Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks

In our latest NYC Makers profile, we interview Elyse Marks, a restoration architect who is a Studio Head at CANY Architecture + Engineering, DPC in New York City, a firm specializes in the restoration and rehabilitation of exterior building enclosures. The graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP)  has worked on the Flatiron Building, 40 Wall Street, 20 Exchange Place, and many more. Unique among architects and preservationists however, Marks is also a SPRAT-certified Level I rope access technician. Her Instagram account is filled with gravity-defying photographs of Marks rappelling down some of New York City’s most notable buildings performing inspections that support her work in architectural restoration and the preservation of historic structures. She tells us that through the rope access, she is “able to gain access to all areas of a building to perform close-up inspections, with the purpose of identifying and evaluating deteriorated components of the building façade. From there, I can develop a repair scope to address the deficient building conditions before they become hazardous.”

Untapped Cities: What projects are you working on right now?

Marks: I am currently working on several restoration projects, all of which are in different stages of completion. One project that we’re close to completing is a full facade restoration of 712 Fifth Avenue (also known as the Coty Building), which was Henri Bendel’s flagship store up until the beginning of this year, when they closed their doors permanently. The building itself is an individual New York City Landmark, due to the large-scale art glass windows designed by French jewelry and glass designer René Lalique. The windows are set into a three-story cast iron storefront assembly with interior mezzanine levels that serve as a privately owner public space, where people can traverse the different levels to view the art glass windows. I love that my job allows me the opportunity to participate in some small way to furthering the life of a historically significant building and transitioning it into the next chapter of its life, so that it may continue to be appreciated by future generations.

Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks

Untapped Cities: Which projects from the past are you most proud of?

Marks: The first historic building that I ever worked on was 20 Exchange Place, which is a 57-story Art Deco building in the Financial District. This building is also an individual New York City landmark, formerly known as the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, built in 1930-31. One of my proudest moments was when we finally finished the work because it was the first full facade restoration campaign where I was involved in every step of the process from initial investigation through closeout. This didn’t happen until three years into my career, as the project had a considerable repair scope, and the building is very large with multiple setbacks. Being able to witness and have a hand in bringing such a beautiful historic building back to its former glory was a revelatory experience for me – it really confirmed that I had chosen the right career path and that I could see myself doing this kind of work for a long time.

Atop 1335 Sixth Avenue. Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks.

Untapped Cities: What is it like to be not only a female in the field of architecture but one that is certified as a rope technician? This must make you quite unique in the field!

I love that my / our generation is leading the charge on to create a more balanced work environment (in terms of gender) in the fields of architecture and engineering. I interact with a lot of Baby Boomers and Generation X colleagues (mostly male) in my day-to-day work life, and many have told me that never in their professional careers have they worked so with many women. This includes architects and engineers, but also female construction workers, contractors, building managers, property managers, etc. I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished in my professional life and that we are slowly entering a world where I am less of an anomaly in the field. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long to get to this point but I truly feel that we are paving the way for the women and girls of Generation Z (my little sister included!) so that when they begin entering the workforce in the very near future, nobody will be surprised when they decide to become architects and hang off the side of buildings all day, haha.

Untapped Cities: What projects in the city are exciting to you right now?

Marks: I’ve been interested in all the historic theater restorations / renovations that are being proposed in the Times Square Theater District lately. There’s a huge renovation and expansion plan for the Palace Theatre in the works by PBDW Architects, and the plan is to raise the historic theater 30′ to create a retail space underneath, while still maintaining the historic interior of the theater completely intact with all original features. I am definitely looking forward to following the progress of that project, because I love when architects come up with innovative ideas to maintain historic fabric while allowing for natural expansion over time to keep up with the evolution of surrounding area. Beyer Blinder Belle is also working on a restoration and renovation plan for the Times Square Theater, which I was excited to hear about because it’s been vacant for years and I can’t wait to go see a show in it once it’s completed.

Atop 200 E. 69th Street. Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks.

Untapped Cities: What’s your favorite “untapped” spot in the city?

Marks: Currently, my favorite “untapped” spot in New York is Van Cortlandt Park. I had never visited this park until I moved to Westchester at the end of last year, after living (and running) in Brooklyn for close to 7 years. I was missing the peace and tranquility of Prospect Park and desperately seeking an alternative in my new neighborhood, when I discovered that Van Cortlandt Park was only 6 miles away from my new home! It quickly became a refuge for me.

I love running along the wooded paths and nature trails, especially after a stressful day in the city. When I’m running along the John Muir or Old Putnam Trail, it’s so easy to forget that I’m just a few miles outside of New York City. Fun fact! My favorite hidden gem in this park are these small stone pillars tucked away along one of the nature trails in the park, which were actually constructed in the early 1900’s to test the durability of several different types of stones in order to determine which type would be best for the construction of Grand Central Terminal (spoiler alert – Indiana Limestone won). They have been recently restored and are such an interesting little testament to the history of New York City.

Untapped Cities: What places are on your NYC bucket list?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that after 10 years of living here, I’ve still never been to see the Statue of Liberty, or Ellis Island! In particular, I really want to go on the hard-hat tour of Ellis Island Hospital.

Untapped Cities: You can join us on an upcoming hard hat tour of the abandoned hospitals on Ellis Island, which we run every Saturday and Sunday! Next, what makes New York City great to you?

Marks: Coming from a small city in South Louisiana, I have to say that the cultural and economic diversity of the people of this city continues to fascinate me every single day. As a Cajun girl born and raised in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country, I take great pride in the unique culture of my home but I must admit, it is still a small town with not a broad range of exposure to different cultures or people on a day-to-day basis. Moving here was such an eye-opening experience for me, because New York City is the absolute embodiment of the idea that people from all walks of life can come together and make enriching contributions to the fabric of a city. It is simultaneously chaotic and beautiful, and it never gets old.

Flatiron Building. Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks.

Untapped Cities: What would you change about New York City?

Marks: One aspect of New York City that I believe could be greatly improved is our local government’s plan of action to deal with the growing divide in income equality, and the ways in which policies can be improved to make sure that those citizens who struggle monetarily aren’t continually beaten down by lack of access to fair and affordable housing, public transportation, and public education. While I do believe that our current government cares about these issues and tries to enact legislation that will assist those in need, I also think there is so much more we (both the city and its residents) could do to make living and working in this city a more attainable dream for everyone — not just the rich and well-connected

Untapped Cities: What book are you reading at the moment?

Marks: I’m constantly starting books, stopping them, and then picking them up again months later, while simultaneously reading other books in between — as a result, I’m usually reading 2-3 books at any one time. Currently on deck is The Lord of the Rings (for probably the 10th time), Song of Solomon (it’s been on my list forever, but after hearing of Toni Morrison’s passing recently, I finally moved it up in the queue), and The Green Mile (I am a huge Stephen King fan and I’ve been slowly making my way through his entire oeuvre).

1335 Sixth Avenue. Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks.

Untapped Cities: What advice would you give people starting their careers today?

Marks: It’s easy to assume when you are graduating from architecture school that there is this specific path that you’re supposed to follow – you join a firm where they force you to do nothing but draft for three or four years, and then you have to slowly (and sometimes painfully) work your way up the ladder. Early in my career, I was sometimes told that my expectations were too high. I wouldn’t be happy in my job or satisfied with the type of projects I was working on, and people would say, “Well, welcome to the architecture profession.” This response always makes me cringe because I truly feel that it doesn’t have to be that way, but there has to be a movement by the younger generation to reject this mindset. I get that some people will stay in positions that are not rewarding even if it makes them miserable because they feel like they need to “pay their dues,” and yes, you do have to pay your dues, but you do not have to be miserable. Pay your dues doing something that you like, that challenges you and forces you out of your comfort zone. I would encourage someone who is just starting out to explore all the different facets of our industry, and to not be afraid to create the kind of exposure you need for yourself if you are not getting it.

475 Main Street on Roosevelt Island. Photograph courtesy Elyse Marks.

Untapped Cities: Tell us one surprising thing about yourself?

Marks: I’m actually kind of afraid of heights! The fear is definitely not as bad as it used to be when I first started working on façades, and it did take a while to become comfortable with encountering heights as an everyday aspect of my job. My first experience on a suspended scaffold was very memorable — I was an intern just starting out in my first job and I was asked to fill in last minute and perform a facade inspection drop for a co-worker who had called in sick. I had the proper suspended scaffold certification so in theory, I knew what to do, but I had never actually gotten on a scaffold before. I didn’t want to admit to my boss that I was scared — so I just sucked it up and went for it! I remember being terrified the whole time, but at the same time I found it to be an exhilarating experience. I’ve always been an adventurous person and I loved the idea that this part of the job is very specific to our industry. Over the years, it has actually become one of my favorite parts of the job, because it means I get to see the city from a very unique perspective that not many people get to experience.

After working mostly on suspended and pipe scaffolding for 5 or so years, I was ready to take the next step — getting rope access certified. This is absolutely one of my favorite things to do now as part of my job. I always get a rush of fear and excitement every time I go over the parapet of a new building — it is an incredible experience, and I guess now I’ve become a bit of an adrenaline junkie. The first time I got on rope, I was terrified; however, I just had to learn to trust my training, follow all the steps of checking and re-checking my equipment, and lastly — most importantly — I had to learn to really trust my equipment! The harness and ropes are rated to hold thousands of pounds of concentrated load, so that’s a very comforting thought. Sometimes if I’m doing a really tall building (my tallest is 100 stories!), it can get a bit overwhelming, so I’ve had to learn to zone everything else out and focus on my work.

Check out our NYC Makers column for other profiles on the city’s movers and shakers! 

One thought on “NYC Makers: Meet the Female Architect who Rappels Off NYC’s Most Famous Buildings

  1. Hi, thanks for the mention about the Palace Theatre! Just a small correction. It is PBDW Architects, not BPDW. You can visit the website at pbdw.com

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