Buddhist Torana at Kearny NJ Town Hall

Buddhist Torana at Kearny NJ Town Hall

The addition to the Historic Town Hall in Kearny NJ welcomes you through an entrance portal reminiscent of the Buddhist Torana.  The entrance portal is derived from a stone pediment that existed before the addition was built.

Town Hall, Kearny NJ

The Town Hall was constructed in 1909.  It was designed by Davis, McGrath & Kiessling, architects, a well known firm at that time. This historic structure built with Indiana Limestone exterior has an imposing entrance that fronts Kearny Avenue.  The monumental entrance leads to the main floor which is elevated above the street level.  The main floor has tax collection and other offices.  The second floor has additional administrative offices, which is accessed by an interior stairway.  The lower level has spaces for records, storage, and utilities.  The side entrance at the lower level was used by residents arriving by car from the rear parking area.

Town Hall addition facing the park
The Town Hall addition with the entrance portal

Need for wheelchair accessibility

The Town Hall was not wheelchair accessible.  To comply with accessibility standards, the administration decided to install an ADA compliant elevator inside the townhall.  An RFP was issued to invite architects/engineers to submit proposals for the design.  I attended the pre-proposal meeting with a room full of established architects and engineers. One of those in attendance was a structural engineer from East Orange NJ. As we walked around and discussed our mutual interests, we realized that we would make a great team for this project. We decided to team up and submit a joint proposal. 

Buddhist Toran at Kearny NJ Town Hall
The balcony facing the Town Park.

Thinking outside the box

In order to submit a winning proposal, we needed to think outside the box. What could we do that no one else was thinking about? During and after the pre-proposal meeting, we walked up and down the town hall several times and spent some time studying the exterior as well as the surrounding context.  Inserting an elevator into the existing structure would require breaking through the existing concrete floors. It would require extensive amount of structural work and could potentially weaken the entire structure.  It would also disrupt the functioning of the town hall which had a lot of foot traffic from town residents.  It seemed to be a bad idea to insert an elevator into the existing structure.

The south façade of the town hall faced a small park.  Although it was adjacent to the town hall, it had very little relationship with the town hall.  What if we proposed to build an elevator as an addition to the town hall facing the park?  The addition could provide a balcony where the Mayor can hoist a flag on Independence Day and address the residents gathered in the park.  The elevator lobby separated by a fire wall of the existing town hall’s exterior could serve as an area of rescue assistance. It seemed to be a win win solution.

The risk of losing the commission

Our proposal to build an addition would possibly disqualify us as “non-responsive” because that is not what the RFP asked for.  But it was a risk worth taking.  In our proposal, we highlighted why inserting an elevator into the existing structure would not be a professionally sound approach. We offered an alternate approach to win their approval.  We offered sketches to show how the proposed addition would meet their needs, will be cost effective, will not be disruptive to their ongoing operations and will provide stronger connections the town hall park. 

Buddhist Torana at Sanchi Stupa, India 300 BC
Buddhist Torana at Sanchi Stupa, India 300 BC. Photo by Swapnil.KarambelkarCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Entrance portal retains the memory of the side entrance.
Entrance portal retains the memory of the side entrance pediment.

Buddhist torana as an entrance portal

We won the commission and proceeded to the design the project.  The addition would require minor demolition of the limestone entrance pediment at the side entrance and upper windowsills.  We saw this as an opportunity to save the limestone pediment and reuse it as an entrance portal to mark the accessible entrance to the town hall.  It would retain the memory of side entrance pediment for the benefit of all users. It was also a page from the Buddhist architecture in India, where an entrance was marked by a torana as a symbolic passage to the Stupa.  Although the inspiration came from the Buddhist Torana, it was adopted to the urban context so admirably that no one suspected its architectural origin.    

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