Romanian-born Experts Restore Unusual Heights Coop Façade

FINE TOUCHES: Restorer Lucia Popian gives clearer definition to the sgraffito ornamentation on 179 Columbia Heights, with a refinished ‘devil’ in the foreground. Taking advantage of the good weather, she and her husband Gabriel Popian worked through the holiday weekend to speed the completion of work on 177-179 Columbia Heights, whose unusual decorations had faded and been partially lost. Photo by Henrik Krogius.

Gabriel and Lucia Popian, born in Romania and trained in the conservation and restoration of murals and reliefs, as well as sculpture, have been working seven days a week lately to restore and recreate the rare sgraffito ornamentation on the 5-story, 27-unit cooperative building at 177-179 Columbia Heights. Sgraffito involves cutting away part of a surface layer to reveal a different-color ground.

Back on July 10 wooden beams and boards were helping support and protect ground-floor elements of 177-179 Columbia Heights, and the ornamentation at far right had largely vanished.

The project was more than five years in its gestation while the building sought financing. Dr. Peter SanFilippo, president of the building’s board, said they finally remortgaged the building to raise the more than $300,000 it has cost for the highly ornamented first two stories, without raising maintenance or calling for special assessments. But, he said, “We’re maxed out,” and he has been unable to get any foundation grants to complete the job with replacement of the upper stories’ sandstone façade.

Dr. SanFilippo had the highest praise for his restorers. He called Gabriel Popian “a good human being who stuck with us, without raising his prices.” Lucia Popian, for her part, won two fellowships to Rome, one while living in Australia. The couple is now based in Yonkers, New York.

When last observed, Gabriel Popian was preparing to recreate two horses above the central downstairs window, based on a photograph of what they looked like originally. Dr. SanFilippo said he believes the two-part building dates from the 1880s, though he lacks documentary proof.

— Henrik Krogius

By last week the numerals above the door of 179 had been restored, as had the panel at far right. Gabriel Popian was working on the second story overhang, while his wife Lucia mixed white mortar to be applied to some lighter design elements. Photos by Henrik Krogius.

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