Associate Principal Bob Kornfeld, who joined the firm full time in September 1989, in 2002 conducting a façade survey of the historic 90 Church St. in Manhattan.
Over the course of his nearly 30-year career, Bob Kornfeld has amassed an impressive resume of work involving landmark buildings. But the New York associate principal, who joined the firm full time in September 1989, was already a preservation advocate before he decided to become an architect. “I have always had a kind of childlike excitement for historic buildings,” he said.
His involvement in historic preservation began when he learned that conductor Arturo Toscanini’s Villa Pauline, in Bob’s Riverdale, New York, neighborhood, was to be demolished. Bob tried to get the landmarks commission to stop the demolition, but there was not enough time for the necessary paperwork, so it went ahead as planned. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “Most landmarks advocates start out in this way, feeling compelled to protect something they love, and shocked to see it destroyed.”
At the time, Bob was a recent graduate of Columbia University Columbia College in New York City, where he studied English, comparative literature and psychology, and working as a manager of jazz musicians. “It is a rough, weird business and I was pretty bad at it,” he said. “But my boss, trumpeter Louis Ware, was an old-timer who hung out with musicians like Junior Cook and Miles Davis, so it was a very interesting, anecdote-rich couple of years.”
Historic preservation runs in his blood. Bob’s father, Robert Senior—a playwright—was a preservation advocate in New York City who was involved in protecting the landmarks law from legal attacks and was the leader of the movement to create the Riverdale Historic District. Bob’s grandfather, Solis Seiferth, FAIA, was an architect in Louisiana and was an early member of the Vieux Carré Commission in New Orleans, which preserves and protects the city’s French Quarter. He was also part of the campaign to save the historic Gallier Hall in 1950. Solis’s firm, Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, designed several of the region’s prominent art deco buildings, like the Louisiana State Capitol and New Orleans Lakefront Airport. “It happens that I particularly love restoring buildings of that era,” Bob said.
Bob went on to complete a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University, and after working for a small architectural firm for a couple of years, joined Thornton Tomasetti as a member of the newly formed investigations group. Today, historic preservation is his main focus, and he keeps busy outside of the office by serving on the boards of a number of preservation advocacy groups, including New York’s Historic Districts Council and the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, as well as the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson’s Architectural Review Board. “My career consists of both preservation practice and advocacy, which is an ideal situation for me,” he said.
Bob recently talked about his early days at Thornton Tomasetti during the big-hair decade (also known as the 1980s), as well as some of his most memorable projects.
How did you come to Thornton Tomasetti?
I joined as a consultant in 1988. It was during an economic downturn and the architectural office where I was working was running out of work. I was invited to come to Thornton Tomasetti by Silvio Miletta, a mechanical engineer who had been the MEP consultant for my previous company. I remember interviewing with Ted Sherman, the firm’s lead architect then. He had the personality of a stand-up comedian and a booming basso profundo voice; he would occasionally sing a line or two of an opera aria just to shock everyone. At the interview, he looked through a set of CDs that I had brought, found a complicated detail and asked approximately ten hard questions about it, while I was looking at it upside down, like, “Why did you use sheet metal flashing?” and, “Why didn’t you terminate it in a reglet?” That was the whole interview.
Bob in 1989 around the time he joined Thornton Tomasetti.
What was the firm like then?
It was a lot smaller. The names of all the principals, vice presidents and associates, about 15 in total, fit onto the company letterhead. Things were definitely old-school; drafting was done with plastic lead on Mylar. There was a job captain who coordinated and marked up the drawing sets. When a large set of Mylar was ready to be submitted, it was too heavy for one person to carry. Sometimes it would take three messengers from the blueprinter to carry the set away. The young architects used to stay late in the office every night, except Friday, when we would go get a beer together. It was like that even when there wasn’t a deadline and overtime. There was a real esprit de corps, like at studio in graduate school.
What was the first project you worked on and with whom?
I was hired as a consultant for three months to help with a major renovation/addition of a massive UPS facility at the old Union Motor Truck Terminal near Houston Street in Manhattan. It wasn’t built. When that project was shelved, Abe Gutman called me and another consultant into his office and laid us off. The same day Dan Cuoco decided to hire me as a permanent employee. He was forming the investigations group, which was the precursor to our Forensics and Renewal practices. Fortunately for me, I was a utility player and was as comfortable doing an investigation and writing a report as putting together a set of CDs. One of my early responsibilities was to transform Ted Sherman’s stream-of-consciousness drafts into organized forensic reports.
Bob in 1991 at the construction trailer for General Foods Corporate Headquarters in White Plains, New York, where he was project architect for the façade restoration and roof replacement.
What were the most memorable projects you worked on and why?
One of my early projects was the façade of the Empire State Building. I had to go out on every roof and setback of the entire tower to survey the stone. It was as much of an adventure as something I might do on a weekend, but I was getting paid for it and wasn’t at risk of being arrested for trespassing. A couple of forensic projects that stand out include the East Coldenham Elementary School wall collapse in Orange County, New York, and, most notably, the World Trade Center disaster. That includes some related projects, like the restoration of the World Financial Center, 90 West St., an historic Gothic Revival office building, and 90 Church St., an art deco office building. Those jobs were very intense in late 2001 and early 2002. Before I came to Thornton Tomasetti, I had really been unaware of forensic engineering, but I was thrown into it and had an aptitude for it; no one at the firm did it full time back then. There is something special about being involved in an investigation that concerns matters of public safety or even national significance. That was especially true for the World Trade Center disaster response. There were people from around the country who wanted to come to New York and volunteer to do anything, even to unload supplies or serve food. I felt very fortunate to be in a position to do something, which was basically going around with a hardhat, flashlight and binoculars, assessing façade and roof damage and climbing a lot of stairs. Several of the firm’s leaders, including Richard Tomasetti, Dan Cuoco and Gary Panariello, played outstanding roles in the response. I was proud to be working for Thornton Tomasetti and to be part of the effort of securing and restoring the surrounding buildings.
How has this industry changed since you started?
There is greater recognition of the need for safety in construction and sustainability in society as a whole. In day-to-day practice the biggest difference may be that the role of professional women is much closer to being equal to that of men. Construction sites were quite unwelcoming to women back in the 1980s. Even in small ways, like a contractor making clear at a job meeting that they would tell a funnier joke but they can’t because there is a lady at the table.
Surveying the fire-and-debris-damaged landmark 90 West St. in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 disaster.
What do you think will be the most important trend for our industry moving forward?
Following up on the last answer, I think that a significant trend will be the progress of more women into senior management roles. Aside from being social justice, it can only be good for the industry to double the talent pool.
Do you have any advice for younger staff?
It is important to pursue pro bono service that is meaningful to you. It is good in its own right, and in the long run it becomes part of your identity as a professional. Some people serve on not-for-profit boards, teach or serve on technical or code committees or volunteer for charitable construction or engineering services. Some serve on local planning, zoning or architectural review boards. Writing articles and speaking at conferences are good, too. By the time you have 10 or 15 years of experience, there should be some substance on your resume beyond your job, something other than you take yoga and like hiking. A lot of our young staff are actually engaged in very interesting professional and volunteer activities, but they may not see it as a significant aspect of their career.
— Vakaris Renetskis, Associate Editor
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