The Surrogate’s Court Rotunda, Restored

A panoramic image created from 49 separate exposures shows the beautiful rotunda of 31 Chambers Street after repairs

In the winter, a shaft of daylight finds its way in.  Pouring in through the large windows, it bounces off the freshly-waxed floor in the vestibule, through the arches of the colonnade, and from there into the rotunda, lighting the northern gallery like a second sun.  It illuminates the area where the water came in, as if it wants visitors to see the marks that time has left on the building.  In the late summer, it will come in straight from above in the afternoon, lighting the northwest corner.  I should know—I’ve been watching it for years.

For the last few years, no one saw this.  In fact, no one really saw the Hall of Records’ grand rotunda at all.  The beautiful chamber was full of scaffolding and plywood walls put up by the construction crew doing much-needed repairs.

The rotunda was designed by architect John Rochester Thomas to be the centerpiece of his building.  Later architects Arthur Horgan and Vincent Slattery would defend this design.  Thomas wanted the building to reflect the importance and the prominence of New York City.  Above all, he wanted to help establish New York as an international cultural center, and he had no intention of sparing any expense in pursuit of that goal.  For the floors, the architects chose pink marble from Tennessee and blue marble from Belgium, laid out in geometric patterns.  For the walls and columns, they chose rich Siena marble, imported from Tuscany, with blood red marble rondels (probably from Asia) and elaborate carvings—garlands of fruit and foliage.  Thomas designed a grand staircase, also in Siena marble, rising from two points at the western end of the rotunda, joining at an arched landing into one flight of steps and leading up to the second-floor gallery.  As a crown on this grand hall, he called for a huge skylight—hundreds of glass panels set in a barrel vault of cast bronze.  This central chamber was the grandest, most expensive, and most controversial part of the building when it was designed.

While other elements of the rotunda were imported, the skylight was local.  It was cast by Jno. Williams in Chelsea, in a factory building that became a photo studio for Annie Liebovitz in the 1990s.  The workmanship is exquisite and robust, with a second skylight forming a protective shed over the barrel vault.  The skylight lasted for more than a hundred years, but by the 1990s it had started to leak.  Water ran down from the skylight slowly damaging some of the plaster ceilings on the second floor and building maintenance people covered the skylight with a large tarp.  This unfortunately made the chamber darker, and gave the overhead light a strange blue cast.  The city delayed repairs, as the building was in constant use.

In 2016, this changed. I walked out from my office one day and saw several of the building staff standing in the rotunda, gesturing and talking hurriedly. A small area on the floor was cordoned off. Then I saw it—a pile of glass shards. Craning my neck, I could see where it had fallen from the skylight, probably forty or fifty feet above. Fortunately, the rotunda was empty when it fell.

The skylight before repairs.

Within a week, the hall looked completely different.  Construction crews built scaffolding up from the floor, rising to the glass arch like a strange ziggurat.  On the third floor, the crews went in through the porthole windows to get to the skylight from above.  Those of us working in the building became accustomed to the white plywood walls and the tunnel we had to walk through going up the stairs.  I kept leading tours at this time, always apologizing to the groups because they couldn’t see the skylight or the grand staircase.  Over time, even I forgot how it truly looked. 

Rotunda during repairs

Then, late this year, the project was finished.  The forest of poles supporting the scaffolding was taken down.  Within two or three days, the construction crews had completely cleared the rotunda, and building services had waxed the marble floors.  I walked across the huge hall and found myself standing in a pool of warm sunlight.  I’d forgotten how grand the space actually is.  In fact, I’d never seen it quite like this before.  The tarp was gone, so more light came down from above.  The faux-marble fresco beneath the vault had been repainted.  The whole space looked the way I imagine John Thomas intended it—a beautiful open space concealed in a Beaux-Arts fortress, a sort of inner sanctum in his final building.

Rotunda after repairs, December 2018