Stonehill & Taylor

September 1, 2003
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Located in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district, Stonehill & Taylor has been designing new construction and renovation projects since 1963. The firm's design process focuses on attention to its clients' needs and ensuring that its work is responsive to client expectations. Included in the firm's portfolio are many headquarters for major corporations and financial institutions, upscale hospitality projects, adaptive reuse and restoration projects, education and healthcare complexes, industrial and commercial buildings, housing and residences, showrooms and auction house facilities, and restaurants as well as furniture and product designs.

Among some of Stonehill & Taylor's most recent accomplishments are renovation, restoration and new construction work at The Plaza Hotel, Millennium Broadway and Buckingham hotels in Manhattan and The Premier, a newly constructed establishment, also in New York. Millennium Copthorne Hotels has been the firm's largest client in the area, but it also does work for other well-known hotel owners and developers. Another project currently in the works is the Department of Physiology facility at Cornell University Medical College Manhattan. For this design, Stonehill & Taylor has convinced the school to differ from the typical building materials palette often seen in medical facilities, and use natural stone in the main corridor area.

Natural stone plays a role in much of the firm's work. Recently, Stone World sat down with two architects at Stonehill & Taylor to discuss their views on architecture and how it relates to the natural stone industry.

Those participating in this roundtable discussion included: Paul David Taylor, principal and Neill E. Parker Jr., AIA, senior associate.

SW: What is the type of work done by your firm?

Taylor: I joined the firm in September of 1980, when it was called Lundquist and Stonehill. The name was changed to Stonehill & Taylor in 1986. We have in fact been in this space since 1986. When I joined the firm, I was looking for a firm that did both new building construction and interiors. I was in one previously that only did interiors. It is hard in New York City -- unless you go to a very large firm -- to work in a firm that actually gets to build something new.

Continuing in that tradition, the kind of work that we do includes new building construction and interiors. It also includes several different building types, one of which is hotels, which comprises a lot of our work. The second one is office structures, the third is healthcare and the last would be residential.

We are diversified into those areas and have people who specialize in them. Neill joined our firm in 1987. The principle of our firm -- the concept that we are organized around -- is basically an account-based business verses a project-based business. We try to get accounts that have enough volume that they could be repeat business. We treat them very well, and hopefully retain them for many, many years, as opposed to reselling our firm every six months in order to get projects. In particular, hospitality and healthcare are two areas where they are constantly building, and so that is a business strategy as well as a lifestyle strategy of not having to be a constant salesman.

SW: What types of accounts are you talking about -- owners or developers?

Taylor: Mostly, they are institutional. A hotel chain, Millennium Copthorne Hotels, has been our largest client in the hospitality area, but we also have had Manhattan East Suite Hotels -- recently renamed "Affinia" - as well as others, which act as both owners and developers. As a hotel owner, generally they are trying to get larger. Millennium Copthorne Hotels has about 130 hotels. We built a new hotel for them on 44th Street [in Manhattan], which is The Premier.

This is a new building. It has a limestone facade. We already had them as a client, and they owned the building two doors down, which is the Millennium Broadway. They saw an opportunity to acquire a site where a three-story building had existed before. We did the zoning studies for them, and put together budgets. Instead of going out and looking for another architect, they invited us to be the architect. That would be an example of how an owner becomes a developer.

SW: What type of stone did you use at this hotel?

Taylor: Basically, at this hotel, there are three structures that make up the total site. There's the Millennium Broadway Hotel. There is the Hudson Theatre, which is a 1903 landmark Broadway theater, and then there is this site. The other two had limestone facades. So we felt it was absolutely necessary to link the whole site together -- to use some Indiana limestone. We tried to carry the cornice lines through. We did some modern interpretation.

Parker: This had been done on the Millennium Broadway as well. They carried over those same lines from the Hudson Theatre.

Taylor: In this case, we did something which I thought was kind of interesting. We treated the site as a piece of sculpture. You will notice that the actual building is set back from the street line by 15 or 17 feet. The reason that the building is set back is that if we hadn't set it back from the street line, we would had to have set it back at a point not too far up anyway because of the zoning regulations. And with the hotel having long huge rooms in the front on the worst floors at the bottom, it's not particularly useful, but yet it was very important to continue the street integrity of the limestone facade. Therefore, we treated the facade as a piece of detached sculpture -- almost like an artifact.

Parker: There's also Deer Isle granite used for the base. It was also used in the Hudson Theatre and Millennium Broadway.

SW: And inside?

Parker: We have guestrooms and public spaces.

Taylor: Inside, we have about four different types of stone that were used in the lobby. The idea here was to use limestone as the field, because the Millennium Broadway Hotel and the Hudson Theatre had already made use of almost every marble known to man, so the idea for this was that it is supposed to be their boutique hotel and most expensive rooms. You couldn't "out marble" what they already had done, so to make it seem rich in comparison, we actually had to make it more simple. I think people's sensibilities like or appreciate a certain simplicity in style as being elegant.

Parker: The limestone is part of a lighter palette. The rest of the complex has kind of a dark mahogany, black marble and granite, and red marble [set of finishes].

Taylor: This way it's not more of the same. It's distinctly different. And there are high-end rooms are in this building.

SW: I also noticed that there is also a little bit of stone in the guestrooms.

Taylor: We have in the guestrooms limestone again and green marble insets. And then we have a glass counter. We took the light that normally goes above the counter and put it under the glass, so the counters glow and it didn't cost any extra.

SW: How much of your work includes stone?

Taylor: Stone is one of the original materials, if not the original material. I think it is very difficult not to employ stone in one fashion or another. The issue with stone is that it is a quality material that costs money. Depending on the project, it can be as small as a countertop on an executive's credenza or on a reception counter -- that's about as small as it can get. Or if it is a higher-quality project, stone generally communicates to the viewer quality. If you were to have for example a bank building with wood shingles, you would say that is a cheap building. Right? Or aluminum siding, that's a cheap building. Brick mean a higher quality, and stone communicates the highest quality.

Parker: There is also a high-traffic issue in our educational facilities.

Taylor: In terms of institutional buildings, I think stone should be used where they are trying to communicate quality and longevity, and also for traffic. At Cornell University's medical school, we're employing quite a bit of stone in a corridor, which is the spine of the physiology department. It doesn't sound very interesting, but it is actually going to be a very interesting corridor. First of all, it's about 200 feet long. Essentially all of their laboratories connect off of this. So it's being treated like the "street" for this important division of their medical school. Essentially, laboratories are being treated as buildings on the street, and you go through a doorway into them. There's an undulating curving ceiling that looks like clouds in the sky.

They are very concerned, because it is part of a hospital too. There are moving carts and things of that nature going down the hallways. They naturally needed to have some plastic bumpers and things of that nature. But we proved them wrong, because we are installing huge stone bumpers. Instead of having a little 3¿inch base, we're employing a huge dimensional stone base that sticks out like 4 inches -- it's a big chunk so that it catches the wheel. And then we have terrazzo flooring. And then there is one side that is all done in stone, and even a side that is done in wood has the marble insets for the bumpers and all.

In that case, stone gives prestige to the physiology department, but it's there actually as a practical material also, because there aren't too many other materials that can be used in such a heavy traffic situation.

SW: In a situation like that, where you are not just using stone for an aesthetic reason, but for a practical reason, are you able to communicate the practical benefits of stone to your clients?

Taylor: Basically, clients always feel that the architect is out to spend their money -- particularly if the architect is on a percentage fee. The truth of the matter is that a percentage fee generally is a very fair way to go because as a client makes a project more difficult and more expensive, you automatically get compensated. Whereas, if you budget in the project, and then go back and ask for an additional fee, it is generally impossible. The problem is that when your fee is tied into the cost of the project, there is always a sense of mistrust coming from the client, which is hard to sometimes overcome.

I think that depending on the sophistication of the client, it can be less hard to deal with. If you are dealing with a hotel chain that does 130 hotels, they have seen stone before, and the sell isn't that difficult. When you're working with a hospital, stone may be an unconventional use for a medical school, and so it is harder to sell. But, there is an architect who runs their facilities department, and in this particular case, the wife of the doctor in charge of the physiology department is also an architect, and she attended our meetings. So, an educated user makes selling the stone concept easier.

SW: In this office, how do you find out about new stone materials or any materials on the market? Do you have stone professionals who come visit you?

Taylor: We have a librarian who suppliers make appointments with and come in and show their wares. Certain companies have been more active in selling to us than others. For example, Stone Source at one time had a "Stone of the Month" club. At this point, I'd say we have between 700 and 1,000 stone samples -- many of them fairly large. As creative as the stone industry is, stone is still a natural material, so the stone being sold today is the same material that they were selling five years ago. Although, due to transportation improvements, stones from Asia, for example, that wouldn't have been so commonly distributed over here, are now more commonly distributed. Also, the quarries change. What was once a very light material maybe starts to become darker, or the consistency either goes up or down. But, in that way, we have a fairly extensive library here. So we often say things like, "We are looking for a Jerusalem marble, what do you have available?"

Parker: That gets at one of the most challenging aspects of working with the stone industry. It is the arcaneness of the terminology and the pricing structure. Any time you are looking for a particular stone that you used before -- but you want to have competitive pricing -- there can be a problem. For example, you find that what one outfit calls Dakota Mahogany is Carnelian from another. Unless you are dealing with Deer Isle granite or Indiana limestone, there is almost no such thing as a commodity that is generic, so to speak -- or at least they are trying to portray it that way.

SW: Is that something you come across often, where you are trying to find a specific stone that you know a name for, but no one is calling it by that name?

Parker: Sometimes clients -- particularly in residential design -- have a particular stone in mind that their friend had, and they know the name of it, but they don't know who they got it from, and then we have trouble finding it.

Taylor: I think the stone industry has become better in that way, though -- particularly in Italy -- where they are set up to sell to architects here in New York. It used to be really obscure. The process of how a stone came overseas and landed here was made so that you had to be a special broker.

I went on a tour of the Carrara area, and now I get e-mailed monthly. They do shop drawings over there, and cut it. It's much more internationalized and sensible. We do appreciate our local suppliers, because on a smaller project, we are not going to go directly to Italy. So it's either an in-stock issue, in which case we have to see what they have, or it's a dimensional stone cut overseas, which in that case we have direct people to speak with overseas.

SW: For your new construction, and even some of your renovation work, would you say that your firm has a specific design style or is it more of a general philosophy?

Taylor: The philosophy of the firm is that we as architects are a means for a user to get a piece of architecture at the end. And they can't do it by themselves, the same way as if a person wants to end up with a song, they have to hire a composer. To end up with a piece of architecture, you have to hire an architect. We are not the reason for the actual architecture, we are a means for the architecture to be born. So we try to listen to what the clients are trying to achieve, and try to embody that in an aesthetically pleasing, professional, useful product at the end.

For example, we have The Plaza Hotel, which is quite different from what you saw in The Premier. This is a building that is historic. In this particular case, we built a $6 million spa, but we built it in their cellar. It was actually built in an area that was formerly Trader Vic's, which was a Polynesian restaurant. So everything you see is new, but we tried to return it back to something that it never was. The experience of the visitor is: "This is the Plaza Hotel."

From a former age, when it was Trader Vic's, they had covered up with ceramic tile. We found fragments of a marble mosaic, and then we repaired, restored and extended it, so it has the same feeling of the lobby with the marble mosaic. For a wood reception desk, with a stone counter, we actually went to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at examples of Louis XVI furniture. Essentially, we design the aesthetic and develop the aesthetic around what is appropriate for the client -- even if they don't ask.

Parker: We had something with a residence where the clients wanted to have an indoor/outdoor living experience. It's on top of a mountain in New Jersey. They liked trips to the Mediterranean very much and that kind of Mediterranean aesthetic, but in essence, all of their taste and the furniture in their house was Modern. They didn't have any traditional furniture. So the idea of doing a literal Mediterranean theme didn't make sense. So we did a modern interpretation of classic elements -- using stone -- but done in clean, simple lines rather than all the proper [formal] moldings.

One thing about limestone is that it looks the most like [natural] stone if you break it, so we used the combination of honed and the broken edge of the guillotine treatment. Large areas of the facade are actually stucco. I would say that the entire facade is only 2 or 3% stone, but we put the stone where you notice it.

SW: Was that Indiana limestone?

Parker: Yes.

Taylor: Indiana limestone is the New York limestone. We actually used it at the Plaza Hotel. With the hot tubs, we tried to create almost as if you are outside in a court inside of a building, with a pool in it. All of the spaces where you dress and everything are rooms off from this central courtyard - and of course there is a men's one and women's one. And so we used the limestone, but we rusticated it, gave it a little bit of the story of outside. Being a New Yorker, I think that limestone is that first 16 feet of every building -- it has a certain meaning. It isn't just fancy, it sort of says something -- subliminally.

SW: Speaking of Indiana limestone, do you find it hard sometimes, for example in The Premier Hotel, to find a stone to match an existing stone?

Taylor: The hardest thing is not for me, but it's the hardest thing for our clients. On the back of every stone sample it says, "Stone is a natural material and variation and imperfections are part of its inherent beauty" -- or something like that. It's the same statement that you see on the back of leather items from Italy. I don't have a problem with that. Stone is a natural material and is not supposed to look like plastic laminate.

So in terms of matching there are different issues. One is a new project where everything is new, and everything that you even ordered at the same time doesn't match -- or at least in someone's eyes, it doesn't match. So the idea of consistency has to be thought of from the beginning. You have to educate the client from the beginning what a range is. You can discuss issues like bookmatching, which can make a feature item consistent.

There is something that we haven't touched on, and that is the fact that the stone industry in New York is really two industries. There is the tile industry, and there is the dimensional stone industry, which are like two different worlds. If you are in the tile world, you can forget about the concept of consistency, because basically you get what comes in the box. You can say, "Let's buy 10 boxes and use five," and the architect can sort through them and initial every piece of stone on the side -- which I've done -- and the client is still dissatisfied. Or for a really picky client, you say that you have to go with dimensional stone. It's going to cost you more money, but you can pick out the slabs; you can decide to bookmatch it; you can decide to do what you want. This way you have total control.

Parker: Also, there are specification issues. If we know we are going to have an issue -- sometimes you can just feel it out on certain clients -- where certain stones are more consistent inherently than others. Deer Isle granite is very consistent, while anything with a vein in it is inherently not going to be consistent.

For the Buckingham Hotel, we used Deer Isle granite and something that Walker & Zanger calls Black Galaxy -- it's also very consistent.

Taylor: We had issues in the facade there where they had put air-conditioners through the facade along the cornice line, and they cut out the [limestone] cornice every 20 feet around the entire building -- 170 lineal feet of Sixth Avenue and 57th Street. So patching that back was an issue, because you have all the dirt of New York City. And even after cleaning the existing limestone -- it's just hard to get [new] limestone that is exactly that dirty. That's a very difficult matching problem. Fortunately, the aging process of New York, which maybe in another city takes 100 years, takes about nine months, and then it just blends in perfectly.

Parker: We put a new interior ramp in The Plaza Hotel in an area of French limestone flooring, and we really did find the same stone, but the color was very different because the existing material was 70 years old and had 70 years of dirt worn into it. What we ended up doing was salvaging pieces. We basically made the sloping portion of the ramp out of the new stone, and then for areas where we had to modify the existing floor area, we tried to use salvaged stone. There was a logic to where the mismatch was going to happen.

Taylor: It was done strategically. We had that same issue in the Millennium Hilton, where in the lobby they used a stone that Miller Druck sold to me many years ago as "Charlie Brown." It's an orange/red limestone when polished, but when it's thermal, it's like a warm gray. It was very popular in the mid '80s, but for some reason, it has disappeared off the face of the planet. And so when we were switching the lobby around, we couldn't get replacement pieces for it. We had to make strategic choices - change in a corner; use a contrasting material so it doesn't look like a bad match. At the reception desk, we had to lower the counter for ADA requirements, and so instead of getting a bad match on the stone, we put in black, so it looks like we meant it. So that's the trick - it always should look like you meant it. You can't put a little sign there, "Please, the architect is not responsible." There are no disclaimers allowed in our profession, so it has to be self-explanatory.

SW: What would be some other practical lessons that you have learned about stone over the years?

Taylor: First of all, stone is a very unforgiving material, unlike wood that can be shaved and made to fit. With stone, you have a shop drawing process, and a lot of forethought has to be given to the order of installation with other finished trades. And you have to allow for the fact that trimming is a little different in the field. Understanding the nature of the material saves a lot of grief later on.

I would say another one where you can avoid a lot of grief is not using silicone caulking on the stone joints, because about six months later, you will have a dark stain going into the stone. That's not a good one. Be sure to specify sealants for absorbent stones when you first do the specs as opposed to presenting the owner with a change order later on. Because then they ask, "Why wasn't that included?"

Other concerns are slipping and safety issues with polished stone in public spaces with the rain; [metal] supports behind the stone should be stainless steel; and recognizing the thicknesses that stones are available in and are appropriate to the application. When you are dealing with exterior stone, don't think you can put 3¿inch on the outside of the building. You have to allow for quite a dimension, because the stones are available just for transportation purposes in certain thicknesses. Then you have to allow for a backup and other issues. So it takes quite a bit of dimension to put a stone veneer on.

SW: In your projects, obviously a lot of thought goes into the way that you detail stone. From talking with other architects, it doesn't seem that there is much education on stone detailing in architecture school. How do you learn that?

Taylor: Well, basically, architecture is a difficult profession because you have to learn a little bit about a tremendous number of things. And then, you are supposed to be held liable from a life-safety standpoint for any one of those things. Fortunately, there is a process of shop drawings for these. I think, in truth, you learn in any of the fields through the trades that submit shop drawings, and when you have to review them, you're checking it for the design intent, but they may have modified your design intent because there are some practical issues that they have to deal with. So when you are naive in the beginning, you say, "Hey, I'm the architect, I have a vision that goes like this." The guy says, "Well, that's a great vision, but it can't be built." The real education, I believe, comes through the communication through the shop drawing process through the trade and the architect.

An architect's education really takes about 20 years. You have to build one of each building type before you really know anything.

Parker: And it doesn't really end there. If you're not curious about everything, you can't really be a good architect. We are very lucky here in New York City that we have so many wonderful examples of stone architecture. Every time that I walk down the street, I see some new little thing, and I might stop and look at it. Sometimes it is a traditional detail, and sometimes it is when someone did it a little different than the tradition, and you notice what works and doesn't work. Also, we sometimes have people that we can partner with or people we have worked with before that we can rely on and call. We usually have positive experiences with contractors. We usually don't go to war with them. We find that to be a positive way of working. So we have stone people that we can ask questions. I'm pretty lucky myself, because I married into a stone/contracting family -- A. Ottavino Corp., in Ozone Park, NY. They're in their third generation.

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