April 6, 2020

CetraRuddy and Roman and Williams Renew Historic Buildings for Fotografiska New York

Fotografiska New York, a photography museum by CetraRuddy Architecture, is housed in a six-story land­marked building that dates to 1894. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

A for-profit photography exhibition space run by two Swedish brothers may at first seem like a longshot new cultural institution in Manhattan. Good design, however, has helped make Fotografiska New York seem not only plausible but also downright necessary. Fotografiska’s third branch, after Stockholm and Tallinn, Estonia, occupies an 1894 landmarked Flemish Renaissance Revival building by architects Robert Williams Gibson and Edward Neville Stent. Grand on the outside, the former mission house for the Episcopal church next door was a hollow shell when the Interior Design Hall of Fame co-founders of CetraRuddy Architecture got to it. “It’s a jewel that was a dusty old building,” Nancy Ruddy begins.

The inaugural exhibition was “Ellen von Unwerth: Devotion: 30 Years of Photographing Women.” Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

Fotografiska spreads over its six floors with multiple photo exhibitions on levels three, four, and five. Amazingly, the project also includes four separate food and beverage spaces. The two most elaborate of those are by Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors: a speakeasylike bar tucked into an adjoining 1848 building, the Calvary Church Annex—a two-story former chapel with gothic arches—and the second-floor restaurant. 

But before the rebirth, the building had to be structurally reinforced, since it wasn’t originally built for high traffic. The idea, however, was to let as much of the original architecture shine through. “We really wanted the building’s bones to speak,” John Cetra says.

The facade is gabled limestone and granite. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

Having Fotografiska founding brothers Jan Broman and Per Broman as clients helped. “We took our cues from their Stockholm branch, since they have perfected how it shows art,” Ruddy says. “It’s immersive and intimate.” The New York exhibition spaces are tightly orchestrated, given that the original building is only 41,000 square feet, and each display floor follows the same plan of new interior walls, leading the viewer on a route that maximizes time with each picture. Chief among the client dictates was a natural light ban, to preserve the art, so CetraRuddy built a wall three feet inside the interior, which preserved the street view of the old window bays.

The lobby mixes café, art exhibition, and retail, all organized around a custom leather-and-quartzite reception desk. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

The commitment to welcoming design begins, naturally, in the dramatically opened-up lobby, centered on a curved reception desk. The café, wine bar, and bookshop are all part of the inviting open plan. “We try to create a sense of home in any project—that’s the heart and soul of who we are,” says Ruddy, who added bookshelves made of reclaimed mahogany and unfinished steel. “They’re one of the only major architectural interventions in the whole building.”

Removing the sixth floor’s low ceiling revealed original walls of terra-cotta tile, subsequently refurbished, for what’s now a penthouse event space and artist residence. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

The firm’s most ingenious less-is-more trick was in the sixth-floor attic, where it removed the low ceiling and revealed the space’s original terra-cotta wall tiles, now refurbished. And then the team didn’t attempt to prettify it any further. “We opened it up, and my instinct was, Let’s not do a thing here,” CetraRuddy principal Theresa Genovese adds. Now the lofty penthouse is used for artist residencies and events—in fact, Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen filmed a mini concert there with singer-songwriter Allen Stone; stay tuned.

The museum’s second floor is Veronika, a restaurant by Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, which hung custom chandeliers from the ceiling and upholstered the custom seating in mohair. Flooring is reclaimed oak planks. Photography by Adrian Gaut.

When it came to the restaurant Veronika (after the patron saint of photography), co-founders Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch furthered the emotional storytelling that Roman and Williams is known for. “It’s experiential, that’s what we’re interested in,” Standefer says. “And that starts with deciding for it to be on that second floor, having the bar be the entry. There’s a sense of unfolding discovery.”

Roman and Williams installed a 19th-century stained-glass window found during renovation in Veronika’s bar area. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

The vibe is Bohemia-infused and “otherworldly” she says. “You can’t quite put your finger on the era.” A forest mural and a bar made of honed St. Laurent marble work together to set a spell. Using oak trim on the space’s 16-foot-high arches emphasized the enfilade progression of the stately old space. A multi-panel stained-glass window found boarded up elsewhere in the building during renovation was restored and installed in the bar area, creating a focal point and acknowledging the religious origins of the building. 

The light palette of pale reclaimed-oak flooring, white marble-topped tables, and saffron mohair barrel-back chairs is given visual ballast with dark-blue banquettes. Large chandeliers shed light on it all. “We call them Etoiles, for stars in the sky,” Standefer explains. The wall separating the kitchen from the dining room adds another layer of drama: It’s covered with arched, blackened-bronze panels, a nod to Andrea Palladio and Giorgio de Chirico.

Roman and Williams also designed the V at Fotografiska bar adjoining the museum. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

More arches appear in the V at Fotografiska bar, accessed by a semi-hidden door next to the museum’s main entrance. To open up the former cathedral to its previous dimensions, Roman and Williams demolished plasterboard walls that formed a warren of classrooms, simultaneously highlighting the space’s original gothic arches. Amid them, the firm installed a multi-tiered crystalline chandelier, which casts an atmospheric glow on the mauve earthen walls, central horseshoe bar, and mismatched armchairs upholstered in pastel velvets.

Chen Man’s photograph appears between the third and fourth floors. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

Both firms understood that full art saturation was the goal—even in the interstitial spaces. The grand staircase that begins in the Fotografiska lobby was rerouted and expanded, and all the way up it, photomurals connect visitors to the content of the exhibition floors. “Our clients view architecture as art,” Ruddy notes, “so it was an amazing collaboration.”

Keep scrolling to view more images of Fotografiska >

Polished stainless-steel clads columns and flooring is polished concrete. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 
 Custom neon numerals identify floors. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

A photograph by Hassan Hajjaj occupies the ground-floor landing. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 
Exhibition spaces are intentionally dark to protect the artwork. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 
Custom lighting and audiovisual technology afford opportunity for multi­sensory experiences both in the gallery spaces and on the building’s facade. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto
A photograph by Arvida Byström appears in the museum’s staircase, which acts as an extension of the galleries. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

LEDs illuminate the Flemish Renaissance Revival building, a former Episcopal mission house by architects Robert Williams Gibson and Edward Neville Stent. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto. 

Project Team

Tom Graul; Maria Clironomos; Nathalie Guedes; Jared Eisenhower; Miguel De La Ossa Peinador; Satoko Narishige; Joseph Librizzi; Branko Potocnik; Akiko Uchida: CetraRuddy Architecture. BankerWessel: Graphics Consultant. Kugler Ning Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. 6sides: Acoustical Consultant, Audiovisual Consultant. Higgins Quasebarth & Partners: Restoration Consultant. Gilsanz Murray Steficek: Structural Engineer. MGE/MG Engineering: MEP. Gala Woodworking: Wood­work. Certified Glass Corp: Glasswork, Metalwork. Tri-Star Construction: General Contractor. 

Product Sources

ACDC Lighting: Lighting (Exterior). Alphenberg Leather: Desk Upholstery (Lobby). Quarra Stone Company: Counter Material. Dan Form: Barstools. Porro: Chairs. TGP: Glass Doors. Rimex: Column Covers. Terramai: Counter Material. Osted Antique & Design: Display Table. Octopus Products: Metal Laminate. Grok: Pendant Fixtures (Penthouse). Admonter: Oak Flooring. Femenella & Associates: Stained-Glass Restoration (Restaurant). Throughout: Bolon: Gallery Flooring. ETC.: Track Lighting. Sign Design Group of NY: Custom Signage. Duggal: Wall Vinyl.

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