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1986 roof-level view of Shepard Hall.

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Deterioration and missing figures clearly visible on Shepard Hall’s main tower.

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Close-up of gargoyle shows netting to catch broken pieces of terra cotta.

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Main Tower of Shepard Hall wrapped in scaffolding.

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Framing for one of the rebuilt turrets on Shepard Hall’s Main Tower.

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Remolded grotesque made from glass-fiber-reinforced concrete attached to metal bracketing.

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After the Main Tower was completed, contractors went to work on the Great Hall roof and clerestory.

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Restoring the Great Hall.

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Before and after views of architectural ornamentation on the Main Tower.

A Campus Restored
George B. Post’s design for the new campus was an aesthetic triumph, but, regrettably, a mechanical disaster.  Massive exterior walls of stone and terra cotta supported steel beams, but the terra cotta proved too brittle to function as part of a load-bearing wall.  In addition, the mortar joints were too rigid to absorb any building movement. 

Within two decades the terra cotta began to show signs of massive failure.  Cracks in the material allowed water to reach the steel behind the walls.  As the steel rusted, further cracking occurred.  This led to increased water infiltration and resulted in an escalating spiral of deterioration.

By the mid-1980s, the situation had become critical, especially in Shepard Hall.  Carl Stein, principal with Elemental Architecture, who was hired by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) to assess Shepard’s condition, reported that “one third of the building’s terra cotta had failed and half of what remained showed serious distress.”[1]

Stein spent a full year investigating technical strategies for restoring Shepard’s main tower, which was on the verge of structural failure.  Ultimately, the top 60 feet of the tower would have to be taken down and rebuilt. 

But, this time the ornamental elements would not be part of the load-bearing structure.  Instead, Stein chose a “thin-shell cladding system” in which each element would be independently attached to new, weatherproof structural walls with stainless and galvanized steel brackets. 

As a replacement for the terra cotta trim, Stein selected glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, a material known for its ability to replicate complex forms and withstand the harsh New York environment.  The system allowed flexible sealant joints, which accommodated movement, to be used instead of mortar.

Restoring the tower and upper windows of the Great Hall called for the replacement of between 12,000 and 13,000 pieces of terra cotta, three times more than any previous terra cotta restoration.  Ultimately more than 70,000 replacement pieces would be needed for all of Shepard Hall, plus tens of thousands more for the other Post-designed buildings. 

More than 10,000 different shapes would have to be cast just for Shepard.  This included more than 2,000 ornamental designs and over 1,000 different gargoyles (cast sculptures of animals) and grotesques (cast caricatures of humans, including students and professors).

Over a period of nearly 20 years, DASNY would go on to rebuild the roof over the Great Hall of Shepard Hall and restore the facades of the rest of Shepard Hall as well as the other buildings of the Post campus, Goethals Hall (added in 1930) and the campus gates.  Restoration of the Great Hall’s interior was completed in 1998.  Other interior projects included a beautiful new lecture/recital hall in the basement of Shepard Hall, conversion of Townsend Harris Hall into new facilities for the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education and a new gymnasium in Wingate Hall.

As this is written, the restoration is largely complete, save for a few sections of Shepard Hall’s exterior along St. Nicholas Terrace.  Best of all, the scaffolding that had become a fixture during the restoration years is gone, and the campus looks great!

[1] Chusid, Michael, “Historic Restoration at CCNY Intricate, Ongoing,” Concrete International, August 2003, p. 75

100 Years on Hamilton Heights
Credits | Copyright © The City College of New York, 2007.