A Pavilion Where Memory and Modernity Meet

Medhat Salam and Donato Giacalone, principals at New York firm Medhat Salam Associates, have recreated a much-missed waterfront pavilion in Staten Island, New York’s Conference House Park. Rather than a replication, the reconstructed pavilion is a conjuring of sorts, a structure blending past and present, and which was based solely on two blurry photos taken at least 60 years ago.

The original pavilion was built in 1935 in honor of Almer G. Russell, a local man killed in WWI. The ornate wooden structure was used for summer concerts and watching sailboat races on the adjacent Raritan Bay. Yet the pavilion gradually fell into disrepair, finally succumbing to vandalism and arson in 1963.

“In 1965 and into the 1970s, people in the neighborhood tried to get money to rebuild this pavilion,” Salam says. “Finally, in the mid-1990s, they got the support of the Parks and Recreation Department and the Staten Island (N.Y.) Borough Hall. We were commissioned [to build the pavilion] in 2000. We were given these newspaper clippings and told, ‘This was the pavilion. We want it back.’”

In 1998, The Staten Island Advance showed two photos of the pavilion, probably taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. By the time Medhat Salam Associates began working on the project, the author of the piece had left the paper—and taken his files with him. So the only images the firm had to work with were the ones reproduced in newsprint on the Advance’s pages.

Surprisingly, the task of reconstructing the building from a few old photos and written descriptions proved not to be as difficult as it sounds. “What you see is a fuzzy picture, which gives you the number of columns,” Salam explains. “The proportions of the building were quite clear. The height above the ground was clear. Everything was there, except you couldn’t really see the details.”

He continues, “Then, of course, no matter what we saw, we had to make the railings tighter than what they had originally been, so that people, especially children, wouldn’t fall in the water. We had to make our modifications. But I think for all appearances, it is the old pavilion updated.”

Although stylistically a historical reconstruction, the new pavilion materially is very modern. The decking is made from a composite lumber of reclaimed wood and polyethylene plastic. The roofing is natural slate, and the prefabricated roof trusses and the custom millwork for the stair railings, column capitals, brackets, fascias, and crowns are protected against fire by an intumescent paint.

The most difficult part of the project, says Salam, was not the reconstruction, but rather negotiating city regulations and bureaucracy. The fact that the pavilion was to be located so close to the water only exacerbated the situation.

“This became a big issue,” Salam says, “because of the zoning regulations that govern what sits on the water and what doesn’t and how far from the edge of the high water line [you need to be]. The bid took almost nine months, with the various agencies debating where [the pavilion] should be.” Eventually, the pavilion was constructed on almost the exact same spot where its predecessor had been.

Historical reconstruction is usually an act of renovation of some existing structure, or is at least based on existing plans. The Conference House Park Pavilion is more an act of architectural conjuring, creating a solid and usable building from the ghostly images of a newspaper. But buildings that disappear linger on in the collective memory of a community, and the power of architects to give form to this nostalgic desire is an ancient one.

“There’s a holy shrine in Naigu, Japan, called the Ise Shrine,” Salam says. “Every 20 years they build a replica of the pavilion next to the original and then they take the original one and bury it. It just reminded me of the fact that there used to be a pavilion at Conference House Park, and then forty years later, we reinstated it.

“In other instances, it would be more desirable to have more latitude than sometimes is given by preservation enthusiasts…In this case, it was an object of desire of all these neighborhood people and we really had no right to impose a newer design. We had to make the dream come true. That’s about it.”

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