Refurbishing NYC’s Historic JJ Hat Center

A few months ago I was commissioned to restore a storefront over on 5th and 32nd st, JJ Hat Center. They’re long time clients, partners of the good folks over at Pork Pie Hatters. I’ve done a lot of work for them over the years, building their website, designing custom hat blocks, making marketing materials, and creating the branding for their series of handmade hats. This was a whole other level of project, though.

To start, the building used to be an IBM adding machine factory and showroom. When JJ’s took it over, they installed a lovely wood exterior. So, on the plus side, there is a lot of old NYC richness both inside and out. On the downside, the wood exterior had fallen apart in the intervening years. Part of my job was to see through the decades of wear and tear and come up with a plan for refurbishing everything to resemble the original without spending thousands on custom parts. Fortunately my friend Clark put me in touch with a few very talented carpenters. So, with some meetings and design drawings, they were rolling on building the elements for the exterior.

There were a handful of brass details, plaques with the names of the brands JJ’s carries and the letters on the exterior, that had to be restored. This was pretty straightforward. It was just a matter of stripping the thirty plus years of verdigris off, polishing them up, and giving them a coating of polish. The plaques got a faux engine turning treatment and a hot beeswax sealing coat. The exterior letters got some shiny black lacquer on the edges and a topcoat of urethane.

Next came the interior. I stripped out the old carpet and edging and painted the plywood floor. At some point it’s going to get solid oak floorboards, but for now the paint will do. I designed a series of stylized deco flat-pack buildings CNC routed out of maple plywood to match the classic image and old world detailing of the shop. All of the routing was done by Breakfast Woodworks. The three buildings roughly represent the Flat Iron Building, the Empire State Building, and the Chrystler Building. Each building features v-carved details and tricolor LED strips highlighting the forced perspective layers on the different buildings. The tall, slim Empire State building features a lit translucent jazz screen as well.

The buildings were designed in SolidWorks to slot together like IKEA furniture and align with little dowels. This meant that the construction was super straightforward. All it involved was lining up the parts with pins, gluing, clamping, and finishing with a few coats of urethane. Each building had a custom backstop installed to hold a sandbag so they could stand straight up without risking toppling over. They’re lit by simple inexpensive LED strips. There are two control boxes for the entire display allowing the folks at JJ’s to create custom color schemes depending on the season.

I also built a series of hat stands made out of a combination of CNC wood pieces and hand turned rods. These were also mocked up in CAD to fit proportionally and aesthetically with the wood buildings. A bit of sanding, glueing, and urethane turned these from a pile of parts into some swanky looking hat stands in a few hours.

Below you can see the final product in all its hand hewn glory – JJ Hat Center’s restored exterior with oak paneling and shiny brass letters. Inside you can see the window display complete with lit buildings, hats and stands. There’s also a set of photos up on Flickr detailing more of the process behind the restoration as well as JJ’s spectacular Christmas display.