NYC Landmarks Brouhaha Spotlights Forgotten Sites

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IN A MOVE THAT COMES AS A GREAT RELIEF to those who care about New York City’s historic architecture, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has reversed its recent decision to drop nearly 100 properties from its calendar, where many had languished for five years or more. It’s an administrative maneuver that doesn’t necessarily save anything, but at least insures that these properties — all of which were in the initial stages of being designated as landmarks, with research, public hearings, and a vote to follow — will remain under the oversight of the LPC and can’t be willy-nilly altered or, God forbid, demolished.

Top: c.1880 Second Empire cottage, Snug Harbor, Staten Island

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Mid-19th c. Ploughman’s Bush Building, North Bronx

Local preservation groups, including including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council, went ballistic when the decision to remove the properties from LPC oversight was announced just after Thanksgiving. The outcry succeeded in getting the LPC to keep these 100 or so properties on the calendar.

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St. Barbara’s Church, 1910, Spanish Baroque, Bushwick, Brooklyn

For me, the eye-opener was an email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, showing a number of fine and important buildings throughout the five boroughs that I had no idea were quite unprotected. The images in this post come from that email.

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Curtis House, c. 1850 Romantic Revival cottage, Staten Island

Better-known and much-beloved sites that remain in this netherworld — for the reversal of the ‘de-calendaring’ was merely a postponement — include Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery and the neon Pepsi sign in Long Island City.

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Left to right, above: 2 Oliver Street, 1821 Federal style townhouse, Chinatown; 138 Second Avenue,1832 Federal style rowhouse, East Village; 57 Sullivan Street, 1816 Federal style townhouse, SoHo

For New York Times coverage of the LPC’s original plan to chop the list of proposed landmarks, go here; and to read about the reversal of the decision, here. 

All About Wallabout

THERE’S A BLOCK in west Clinton Hill, or maybe it’s north Fort Greene, though most people would have just called it “near the Navy Yard.” Now the neighborhood’s got a proper name, or rather, gone back to its original cool name — Wallabout, from the Dutch waal-bogt or ‘bend in the harbor.’ Anyway, it’s a block I’ve always admired, an amazing hodgepodge of 19th century styles, with a preponderance of wood frame houses and porches that are rare in Brooklyn.

Last summer and fall, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council recognized this one block — Vanderbilt Avenue between Myrle and Park Avenues — as the “Wallabout Historic District” and what that will mean I don’t rightly know, except I hope it means the houses that are about to fall down are propped back up.

For not only is the block a mishmash of styles, it runs the gamut of conditions, from spiffily fixed up to near-collapse and even condemned, with the huge red Xs the Buildings Department uses to indicate “Don’t go in here at any cost.”

I took my car for an oil change at a garage on the corner of Vanderbilt and Myrtle, and took advantage of the opportunity to walk the block and record a few of my favorite buildings.

This group of three at the far end of the block, hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, incorporates the grande dame of the block (1820s, maybe?) and a pair of smaller buildings, below, one in seemingly fine repair and the other on the verge of extinction.

To see what these same two houses looked like in September 2009, go here.  

Above, a house I seriously considered buying in 2000 for $330,000 and rather wish I had. I was daunted by three feet of standing water in the basement. Someone else took the challenge, renovated, and painted it an outstanding sunflower yellow.

See below for more about Wallabout, from the Historic Districts Council website:

Wallabout, a neighborhood in Northwestern Brooklyn near the former Brooklyn Naval Yards, is noted for having the largest concentration of pre-Civil War frame houses in the city. In addition to Greek and Gothic Revival wood homes with original or early porches, cornices and other details, brick and stone row houses in Italianate and Neo-Grec styles along with masonry tenements line the streets between Myrtle and Park Avenues. James Marston Fitch, founder of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, described the buildings in 1973 as an “outdoor architectural museum in themselves.” The homes were built as working-class and middle-class housing, and designation of this area would complement the Fort Greene and Clinton Historic Districts to the south built primarily for more affluent households.

Dutch settlers named this area Waal-bogt, meaning a bend in the harbor. Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium) settled here as early as 1624. Through the 18th century, the area remained rural. During the Revolution, dozens of infamous British prison ships docked in the nearby Wallabout Bay. An estimated 11,000 American soldiers died there and were buried in shallow graves along the waterfront. In 1801 the federal government opened the Brooklyn Naval Yard nearby. The yards operated for more than a century and a half until its 1966 decommission. Over the decades, many of the homes in the district were built for employees of the yards.

Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the city of Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. As the century progressed, industrialism spread through the East River waterfront including DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Wallabout. Neighborhood industries included Consumers’ Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, the Drake Brothers Bakery, Rockwood Chocolate Company (whose factory is now listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places), Giddings & Enos (manufacturers of gas fixtures), and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. The Wallabout produce market operated from 1890 until World War II.

In a neighborhood full of wonderful homes, there are a few residences deserving special note. Some of the area’s earliest homes dating back to the 1830’s can be found on Vanderbilt Avenue. In 1878 the wealthy Pratt family built five neo-Grec style brownstones on this block, the first of their many speculative ventures. No. 99 Ryerson Street is believed to be the only surviving New York City home of poet Walt Whitman. Rudophe L. Daus, one of Brooklyn’s leading late 19th-century architects, designed the Queen Anne style red brick tenement at 93 Clermont. The building retains its ornamental terracotta trim as well as its entrance hood and iron railings. Only one structure in the district is presently designated a New York City Landmark, the Lefferts-Laidlaw House at 136 Clinton Avenue. This impressive, temple-fronted Greek Revival Style house was built c.1836-1840.

In the 1970’s the area was twice proposed as a historic district, by the Fort Greene Landmarks Committee as part of the Fort Greene HD and by the Landmark Commission’s staff as part of a Brooklyn survey. Like much of western Brooklyn, the general low-rise density of Wallabout has recently begun to feel the brunt of new, over-scaled development. In addition, decades of poor maintenance have resulted in the loss of character in some of the buildings, as well as enticingly open lots prime for development. The Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project has, with funding from the Preservation League of New York State, sponsored a cultural resources survey and has helped establish a residents’ association – the Historic Wallabout Association – with the goal of preserving this neighborhood. The first step, re-zoning the area to better fit the existing built fabric and encourage appropriately scaled development, is currently moving forward. The next step to preserving this special neighborhood would be to designate part of the area as a historic district.

For more information, visit:

The Unprotected

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p1020229BROOKLYN HAS ITS SHARE of silly neighborhood acronyms. The best is DUMBO for “Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass;” the worst is BOCOCA for Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens, which I’ve never heard anyone say out loud.

Now there’s a new one, and you heard it here first: BECOSMI, “Between Court and Smith.”

What’s not so amusing is the fact that a dozen or so BECOSMI blocks south of State Street — encompassing parts of Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens but not included in the official Historic Districts of either neighborhood — are vulnerable to demolition, development, or inappropriate renovation.

From Bergen down to Butler, “it’s wall-to-wall historic,” says Sophia Truslow, a real estate attorney involved in trying to gain some form of landmark protection for these orphaned blocks.p1020223

The blocks between State and Bergen are a “gerrymandered creature,” Truslow says, meaning that buildings of historic importance there are scattered.  Still, she says, there are a fair number of “sweet buildings that deserve protection.”

p1020217Truslow and other local activists are working simultaneously on several fronts, including the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, the non-profit Historic Districts Council, and the city’s overworked Landmarks Preservation Commission.

It’s an arduous process, sure to drag on for years.

The photos in this post give the merest glimpse of what they’re trying to protect. Worth the trouble, wouldn’t you say?

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The Unprotected

p1020229Brooklyn, land of funny neighborhood acronyms — the best is DUMBO (“Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) — has yet another one.

You heard it here first: it’s BECOSMI, and it stands for “Between Court and Smith.”

What’s not so amusing is the fact that a dozen or more blocks between Court Street and Smith Street, south of State — encompassing parts of Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, but not included in the official Historic District designation of either neighborhood — are vulnerable to demolition, development, or historically inappropriate renovation.p1020224

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Between State and Bergen, there are scattered buildings of historic value. Those blocks are a “gerrymandered creature,” says Sophia Truslow, a real estate attorney who is active in efforts to gain some form of landmark status for these areas, but with a fair number of “sweet buildings that deserve protection.” Between Bergen and Butler, however, it’s “wall to wall historic,” Truslow says.

She and other local activists are working on several fronts to get Federal designation for these and other unprotected areas in Brownstone Brooklyn: through the non-profit Historic Districts Council, the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, and the city’s over-worked Landmarks Preservation Commission.p1020231

The pictures in this post represent the merest glimpse of what they’re trying to save.  Worth the trouble, don’t you think?