CB 7 to Vote on New-York Historical Society, March 6

From Landmark West!

Please do everything in your power to attend Community Board 7’s public meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, between 7:00 and 8:00 PM, at the American Bible Society (1865 Broadway at 61st Street). The full, 50-member Board will vote on the Parks & Preservation Committee’s February 8 almost unanimous resolution against the New-York Historical Society’s extensive renovation plans for its “Triple-Crown Landmark” site. The Board anticipates taking up this item at some point prior to 8:00 PM. Your presence is a “must” to underscore community support for the Committee’s strong position addressing both the facade alterations (Phase 1) and the 280-foot tower planned for the Landmark site (Phase 2).

Tomorrow night is an important meeting, but not the end of this battle by a long shot. Below is a second “Open Letter to the New-York Historical Society” — please note that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has set a Tuesday, March 20, public hearing date for this application. This Open Letter responds to an email circulated by the Historical Society last week and now posted on their website at https://www.nyhistory.org/web/default.php?section=about_nyhs&page=strategic_plan_letter . Should the Historical Society consider changing its motto from “Making History Matter” to “Making Up History”? You decide. Please read on…

Open Letter to the New-York Historical Society: Part II

Dear Friends:

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has set a public hearing date for Tuesday, March 20, 2007, to consider the New-York Historical Society’s application for extensive alterations to the façade of your “Triple-Crown” Landmark. Yet in the eyes of many of your neighbors and fellow New Yorkers, you have failed to come forward with a complete explanation of your plans for the future of this profoundly important site.

In fact, the Community Board 7 Parks & Preservation Committee’s almost unanimous disapproval of your façade project should send a strong signal that full disclosure is necessary if you are to achieve any of the goals set forward in your email circulated on February 21, 2007. However, instead of providing facts, your email only muddies the water.

We offer the following clarifications (italicized text represents extracts from your email):

This application addresses the following immediate needs:

Providing handicapped accessibility on Central Park West (visitors in wheelchairs currently either enter through the side door, via a ramp plus a manually-operated life or, if in electric wheelchairs, through the loading dock;”

ADA Access: Starting in 1993, the highly respected architectural and preservation firm Beyer Blinder Belle (also responsible for the restoration of Grand Central Station) undertook a major renovation of the Landmark, paid for with nearly $16 million in public funds. A key element of this Landmarks-approved project was the installation of a handicapped access ramp at the 77th Street entrance. This ramp, which received design awards including one from LANDMARK WEST!, would be destroyed as part of the current project, in exchange for a much larger ramp intruding into the Central Park West sidewalk.

Your email also does not point out that your proposed new handicapped-accessible elevator on Central Park West would be located outside, whereas the existing “manually-operated lift” is sheltered inside the 77th Street entrance. Is making a handicapped lift on the outside an improvement?

Orientation and Visibility: Your email refers to the 77th Street entrance as the “side door” when, in fact, the 1993 taxpayer-funded project was largely aimed at increasing the Society’s presence and visibility on 77th Street, facing the American Museum of Natural History.

Loading Docks: Speaking of loading docks, where does your proposal locate them? On West 76th Street, a quiet block of stately townhouses composing one of the Upper West Side’s first landmark- protected areas, the Central Park West—West 76th Street Historic District (designated in 1973)?

Improving egress so that in an emergency, disabled visitors, staff and others can be evacuated quickly;”

Emergency Egress: We would be very interested in understanding exactly how your proposed alterations would accomplish this goal, as the egress path is proposed through an exhibition space. Please also clarify why such improvements require radical changes to the Landmark façade.

Extending the windows on 77th Street as envisioned by the building’s original architects but never completed because of lack of fund. These alterations would also improve the streetscape on West 77th Street, opening the building to the street;”

Revising History: Back in the early 1900s, the architects of Grand Central Station envisioned a tower directly on top of the terminal, proof positive that not all original plans are a good idea. In this case, enlarging the Society’s windows would result in the major loss of historic building fabric. Better not to try and rewrite history at the expense of history.

And Speaking of Towers: What kind of impact would a 280-foot tower looming up behind and above the Landmark have on the historic streetscape of West 76th Street and the iconic skyline of Central Park West? The architectural rendering featured in the New York Times on November 1, 2006, also showed a large penthouse atop the Landmark. How would this addition impact the Luce Center for the Study of American Culture, the creation of which on the Society’s top floor was another major element of the 1990s renovations?

Replacing and restoring the mullioned casement windows throughout the Historical Society to prevent further water damage and deterioration of the building…”

Water Protection: “Replacing” and “restoring” have fundamentally different definitions. Which is it? Again, it seems that your proposed project would undo the thoughtful restorative work of one of New York’s most respected preservation firms, Beyer Blinder Belle, who restored the Landmark’s original windows (without replacing them) and fitted them with sensitively designed interior storm windows in the 1990s. At the same time, the exterior walls of the Landmark were fitted with a vapor barrier to regulate interior humidity levels.

“Enabling an internal renovation designed to make the Historical Society into a modern, accessible, community education, teaching and learning facility for children, scholars and neighbors.”

The Parks & Preservation Committee of Community Board 7 spoke on behalf of the public when it determined that “the exterior changes to its classical façade proposed by the Historical Society are unnecessary overkill with respect to the functional aims that drive this proposal, apparently motivated at least in part by the inappropriate decision to seek to ‘modernize’ the façade rather than to make minimally intrusive changes, and to respect above all the very features for which it was designated a landmark.”

The majority of speakers at the meeting spoke in favor of the Historical Society’s proposal…”

Perhaps math is not your strong suit. Sign-in sheets tabulating speakers’ positions for or against this project are in the public record. The record will show that the majority of speakers spoke against the Historical Society’s proposal and that the vast majority of speakers in favor are employees of the Society.

You claim that you have “no immediate timetable” for the tower component of your project and that the Parks & Preservation Committee “acted improperly by arbitrarily linking what [the Society] might do sometime in the future to
its mandated Charter responsibility.” We certainly hope that the Society has thought through the relationship between radical changes to the façade of its Landmark, internal reconfigurations, and the construction of a 280-foot tower on top of its site (for which the developer/architect selection process will be completed this month—hardly an indefinite timetable). It is the Society’s insistence on keeping these major projects separate that seems arbitrary and, indeed, disturbingly strategic.

Your email alleges that the Parks & Preservation Committee acted “improperly” in disapproving your application. On the contrary, the Committee’s measured review and conscientious vote was a triumph of the public process.

The Society’s continued refusal to fully disclose your complete renovation and construction plans to the public is, by contrast, a downright shame.

Posted Under: Alert, Community Boards, New-York Historical Society, Upper West Side

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