linked to create a single seamless image.

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The overall appearance was light and welcoming, allowing people strolling in Grand Army Plaza to see that the hotel was open for business. The transparent mesh created a light working area for the masons and mechanics working on the facade. Perhaps more importantly, the mesh allowed light to penetrate into hotel rooms, allowing guests to enjoy their glorious views of Central Park and midtown while construction was underway. And when the scaffolding came down, people agreed that the gloriously restored facade was even more splendid than anyone had remembered.

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