What a find: The P.E. Guerin foundry on Jane St.

Sandra “chasing” a bronze piece after its casting. Photo by Colombina Valera/NYC Parks

BY MICHELE HERMAN | I recently tagged along with the Parks Department’s monuments staff and crew on a tour of P.E. Guerin. I’ve passed by the decorative hardware company at 23 Jane St. literally thousands of times, and wanted to find out what really goes on inside the pale yellow building, the one whose big first-floor windows were until recently covered with shades that resembled mattress covers.

The showroom is right off the street, and we were invited to look at the vast collections of made-to-order and stock items. There were door handles, hooks, faucets, towel racks and the like, arranged chronologically by style, right up through Deco and Modernism, which Guerin has been making since those styles were brand new. Almost everything struck me as beautiful, from the simplest cabinet hinges and toilet-paper holders to the stuff from the various Louis eras — bright gold finish, women’s-head motifs — that I usually find hideous.

Unlike the other people on the tour, I knew virtually nothing about what can and cannot be done to metal with heat, molds, tools, chemicals and human hands. But as I admired a case full of brass door handles catching the light with subtle burnishing on their graceful openwork decoration, my eyes told me I had stepped into the Metropolitan Museum of hardware. Even the stock pieces (some of them costing less than $100) are finely proportioned and beautifully finished.

Two thoughts kept crowding out all others: Why is the rest of the manufactured world so ugly, cheap and disposable? And how the heck has Guerin survived?

Martin Grubman, of P.E. Guerin, gave a tour of the foundry. Photo by Jonathan Kuhn/NYC Parks

This is when Martin Grubman, vice president and a 30-year veteran of the firm, swooped in to take us on our tour. Grubman is a born talker with deep knowledge of this place and its secrets. He brought us into the dimly lit pattern room in the back. The walls are completely lined with wooden drawers darkened by generations of finger oils and labeled with words like “oval rosettes,” “sphinx” and “urn.” In the drawers are more than 50,000 metal objects — the patterns. It was easy to pretend the 20th century had never happened, let alone the 21st.

The company was founded in 1857 by Pierre Emmanuel Guerin of Brittany and is currently owned by a fourth-generation Guerin by marriage. The business has been on Jane St. since 1892, in three contiguous buildings.

Running a crammed, vertical factory in Manhattan is no picnic. There are frequent visits by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, there’s no truck dock, the traffic is terrible, and all the other design buildings are Uptown. But Grubman assured me up and down that the company has no intention of moving; the staff, he said, is irreplaceable, and Manhattan is still centrally located for most of them. And besides, he said, the thought of moving the whole operation is overwhelming.

“I think I’d retire,” he said on the prospect of relocating.

The company survives not only by owning its real estate but by offering something for which there’s an enduring demand that virtually no one else in the U.S. can meet: individually cast products finished by hand. Customers have included Tiffany, Packard Motor Car, the Biltmore estate, Gracie Mansion and the White House. In the 1970s, Guerin made the faucets for the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and they’re still going strong; most other hotels have to replace theirs every couple of years.

I learned that there are two ways to cast metal by hand: lost wax and fine sand. Pretty much everyone else uses lost wax, a multistep process involving a wax mold that melts when molten metal is poured in. It’s the only way to produce in bulk without moving to big automated machinery. One drawback is that the final casting is significantly smaller than the original pattern.

Guerin casts in fine sand, some of it from Albany and some from Denmark, a slower process that requires a lot of finishing work, or “chasing,” which is the answer to my other question: how this stuff got to be so beautiful, so full of graceful detail and multiple subtleties.

The company, which has about 60 employees, has nine chasers, four of them women. Grubman spoke admiringly about one of the longtime chasers, Liliana. I asked how many people there are out there in the world who have these skills. He thought a moment, pointed upstairs and said, “Liliana.” Most of the chasers began with entry-level jobs doing metal filing, showed an aptitude for the detail work and were trained by older employees.

Guerin’s current customers include the developers of the tower above Steinway Hall, on W. 57th St.

“They are sparing no expense,” Grubman said. “It’s mind-blowing that they’re using us for all the faucets, doors and cabinet hardware. They’re finishing it like a high-end home.”

Other customers include a lot of multinationals with huge homes that might have hundreds of doors. Sometimes Guerin has to farm out some of the work to other foundries.

“Say we’re casting finials for doors, two pairs per door,” he explained. “I have one pattern. I can make one impression in sand at a time. If we do five molds per day, plus extras, it would take close to an entire year.”

How I had taken my metal fixtures for granted!

“A lot of people buy — it’s a hardware term — s—,” said Grubman. “No one shows them why something is good. They’re spending money on garbage. It’s like buying a strand of pearls. You see the first one and it looks good, and then the salesman shows you the one that’s gem quality and the first one looks like crap.”

The P.E. Guerin foundry is located in three interconnected buildings on Jane St. between Greenwich Ave. and W. Fourth St. Photo by Jonathan Kuhn/NYC Parks

We followed him upstairs to the four floors that house the foundry, the electroplating room and the finishing department. The stairs are tall, shallow and a little scary, the floorboards old and unfinished. The only signs of modernity are the coffeemakers and microwaves tucked into crevices and the one programmable lathe, Guerin’s concession to the 20th century.

On the small, crowded floors artisans were bent over small lathes and power sanders or quietly hand filing or polishing small pieces held by vise grips. A fine coating of metal dust covered everything. This is how rarefied Guerin’s work is: Before employees can do the chasing, they have to make their own chasing tools.

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