Endangered NYC: Saving architectural treasures in the outer boroughs
By Lana Bortolot
Special to amNewYork
Manhattans iconic architecture has long given the borough favored-child status
at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Of some 1,210 individual landmark designations in the five boroughs since the commissions inception in 1965, 779 are in Manhattan, as well as 64 out of 105 designated Historic Districts and extensions.
But today, the outer boroughs are increasingly enjoying the attention their architectural treasures deserve, powered by community activism, even as certain beloved structures still meet the wrecking ball.
The tone has changed out there, says Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private advocacy group. I think theres been a heightened level of interest and theres a pent-up demand.Its an area that Robert B. Tierney, Landmarks Preservation chairman, agrees has been out of sight and mind.
There wasnt the necessary focus and attention [outside Manhattan], Tierney said, noting that his commission has redirected its attention to the boroughs. Theyre no longer overlooked. And I think the record of whats already been done should give people reassurance that we are focused very markedly on issues in those boroughs.
Indeed, recent data provided by the commission show an increased number of designations outside of Manhattan. Of the 1,158 building designated in fiscal year 2007, 1,114or 96 percentare outside of Manhattan.
All three historic districts designated in fiscal year 2008 were in the outer boroughstwo of which, DUMBO and Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, responded directly to concerns over the loss of Brooklyns historic industrial waterfront. By the end of fiscal year 2009, the commission will have designated more districts outside of Manhattan than any other administration since its inception, says commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon.
Yet, despite the improved record, outer borough residents feel ignored, and voice their frustrations on blogs devoted to politics and preservation. Certainly, losses this year, like that of the Bay Ridge Methodist Church, leave some unconvinced the city is doing enough.
We've had some heartbreaking losses," says Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. "Even people who dont go to church get upset when churches are ripped down. He noted, "People often are unaware of the special
character of a place until its threatened: they have their own personal Penn Stations.
The virtual dialogueoften heated and infused with both fact and opinionlinks citizen brigades throughout the boroughs so that preservationists in Queens can empathize with (or criticize) like- minded activists in the Bronx. And whether they face the loss of a historic church or the addition of a big-box retailer, they present a unified front to elected officials and the city landmarks commission to make a difference.
Despite the losses of beloved buildings, Tierney says Theres a
whole other narrative of buildings being saved and we dont want
people to lose sight of that.
So, here, in amNewYorks third annual look at what might be lost,
preservationists post their wish list of sites to be saved.
Erasmus Hall Academy (Tiffany L. Clark)
Erasmus Hall Academy
911 Flatbush Ave., Flatbush
architect unknown, 1787
Protected from view by its Gothic surroundings, but rotting away from neglect, is the original Georgian-Federalist wooden structure of the academy whose founders include John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The oldest secondary school in New York is designated a city landmark, but suffers from years of neglect. Restoration efforts are locked in a stalemate between the Erasmus alumni, which are rallying to restore it, and the School Construction Authority.
Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power House (RJ Mickelson)
Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power House
322 Third Ave.
architect unknown, 1902
Eligible for the National Register and under LPC review, this Romanesque Revival powerhouse on the Gowanus Canal is all that remains of a massive complex that provided power for Brooklyns steam railroads, elevated trains, and street cars. If renovated, says Melissa Baldrock, a preservationist at the Municipal Art Society, the building could be a great space for small manufacturers who could rent out smaller spaces within the building, for a large manufacturer, or for an arts and cultural space.
The Shore Theater put Coney Island on the map as a year-round destination. Below, the the fate of the Astroland rocket is up in the air. (Photos: Tiffany L. Clark)
Coney Islands historic resources, various dates
Mermaids may mourn the demise of Astroland (b. 1962; d. 2008), but its Coney Islands other historic resources that now face threats. Several 19th- and early-20th-century buildings are endangered , says Baldrock. Coney Islands entertainment history is reflected in Hendersons Music Hall, where the Marx Brothers first performed in 1907, and the Shore Theater, which put Coney Island on the map as a year-round destination. It contains a theater for 2,500 people, but now sits vacant.
While landmarks such as the Cyclone, Parachute Jump, and Wonder Wheel are protected, Astrolands other icons, including the Astrotower and the Rocket, are not. Like the parachute jump (from New York's 1937 worlds fair), the Astrotower is part of the local skyline. Still operable, at 270 feet height high, it provides unparalleled views of the area. The rocket, while not a ride, is one of Coney Islands most photographed iconsa flight of fancy on its own.
Gowanus Canal area
Now that its cleaner than its been in years, the Gowanus Canal is ready for its photo op and an onslaught of development interest. Says Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York chapter, When you ask whats the best and highest use for the waterfront, its seldom going to be something that retains industrial use. Chances are youre looking at housing when the market picks back up. And current upzoning plans would permit just that along the northern blocks of the canal, putting the historic use of the canalin operation since the 1850sand its industrial character at risk. Says Lisa Kersavage, director of advocacy and policy at Municipal Art Society, The city ought to be doing more to support the manufacturing industries rather than upzoning for residential. Its better to be barging than trucking through our brownstone neighborhoods.
The Red Hook grain silos(RJ Mickelson/amNY)
Red Hook grain silos
Columbia Street at the Gowanus Canal, 1922
After a 50-year vacancy, the concrete grain silos adjacent to Red Hook Park on the Gowanus Canal present a number of possibilities, and their future treatment will significantly impact the character of their surroundings. Keeping the industrial feel of the silos, Bell says, would win a nod of approval from modernist architect Le Corbusier, who admired the unusual landscape presented by Midwestern grain silos. But, Ikeas success there, he says, raises the more likely possibility of mixed-use projects with a retail component.
Cass Gilbert's Morris Park station (also known as Van Nest station) in the Bronx (Tiffany L. Clark)
Rail stations, various locations
Cass Gilbert, 1908
Gilbert may be better known as the architect of the Woolworth Building, but his more humble works have not gone unnoticed by preservationists. Strung along the Harlem line of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, only three of the ornate stations remain in the Bronx, and are in serious decline. A fourth in Pelham Parkway is in near ruins. Evoking European influences one in French Renaissance style and another likened to an Italian palazzo the stations have potential for restoration and occupancy. Amtraks efforts to find tenants have been unsuccessful and the advancing decay of the stations make restoration more costly as time goes by.
Kingsbridge Armory (Tiffany L. Clark)
29 W. Kingsbridge Road
Pilcher & Tachau, 1912
A stunning neighborhood landmark, the Romanesque Revival armory is
said to be the world's largest, built as a militia drill floor. A recent proposal by the Related Companies includes a retail/entertainment mix that will bring the site back into active use, but also raises concerns of turning the Romanesque Revival armory into a regional shopping destination. Any restoration, however, will have to take into account the enormous costs of stabilization and the scale of the undertaking. But experts say its worth itthe building really defines the neighborhoods character, says Bell. What would it look like if it were gone? What would they relate to as a landmark?
Noonan Plaza Apartments in the Bronx (Tiffany L. Clark)
Noonan Plaza Apartments
105-145 W. 168th St.
Horace Ginsbern, 1931
These embellished Art Deco-Mayan apartment buildings contained a 15,000-square-foot garden with flowering shrubs, mosaic walkways and water features. Its a particular style we dont see a lot of, says Andrea Goldwyn, director of public policy at New York Landmarks Conservancy. Heard in 1992, but not yet designated by the city, Goldwyn added, We want to stay on top of it and bring it to peoples attention.
Brady Court at 754-764 Brady Ave. in Pelham Parkway (RJ Mickelson)
Pelham Parkway South
Bounded by Pelham Parkway, Bronx Park East, Bronxdale and Matthew avenues
Its not yet a historic district, but the dense cluster of 1920s and 1930s apartment here represent a building type thats almost entirely overlooked by LPC, but is key to an understanding of the history of housing in the city, says Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the Historic Preservation Program Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The six-story buildings comprise a cohesive housing tract that captures the fancy of the era: Moorish embellishments, Spanish tile, crenellated rooflines and courtyards, as well as serving the cultural needs of the middle- and working-class community that lived here.
A scattering of 19th-century houses is all that remains of Astoria Village, an enclave beneath the newly renamed Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Multi-family buildings and other development have replaced gracious homes, some from the Civil War-era. While its unlikely to qualify for district designation, individual buildings may still qualify for landmark status, and protecting them would keep some vestige of the village. The neighborhood also contains two important early churches and burial grounds, including the Irish Famine Cemetery.
Unprotected, and with large home lots, neighborhoods such as Broadway-Flushing and Richmond Hill, the Historic Districts Council says, are fertile ground for McMansions and other out of character development. In Forest Hills, preservationists are fighting to spare Neo-Renaissance rowhouses on 72nd Avenue (formerly Roman Avenue) dating back to 1906, and rare survivors of the oldest extant development here.
Michael Perlman, chair of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, hopes to find an arts or culture group for the empty Ridgewood Theater. (Tiffany L. Clark)
55-27 Myrtle Ave., Ridgewood
Thomas White Lamb, opened 1916
After 91 years, the ornate Ridgewood Theater, the longest continuously operating theater in the country, closed in 2008. Up for sale, plans for its next incarnation are unknown, but preservationists fear alteration, not restoration, of the exterior. A local group hopes to install an arts organization in the building, and a landmarks commission spokesperson said the theater is under active consideration, and the commission has calendared the Ridgewood Historic District.
11-41 123rd St., College Point
architect unknown, circa 1851
Once boasting water views, and now at the core of a traffic roundabout, the Hermann Schleicher mansion is a decaying piece of Gilded Age architectureone of a few remaining mansions built by German industrialists here. Converted to a hotel, then an apartment building, the building stands vacant after tenants were forced to evacuate this summer after a city inspection. It was calendared for LPC hearing on Dec. 9, which halts demolition by the owner or a developer who would do the same, but if not designated, this mansion and its eclectic history will be lost.
Elmhurst Library (Tiffany L. Clark)
86-01 Broadway, Elmhurst
architect unknown, opened 1906
One of seven Carnegie libraries built in Queens, the much-used Elmhurst Library will be demolished for a larger building. What the Carnegie libraries lack in grandeur, they make up for with distinctive architecture that reflects the character of the communities they serve. Normally you would not want to see a Carnegie library demolished, but they made a pretty compelling case that this is what they had to do to serve the population, says Breen.
Staten Islands vernacular homes and mansions are in danger of being lost. Many sit on large plots, making them attractive development sites. Owners of larger homes struggle to maintain them, lacking a strong preservation ethic, are often resistant to landmarking. Preservationists continue to fight for the houses. Not only are they architecturally interesting, but they really speak to Staten Islands maritime history. When theyre gone, it severs our links to that history, says Goldwyn.
Captain Abram and Ann Dissosway Cole House
4927 Arthur Kill Road, Tottenville, circa 1840s
One of a few remaining houses that once housed prominent industrial and maritime merchants, the 19th-century Greek Revival, owned by members of the Cole family until the 1970s, was calendared in the 1960s and remains unprotected by landmark designation. Preservationists support landmarking the house, but the owner has asked the commission to remove the house from consideration so he may demolish it.
U.S. Coast Guard Station (Tiffany L. Clark)
The U.S. Coast Guard Station formerly the U.S. Light-House Service
1 Bay Street, St. George
Alfred B. Mullett, 1865-71
A designated city landmark, the administration building is one of the few surviving French Second Empire buildings by the architect who also designed the Carson City and San Francisco mints, the Customs house in Knoxville and the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. The complex was the holding station for materials destined for lighthouses along the east coast, and also a research site for lighthouse equipment. In poor condition, its empty and awaits a plan.
S. R. Smith Infirmary
101 Stanley Ave., Stapleton
Alfred Barlow & B.L Gilbert, 1889
Modeled after the Cancer Hospital on Central Park West and 106th Street (now condominiums), this Victorian castle stands abandoned. Plans to covert the turreted building into residences some 20 years ago failed and without occupancy of some kind, the building will continue to deteriorate. A landmark request was heard in 1991, but it remains undesignated and unprotected.
* * *
2007: HOW THEY FARED
Successes and losses mark last years 10 (more) to Save. Heres how they fared.
Donnell Library Center
20 W. 53rd St.
Closed and will be razed for a hotel.
Morris B. Sanders House
219 E. 49th St.
Designated landmark November, 2008.
George Washington Bridge Bus Station
Broadway, between West 178-179th streets
In October 2008, Port Authority unveiled plans for a $152 million renovation, expected to begin within two years. The station does not have landmark protection and its modernist design could be compromised.
James A. Farley Post Office Building
421 Eighth Ave.
Still under study, but Madison Square Garden has removed itself from a proposal to relocate to Farley, relieving fears of the arena overtaking the historic interior.
Nos. 231 and 233 Duffield Street
New plans for this block of homes included an Underground Railroad museum and sale of air rights for a new hotel. But negotiations between the owner and developer have stalled, and the project may be scaled back.
1847 James Sloan and Abigail Hopper Gibbons home
339 W. 29th St.
A stop work order has halted further construction here. LPC has calendared landmarking the area as a historic district, which would include the Hopper Gibbons House.
Nos. 94, 94-1/2 and 96 Greenwich St.
Remain undesignated and unprotected while an ownership dispute continues. A hotel developer wants to purchase air rights and demolish at least one building.
508-510 and 732-734 West End Ave
Buildings at 732-734 failed to meet the criteria for designation and have been emptied awaiting demolition. Rent-stabilized tenants at 508-510, are fighting to have their leases renewed.
Congregation Shearith Israel
8 W. 70th St.
Landmark West! and neighbors filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in September challenging the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals approval of seven zoning variances for a nine-story luxury condo here. CSI has delayed construction.
Brooklyn Navy Yard
The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. is the likely buyer of site from the Army National Guard, and preservation groups continue to press for plans that would include the historic buildings in future development.
The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, DUMBO and parts of the former Domino Sugar Corporation Refinery were designated in the past year. The Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse will be converted to residences. Red Hook is on watch.
Heard by LPC in October, Prospect Heights is on its way to landmarking. Yet other brownstone neighborhoodsCarroll Gardens Wallabout and parts of Brooklyn Heightsremain on watch.
The Franklin Building
186 Remsen St., Downtown Brooklyn
Still vacant and reported to need too much work and priced too high to make habitation viable in the current market. The building next door was demolished, leaving the Franklin vulnerable to the same fate.
The humble diner
Closure of the famed Cheyenne Diner (411 Ninth Ave.) after 68 years is a reminder that these working-class eateries are still at risk.
Development plans for West-Park Presbyterian (86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) have halted while a local group challenges a demolition permit. Bay Ridge United Methodist, the Green Church, was demolished for condominium development. St. Saviours in Maspeth was dismantled and awaits resurrection on a new site in All Faiths Cemetery.
Theyll save Manhattan
amNewYork asked preservationists for a wish list of Manhattan sites to be landmarked. Heres what they said:
Andrew Berman, executive director
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
The twin threats of New York University and private development have put the South Village area under enormous pressure, and landmark designation is needed now more than ever to preserve [that] wonderful neighborhood. It was entirely left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969, largely because its working class architecture was not considered worthy of preservation at the time.
Andrew S. Dolkart, director
Historic Preservation Program, Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Teachers College, a spectacular and long-overlooked complex of buildings where five different architects and architectural firms designed nine separate and interconnected buildings, creating an extraordinary feeling of unity, using various forms of Gothic-inspired design. [Its] a major institution in the history of New York and in the history of educational pedagogy.
Anthony C. Wood, historian and author of Preserving New York
The proposed expansion to the Upper East Side Historic District to include Lexington Avenue and environs. One key building, the Kean Building, has been lost because of the unresponsiveness of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the essence of the proposed expansion to the district still remains intact. Lexington Avenue is Main Street for residents of the Upper East Side, and it still retains a distinctive sense of place.