National News

Cracked Stone and Brick at Columbia Dorm Stir Memories of 1979 Death

Posted June 4, 2018 7:34 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Lori E. Gold’s sister was killed on a spring day in 1979 when a chunk of masonry fell from a poorly maintained facade of a Columbia University building; the teenager’s death spurred the city to enact rules for the upkeep of buildings. Today, New York’s ever-present sidewalk scaffolding is her most visible legacy.

So nearly four decades later, Gold said she was angered to learn that an edifice owned by the same institution has a facade so decrepit that city inspectors have issued several violations for the risk it posed to the public — including one from nearly a year ago.

“My sister’s death at 17 years old, with a whole life ahead of her, shouldn’t be in vain. It should mean something,” said Gold about her sister, Grace Gold, who was a freshman at Barnard College.

In May, scaffolding was erected outside Columbia University’s McBain residence hall, at 562 W. 113th St., where window keystones sit damaged, the terra-cotta facade is cracking and a safety violation remains outstanding, building records show.

“It makes me angry,” Gold said of Columbia’s apparent failure to comply with the laws inspired by her sister’s death.

Much about the city’s building-safety rules have changed since that May day when Grace Gold was killed by a 1-by-2 foot chunk of concrete lintel that came crashing down from 601 W. 115th St., a university building. In response, the city in 1980 adopted Local Law 10, which codified the regular inspection of facades. The inspection process was enhanced and made more rigorous in 1998 with Local Law 11, the Facade Inspection and Safety Program.

The city issued nearly 5,500 facade-related violations between 2010 and 2016, according to a report compiled in 2017 by the Department of Buildings. The department has a limited arsenal of tools to prod owners into action, including fines, ordering scaffolds, and, in extreme cases, sending in a city contractor to do the repairs at the owner’s expense.

The 10-story Columbia building on 113th Street, built in 1908, houses undergraduate students. In July 2017, it was cited by the city’s building department for “failure to take and provide safety measures to protect public from unsafe conditions,” according to the violation report. A second similar violation was served the following month after further inspection. Columbia paid the $3,400 fine but did not, records show, take steps to fix the problems. In May, it was cited again for unsafe conditions, and the buildings department issued an emergency order requiring the school to erect scaffolding, or a sidewalk shed, to protect people below.

Still, there is no official record that the university has taken steps to fix McBain’s exterior problems, such as filing for the necessary permit for the mandatory facade repair work, according to the department.

“Owners have a legal and moral responsibility to maintain building facades to protect the public,” said Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the department. “For safety reasons, we’ve ordered the property owner to install a sidewalk shed until they complete the required repairs.”

Building inspections are done on a set schedule, or cycle, citywide. The problem with McBain hall, according to the university, arose when an architect the university hired to inspect the building in 2014 determined that there was no immediate need for repairs. He submitted that determination to the city, but the school said it never heard back. The university said that it was not until May that it learned the city did not agree with the architect’s determination, and school officials said Columbia immediately erected the sidewalk sheds.

“Ensuring that the university’s buildings are maintained so that they pose no danger to inhabitants or passers-by is of the very highest priority for us,” Caroline Adelman, a spokeswoman for the university, said in an email.

But according to the buildings department, the story is far different: Columbia failed to certify that the facade was made safe after it completed a repair job in 2014, according to department records. When inspectors returned in May, they found cracks in the terra-cotta, stone and brick.

Rudansky said that the school was ordered to put up the current scaffold after an inspector deemed the facade’s condition dangerous.

“Buildings need to be maintained, just like a car,” said Carolyn Caste, the director of facade compliance at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects. “If you don’t change your oil or rotate your tires on a car, things start to deteriorate at a fairly rapid pace.” But even in a city seemingly packed with sidewalk sheds — there are more than 8,000 scaffolds erected across the five boroughs, according to the city’s online map — violators are not the norm, according to Sharon Lobo, the president of Indus Architect, which specializes in exterior repair and renovation. “I find that owners are very attentive to this because they don’t want to have this kind of bad publicity,” Lobo said.

Leaning against the scaffolding that for about two weeks has ensconced McBain, Armando Gonzalez said he was distressed to learn the condition of the building where he spends each workday, and where he takes breaks under its eaves. “That’s scary,” said Gonzalez, 40, who works at a cafe on the ground floor.

Columbia “should absolutely do something to keep everybody safe,” he added. “They have kids walking by every day going to school.”