Progress on preservation in Tottenville

Historic society hopes to preserve Tottenville buildings as landmarks
Thursday, June 21, 2007

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Ever since John Totten Jr. built Totten’s Dock in the late 1840s, the area now known as Tottenville has produced some of the most enchanting architecture to be seen on Staten Island.

Now, over a century and a half later, the Tottenville Historic Society wants to preserve and protect these unique structures, with their beautiful Victorian architectural trim and the fascinating stories they are waiting to tell.

At its meeting yesterday in the Hungarian Reformed Church in Charleston, the society presented the findings of a year-long survey of 250 historic buildings and outlined future goals for many of the sites.

“Tottenville is the town the oyster built,” said Barnett Shepherd, who served as a consultant on the survey, referring to the original South Shore settlers who thrived on the oyster-filled waters of the Arthur Kill.

The study resulted in a number of surprises, including a deed signed by a free African-American in the early 19th century and the discovery of one of the oldest houses on the Island, dating back to 1775.

The society also plans to begin work on a book detailing Tottenville’s history in the fall.

The group now plans to select 10 buildings in Tottenville and apply for them to be recognized as national landmarks, a legally non-binding status that allows homeowners to do what they wish with their properties, but prevents the federal or state government from ever razing the structures.

“The 10 houses worthy of national recognition will raise the level of consciousness in the community,” said Shepherd.

The society hopes to eventually establish as many as 50 of the buildings as a historic community, stopping homeowners from making any visible exterior changes without first obtaining the city’s permission.

However, not all residents are enthralled with that goal.

“People hear that and they get frightened,” said one Tottenville resident, who declined to give her name, but contended that potential buyers shy away from landmarked homes.

But Shepherd, who describes himself as a “preservationist,” countered that owners have little to fear.

“Their house is beautiful and they will find someone to buy it, and at the same time the community makes a tremendous gain,” he added, noting the society does not yet have a majority of the homeowners’ support to apply for such a distinction.

No matter what the outcome of the goal to preserve Tottenville’s historic buildings, the study’s primary aim was to teach citizens the value of their past, he said.

“The myths about the negative aspects of landmarking will be overcome, but our main goal is to educate,” said Shepherd.

© 2007 Staten Island Advance

Posted Under: Staten Island, Tottenville

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