amNY's Endangered NYC special report: The city's crumbling past
New Yorkers have watched their city slowly transition from bad-mouthed urban blight to a center of starchitecture. Many historic structures have ridden this renaissance, finding imaginative new uses: the transformation of the High Line into a park, for instance—something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
But all too often, historic buildings, often protected by the city, face quiet neglect — some by owners strapped for cash or by their personal circumstances, and others abandoned by institutions or city authorities that can find no use for an otherwise robust building.
“Watching buildings fall apart is an incredibly damaging thing to a community,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “Architecture is an act of hope. Letting buildings deteriorate is an abandonment of that and an abandonment of a community.”
It’s also the loss of a symbolic ethic. Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy, cites two 19th-century public schools—one vacated and the other facing demolition—as examples of buildings that not only anchored their communities, but bolstered a multi-generational civic pride.
“These are beautiful pieces of architecture that were created to tell students that they are important and education is important and to say to them ‘we will bring you along and uplift you,’ ” she said. “I’m not saying adaptive reuse is always easy ... but it takes a constant understanding that these buildings are important and there should be a constant marketing effort for [them].”
John Weiss, deputy counsel at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, says, “We’d like to see buildings occupied and functional. But we can’t ensure they are when they’re beyond our jurisdiction. They can be empty and not be in disrepair.”
The commission, he said, usually doesn’t have power to override authorities such as the Department of Education or the School Construction Authority.
“If it’s vacant and not in use, we don’t have a say unless it’s a landmark building in serious disrepair,” he said.
In its fourth annual survey of endangered buildings, amNewYork examines buildings in desperate need of attention.
P.S. 31, 425 Grand Concourse, Bronx (1899, C.B.J. Snyder)
The “castle on the Concourse,” one of Snyder’s first Collegiate Gothic public schools in New York, set the mold for his other, better-known schools. Designated a city landmark in 1986, and emptied by the School Construction Authority in 1997 for structural repair, the building remains vacant.
This summer, the City Council approved demo plans for P.S. 133, a Snyder school at 375 Butler St. in Park Slope, making way for a larger school. The school is also the site of a 30-year-old community garden. Said Bankoff: “It’s really a profound loss and shows a real failure of imagination from the construction authority. They can sometimes do very good work but every now and then again they don’t.”
In Flatbush, the former P.S. 90, a post-Civil War school, has been abandoned for 20 years at 2286 Church Ave. The early Romanesque Revival building was a public school until the 1950s. The school was landmarked in 2007. Plans to reopen it as an office and business training center haven’t gelled. It’s eligible for the state and national registers.
BUILDINGS OF COMMERCE
Coignet Stone Building, 360 Third Ave. (1873, William Field and Son)
Landmarked by the city in 1986, the elegant Italianate building—one of the first concrete buildings in the U.S.—sits on a site slated for a Whole Foods store near the Gowanus Canal. The discovery of underground toxins suspended development for two years, leaving the privately owned building in limbo. Its owner hopes the dispute will be resolved upon filing new plans with the landmarks commission.
No plans are in place to save the Empire Stores, a badly deteriorated assemblage of Civil War-era warehouses overlooking the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park (53-83 Water St.). A 2004 request for proposals yielded no developer willing to take on the large scale of restoration. Without funding and imagination, this surviving example of port commerce will disappear.
BUILDINGS OF MYSTERY
Northern Dispensary, 165 Waverly Place (1831, Henry Bayard, John C. Tucker)
Until 1989, the handsome triangular building in the Greenwich Village Historic District was used as a public health clinic —Edgar Allan Poe famously receiving free treatment here for a head cold. It eventually landed with William Gottlieb, a reclusive real estate investor known for acquiring and abandoning prime properties. He died a year later and the building remains in his estate—untouched and impenetrable.
Said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation: “It would be a tragedy of enormous proportions if that building were lost. It encapsulates in so many ways what makes the historic Village special—it was all the quirks and uniqueness that distinguish the Village and to see it lying fallow for so long is disheartening.”
Formerly a pub, the now derelict brownstone at 187 Seventh Ave. is a blemish on Victorian Park Slope and a mystery to neighbors concerned about its disrepair. Obscured by boarded-up windows and a sidewalk shed, violations from the Department of Buildings include failure to maintain building. With sites likes these, Weiss says it’s often a tale of a life gone astray: “someone elderly or ill—has some tragic event happen in their life and has let the building go.”
“Historic theaters have been enormously popular throughout the country as a preservation issue,” Breen said. “Part of it is community memory but part of it is the beautiful and unusual architecture.” Three such neglected theaters await a second act.Loew’s Kings Theater, 1025-1035 Flatbush Ave., (1929, Rapp & Rapp)
Barbra Streisand may have once worked the doors here, but since 1979, they’ve been closed while the ornate interior deteriorates. The cost of restoration—once estimated at $70 million—and its location on a downtrodden section of Flatbush Avenue presents challenges. The city is reviewing proposals.
In jeopardy: the work of flamboyant theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. The 1917 Victoria Theater (233 W. 125th St.), once hailed as “one of the largest and most beautiful theaters in greater New York,” has been abandoned since its closure in 1989. Local residents seek funds to purchase and restore it for community purposes.
In Flushing, locals have long campaigned for greater protections for Lamb’s RKO Keith’s Theater (135-27 Northern Blvd.). Parts of the interior received landmark status in 1984, but preservationists fear a proposed city-approved mixed-use development would replace most of what’s left of the Mexican Baroque theater.
Tin Pan Alley, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 W. 28th St.
You wouldn’t tear down the homes of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, but their 19th-century publishing houses are under threat. The “alley” was the backdrop for song pluggers—pianists and singers paid to perform streetside and promote the sheet music published there. Now, the crumbling block, which produced “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “God Bless America,” needs another tune like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the 1930 hit from this street.
In Dumbo, developers must resolve the issues thwarting the restoration of the Greek Revival houses at 7, 9, and 11-15 Old Fulton St., or face a neglect lawsuit. The city-approved rehabilitation work was interrupted in April and has not resumed. Weiss says LPC issued a Chair’s Order, the first step toward legal action requiring owners to execute required repairs for these “very important buildings.”
Neo-Renaissance rowhouses in the Cord Meyer section of Forest Hills are being chipped away: Only five of the original 10 at 108-15 and 108-17 72nd Ave. remain. They’ve been snubbed by the landmarks commission, claim preservationists, who say the houses predate the historic Forest Hills Gardens by three years. “Preserving this would mean preserving the foundation of Forest Hills, says Michael Perlman, chairman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council.
110-120 E. 76th St. (1885, Augustus Hatfield)
Six Neo-Grec brownstones on Lenox Hill have been purchased over the years by the nearby hospital for conversion into a sports medicine center. Although the proposal was approved by the landmarks commission, it was never executed, and the buildings are largely vacant— a blight and an anomaly in a thriving historic district.
Bronx Borough Courthouse, 518 E. 161st St. (1912, Oscar Bluemner)
A city-designated landmark since 1981, the imposing Beaux Arts behemoth has been empty for 30-plus years. While landmarking protects it from demolition, no likely plans have emerged for the chunky and oddly elegant building, bought at city auction in 1999.
Seaview Farm Colony (1904, Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen)
Seaview Hospital (1905, Raymond F. Almirall)
460 Brielle Ave., Staten Island
Staten Island’s first historic district, designated in 1985, contains the shells of the Spanish Mission-style hospital and Colonial Revival dormitories. (one building was demolished in 1999). Features such as terra-cotta and Delft ceramic murals are exposed to the elements. Since 1999 it’s been on the Preservation League of New York State’s list of the state's most endangered places. Said Breen: “It’s a haunting place but doesn’t have to be. The longer they sit the more effort it takes to restore them.”
WINNERS AND LOSERS
How have previous endangered sites fared over the years? Here’s an update on selected sites previously covered.
After this summer’s designation hearing, preservationists hope landmark limbo will soon be over for West-Park Presbyterian the 1890 Romanesque church at 263 W. 86 St. The building is reported to be for sale and locals who have fought hard for its designation are watching the clock.
Over the objections of its owner, the Herman A. and Malvina Schleicher House in College Point was designated a city landmark in October, giving the 19th-century mansion protection and its long-time tenants a continued roof over their heads.
Owners of the abandoned, landmarked townhouse at 43 MacDougal St., following local pressure and threat of a city neglect lawsuit, began cleanup of the blighted house. “It’s a very small step in the right direction, but its future is still in doubt,” Berman said.
Preservationists continue to worry about the ongoing deterioration of Admiral’s Row at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. While the city considers requests for proposal before purchasing the site, the houses are exposed: one partially collapsed this summer. Said Lisa Kersavage, senior director of preservation and sustainability at the Municipal Art Society: “It was one that we thought was beyond repair, but none the less, it very much highlighted the fact that the federal government is not protecting these houses. It’s complete neglect and failure to protect.”
The New York State Pavilion, a perennial on many preservation wish lists, was finally designated a state landmark in September, paving the way to potential restoration funds.
Erasmus Hall Academy in Flatbush, which counts Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Barbra Steisand among its graduates, is a crumbling city landmark caught between the wishes of alumni and the wallet of the Department of Education, which says the building is unsuitable for classrooms and, therefore, restoration funding.
Politics versus purses continues to dominate sites such as Knightsbridge Armory in the Bronx, Coney Island and in the St. Vincent Hospital area of Greenwich Village. The proposed mall at the armory was shot down in a dispute over wage scales for workers employed by the proposed retail complex.
The city’s proposed $9 million waterfront purchase at Coney Island has been contested, and the city-approved teardown of Edward and Theresa O’Toole Medical Services Building at St. Vincent’s to make way for a medical and condo tower has been contested by community groups.
A RESCUE TOOL
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has the legal authority to investigate and prosecute negligent owners of landmarks—a legal process called demolition by neglect. Prosecutions have gone up in the past decade
1965 to 1999: One case prosecuted.
2002 –present: Seven cases have come before LPC.
After the forced 2004 demolition of Staten Island’s New Brighton Village Hall, LPC reached a settlement with the owner worth $1.1 million in cash and property, and last year levied a $1.1 million cash fine against the negligent owner of the Windemere apartments on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue.