HDC@LPC – Testimony for LPC Hearing on February 13, 2018

HDC regularly reviews every public proposal affecting Individual Landmarks and buildings within Historic Districts in New York City, and when needed, we comment on them. Our testimony for the latest items to be presented at the Landmarks Preservation Commission is below.

 

Designation Testimony

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Designation Hearing

February 13, 2018

Item 1 LP – 2595 BOROUGH OF MANHATTAN

RICHARD WEBBER HARLEM PACKING HOUSE, 207-215 East 119th Street, Lot 5 in part

HDC featured this building in our Six to Celebrate walking tour brochure in 2015, and we always include it as a stop during the many tours we’ve conducted in East Harlem. We are thrilled that it will soon become a designated landmark. This six-story, brick and stone building was constructed for the Webber Meat Market. Richard Webber, an English immigrant, opened his butcher business in 1877 on East 120th Street, expanding with the construction of this imposing building in 1895. Upon his death in 1908, The New York Times described Webber as “one of the largest retail butchers in this city if not in the United States.” The tripartite façade features grand arches, monumental pilasters with Corinthian capitals and a bracketed cornice. Perhaps its most charming feature is a pair of cow head reliefs, evidence of the building’s use, peering down to the street from the second floor. Despite what East Harlem may become, buildings like this one illustrate the neighborhood’s multifaceted past. In this case, it survives to tell a story of an industry and one immigrant’s success story; his American Dream. This edifice was constructed to exude pride for its former industry and has lasted well over a century because of its quality construction. Designation will ensure that despite neighborhood change or market forces, this building is here to stay.

While all neighborhoods in New York constantly change; change is expedited by city-mandated upzonings. East Harlem has evolved several times during the past century, but lost swaths of its fabric during the urban renewal period more than any other neighborhood in Manhattan. As urbanists, we now collectively reflect and agree that those changes were not beneficial for the city or the people who live there. Changes to cities are made for people, and with that in mind, HDC implores the Commission to protect more buildings in East Harlem for the people who call this neighborhood home. The effects of the recent rezoning will be tantamount to a second urban renewal, and this neighborhood will be lost and unrecognizable after this second wave of development. In what is considered a predominant tenement neighborhood, it is with dismay that there are no tenement blocks currently under consideration for LPC protection. With 96 blocks freshly rezoned, there is certainly room for many more landmarks.

 

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Designation Hearing

February 13, 2018

Item 2 LP – 2599 BOROUGH OF MANHATTAN

PUBLIC SCHOOL 109 (now El Barrio’s Artspace), 215 East 99th Street 

Public School 109 was designed by C. B. J. Snyder, superintendent of school buildings for the Board of Education from 1891 to 1923. Roughly 400 schools were constructed during his tenure, when the city’s population was growing and new laws mandated children’s education. Snyder was a great innovator, incorporating advances in fireproofing and air circulation, as well as laying out buildings in an H-plan, like P.S. 109, to increase light and air to classrooms and provide opportunities for recreation. With its many decorative details, the Collegiate Gothic style building is a great example of Snyder’s emphasis on the power of aesthetics in architecture.

Unfortunately, the school was closed and decommissioned in 1995, with the fate of the building left very uncertain. Concerned community members kept watch on the property and raised the alarm as the building deteriorated. In 2000, for HDC’s inaugural Grassroots Preservation Awards, we honored the Coalition to Save P.S. 109 (which included among its members the late Teri Slater) for their work and advocacy on this property. The building was placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places the same year, with the nomination being sponsored by our colleagues at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who did remarkable work in saving the building, with its water-damaged but elaborate details, from demolition at the hands of the School Construction Authority.

The property was mothballed for future use and, in 2007, was included in the Bloomberg Administration’s signature planning document, PlanNYC, as the only specific historic preservation initiative out of 127 initiatives listed. Unfortunately, it was also one of the last items to be acted upon, being noted in the de Blasio’s Administration’s 2014 progress report as being “in progress”. Now that the project is complete and the building is tenanted, with 89 units of affordable live/work space and 10,000 square feet for arts organizations, the time has come to ensure that this remarkable building remains a fixture of East Harlem for the generations to come.

 

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Designation Hearing

February 13, 2018

Item 3 LP – 2596 BOROUGH OF MANHATTAN

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HIGH SCHOOL (Manhattan School for Science & Math), 260 Pleasant Avenue

The Benjamin Franklin High School was originally constructed by the NYC Board of Education after designs by Eric Kebbon, architect and superintendent of school buildings from 1938-51. The school was founded by educational theorist Leonard Covello, the nation’s first Italian-American high school principal, who piloted a philosophy which he termed “community-centered education” at this school, which brought diversity directly into the curriculum and lives of students. While common to learn about or uphold one another’s culture now, this educational approach was ground-breaking in the mid-twentieth century. At the school’s dedication, it was stated that “[Benjamin Franklin] is interracial in character and community-wide in the scope of its work…. It can truly be said that this great building is indeed a monument to democracy in education.” Covello, himself an immigrant from Italy, believed that all immigrant groups should be treated according to their culture, instead of being forced into American values and assimilating. This school consciously celebrated the contributions of immigrants and advocated for the retention of their cultures and languages, and frequent school assemblies celebrated all nationalities and races enrolled there for the collective betterment of society.

At that time, the school’s population was largely made up of Italian immigrants, Puerto Ricans and African Americans, and the school became an important touchstone for Covello’s theories as clashes between these cultures came to an apex. Despite the school being a beacon of integration in theory, in practice, it became the stage of a substantial altercation involving African Americans and Italians in 1945. This quarrel prompted a long and substantial social campaign by Covello to heal the differences in the neighborhood and promote tolerance. The finale of the campaign was a visit to the students by Frank Sinatra, one of the most famous Italian-Americans at the time. It was during this time that Sinatra was involved with many anti-prejudice organizations, and made thirty appearances in 1945 alone promoting anti-racism. Sinatra called on the students for “unity and solidarity” and asked them to be “neighborhood emissaries of racial good will.” Sinatra sang the reconciliatory song Aren’t You Glad You’re You?, which upholds self-acceptance and toleration.

This school’s legacy is an important lesson in American history as a well-intentioned vehicle for integration and tolerance during the post-war period when cities first began to struggle economically. Its curriculum was ahead of its time, and its core values are now the basis of our education and workplace systems. For these reasons, this building is just as much a cultural landmark as it is an impressive architectural edifice.


Certificate of Appropriateness Testimony

Item 1

233-25 38th Drive – Douglaston Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #181711

A vacant lot created by a sub-division. Application is to construct a new building and install a curb cut.

While HDC is pleased with the overall approach of this proposed new house, there are a few issues of scale that could easily be rectified to make this a more appropriate addition to the historic district. In examining the floor-to-floor ceiling height, the front door appears to be too tall, and the front porch too grand for the building. Similarly, the front path is quite wide, giving it the appearance of a driveway, rather than a footpath. While this is unrelated to the issue of appropriateness, we do wish to point out that this lot is a landfill and is prone to flooding, so extra precaution should be taken in the design process to avoid future damage.

 

Item 3

93 Remsen Street – Brooklyn Heights Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1915372

A Greek Revival style house built in 1840. Application is to replace the sidewalk.

HDC is glad to see that the applicant plans to salvage and reuse the existing bluestone pavers along parts of this sidewalk, but we can’t help but wish this application would take one step further toward being restorative by installing new bluestone pavers instead of concrete for the rest. Historic paving is a contributing feature in our historic districts, and HDC feels that the Commission should encourage its preservation and, in this case, its return. This sidewalk, like many in Brooklyn Heights, contains a mix of materials, but its repair would go a long way toward incrementally improving the overall condition of the district’s sidewalks. It is great to see the work being done on the tree pits, which will go a long way toward detering illegal parking, and thus, potentially the need for installing concrete in this location.

 

Item 5

444 West 22nd Street – Chelsea Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1914589

A Greek Revival style rowhouse built in 1835-36. Application is to replace windows, modify the areaway, relocate the areaway fence, and re-finish the stoop and elements of the façade.

While HDC finds the work at the areaway to be acceptable, we found other elements of this proposal to be questionable. The third floor windows appear to be quite clunky, with the frame dimensions being 4 3/8 inches on either side and in the middle, amounting to roughly 13 inches of frame for a 32 inch window. We wonder if a more elegantly proportioned window might be found to recall the historic condition. We also question the decision to apply a limestone finish to the base and window surrounds of the house, as it is unclear what this will actually consist of, and ask that the Commission make sure that the white paint color is not too bright or inconsistent with the style of the house.

 

Item 6

505 West End Avenue – Riverside – West End Extension I Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1920380

A Renaissance Revival style apartment house with alterations, designed by Gaetan Ajello and built in 1920-21. Application is to replace windows.

Six over one windows were a distinctive feature of this handsome Renaissance Revival style building, and one that was unfortunately removed prior to designation. However, the building’s landmark status affords the opportunity to be thoughtful about moving the building in the right direction. Because the building’s present windows will all certainly begin to fail like the ones proposed for replacement today, we ask that the Commission urge the building’s owners to consider a Master Plan for six over one windows, rather than allowing for a piecemeal approach that misses the chance to right a past wrong.

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