Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Flowing Arcs

The Memorial Library and Art Collection of World War II in New York City features a spectacular new hardwood mosaic floor in its lobby.

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The large elliptical mosaic in the lobby of the Memorial Library and Art Collection of World War II in New York City was fabricated by Thomas D. Osborn using only two types of wood – quarter-sawn white oak and cabreuva. It measures 15 ft., 6 ins. by 9 ft., 4 ins. Photo: courtesy of Thomas D. Osborn Mosaic Hardwood Floors

By Nicole V. Gagné

The year 2001 marked the passing, at the age of 90, of the writer Olga Lengyel. In 1944, then a citizen of Hungary, Lengyel was sent by the Nazis to the Auschwitz concentration camp, along with her parents, husband and two young sons, although none of them was Jewish. She alone survived. After the war, she came to the United States and wrote her acclaimed memoir "Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz," published in 1947. (Lengyel and her account would later inspire William Styron’s novel "Sophie’s Choice.")

Lengyel’s commitment to honoring the victims of the Holocaust continued throughout her long life, and in the early 1990s, with assets recovered from Europe after World War II, she purchased the landmark early 20th-century townhouse at 58 East 79th St. on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and donated it to the Memorial Library and Art Collection of World War II. As the founder of the library, she secured its tax-exempt charitable status as “an educational and charitable organization dedicated to the memory of those martyrs of World War II,” explains David Field, vice president of the library. The library and its gallery preserve images and memorabilia from World War II as part of its declared mission “to educate all children in the causes and effects of the Holocaust and World War II, thereby encouraging harmony, tolerance and understanding of our differences so that the tragedies of the past shall be neither forgotten nor repeated.”

According to Field, after Lengyel’s death, he and the other members of the board of directors (whom Lengyel had designated), “decided to use the income from the library to promote studies on the Holocaust and sponsor organizations that teach teachers how to teach about the Holocaust and the lessons of tolerance. So we had to renovate the second floor where the library is located, to have facilities available for small seminars, groups and cocktail parties and to enable organizations simpatico to our policies to use our facilities to promote charitable interests.”

To tackle the challenge of converting one floor of the stately townhouse into a 21st-century library and gallery, the library’s board of directors turned to Arcari & Iovino Architects, P.C., of Little Ferry, NJ. “We liked Edward Arcari’s vision for the library,” Field says. “ We wanted something dramatic for the entranceway, we discussed it with him and he came up with that design idea. So far everything seems to be working out nicely.”

Edward Arcari, AIA, PP, the firm’s co-founder, has handled the brunt of this undertaking since 2004. “It’s an ongoing project, almost complete,” Arcari pointed out recently. “The townhouse was still set up as a residence, and we had to completely gut the floor. We had to meet with the board once a month, and it took a lot of design and planning time.”

Strama & Brothers Construction, LLC, of Garfield, NJ, was hired as the general contractor for the project, playing a crucial role in one of the most remarkable aspects of this renovation – a dazzling floor mosaic located in the library’s lobby space, just off the main stair. Although no one from Strama & Brothers was directly involved in the mosaic’s design and construction, the firm played matchmaker between Arcari and the artisans best capable of realizing his vision. “The floor mosaic was designed here in my office by myself and whoever else was working on the project at the time,” Arcari recalls. “At first, we actually considered doing it in stone, in a granite or a marble. But the space began to develop, and there was a lot of wood in there, so we decided to change the mosaic over to wood – also for weight reasons and other complications that deal with setting granite or marble. And Strama found Thomas Osborn and brought the two of us together.”

Each section of the mosaic was made of multiple pieces of 3-in.-wide flooring, and each was laid down like flooring, using adhesive and then nailed in place. Because ¾-in. wood was used for the project, it will require very little maintenance.

Since 1988, Thomas D. Osborn Mosaic Hardwood Floors of Holyoke, MA, has specialized in the custom design, fabrication and installation of commissioned parquet and inlaid hardwood floors. Tom Osborn and Frances Welson are the firm’s co-owners and co-founders. “It was Stanley Strama, the general contractor, who contacted us first,” Osborn says. “They just found us on the Web.” After this initial approach in November of 2006, Osborn was able to visit the site the following month, and then the work on the floor mosaic began in earnest.

“The architects gave us a design, and then we back-and-forthed with it a few times,” says Osborn. “We pointed out some problems in terms of the design working in a floor, but it was still their design.” “We work in a number of different ways,” Welson adds. “Sometimes it’s a situation like this, where clients come to us with a very clear idea of what they want, and we just make some suggestions – ‘If you modify it this way, it will give you something stronger or look better’ – and help them select the woods. The other extreme is when people come to us and say, ‘We want to do something special. but we don’t know what,’ and we work with them to come up with something that works aesthetically and architecturally, and serves to enhance the space.”

“The biggest issue was choice of woods,” Osborn insists. “There was a plethora of woods to pick from, and the architects started off wanting five or seven different types; but we convinced them that would be a little bit too much, visually, and so they went with quarter-sawn white oak and a wood called cabreuva – just the two types. What’s nice about this floor is its flow; even though the mosaic design is all arcs and parts of ellipses, there’s a nice flow to it. But if you start bringing too many visual elements into it, that flow will start to get lost. So they went with just these two types of wood, and the colors are an off-white, which is the white oak, and a reddish color, which is the cabreuva. Some people mistake it for mahogany.”

Those elaborate flowing ellipses make for a magnificent design, but the actual creation of the mosaic’s wooden pieces proved to be a massive task. “It’s a very large ellipse, and, mathematically, an ellipse is a very complex shape,” Welson relates. “So the cutting of the ellipse presented some challenges of its own.” To obtain the precise length and curve required by the design, Osborn had to create a very challenging jigsaw puzzle for himself. “Because of the way the arcs flowed," he explains, "there were all these little junctions, and the pieces had to meet at each one of those junctions very, very precisely. So the technical challenges of installing this were – well, most of my stuff is different, but this was really something else! And we do it all ourselves.”

Careful measuring and planning were required to fabricate the floor mosaic. The wood braces shown here are part of an elliptical jig cutter that Osborn built for cutting the elliptical shapes.

When asked how many pieces were used all together for the mosaic, both Osborn and Welson succumbed to gales of laughter. After he was able to catch his breath, Osborn could only say, “Many, many, many, many! I don’t remember the exact number, and I don’t want to count because I don’t want to know how much time I spent on it!”

The complex installation of this floor mosaic also defied some of the firm’s standard methods. “Ordinarily, we tongue-and-groove as much as we can,” Welson points out, “but in some situations, such as this one, we just can’t, and so we combine other techniques.”

“There was some tongue-and-groove but not a lot,” Osborn continues. “Each section is composed of multiple pieces of 3-in.-wide flooring, and each section was laid down like flooring, using a wood adhesive underneath and then nailed. Almost all of the curved edges were grooved, splined and glued with wood glue.”

Despite the high-traffic location for the mosaic, no special treatment was deemed necessary to protect the wood. “It’s 3/4 of an inch of wood,” Osborn explains, “so it’s going to be kind of hard to permanently damage it. Depending on how much traffic they’ll get, every few years they will have somebody come in and do a little maintenance on it. I believe it’s going to have a polyurethane finish on it, and when that starts to get a little bit fogged up, they then will go over it with a light abrasive pad and buff it and then put another coat of polyurethane on it. So it never really wears through to the wood.”

The Memorial Library and Art Collection of World War II is putting out a call to anyone who could donate photographs, diaries, and letters written by military personnel during the war that describe their experiences relating to any and all aspects of World War II. Interested parties can contact www.thememoriallibrary.org.

Click here for a list of suppliers of hardwood strip flooring

Click here for a list of suppliers of parquet flooring

Click here for a list of suppliers of wide-plank flooring