Regarding the Landmark Designation of the Wallabout Historic District
Statement of the Historic Districts Council
Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission
Regarding the proposed Wallabout Historic District
October 26, 2010
The Historic Districts Council is the citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods. As part of our efforts to better grapple with the dozens of communities citywide desirous of historic district status, for the past few years HDC’s Designation Committee has adopted internal priorities to help us guide our work. In 2009, we chose Wallabout as one of our priority districts; based not only on the clear merit and quality of the area’s existing historic buildings but on the solid work that the community organizations, the Historic Wallabout Association and the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project, has done in both organizing the neighborhood and surveying the properties. We have been working with local partners in the neighborhood for several years and we feel that this is a community ready and eager for the benefits and responsibilities of landmark designation.
Through a grant from the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts, the community groups engaged HDC Adviser Andrew Scott Dolkart to do a cultural resource survey for the area. The report, which is not only thoroughly-researched but interesting to read, was completed in 2005. It draws on earlier surveys, one from 1973 by Dr. James Marston Fitch as part of the Fort Greene Historic District proposal, which called the blocks of Wallabout “outdoor architectural museums in themselves” and a 1978 survey by LPC’s staff which centered around Vanderbilt Avenue. Unfortunately, both these proposals never bore fruit. While many of the blocks to the south were protected by the designations of the Fort Greene historic district in 1978 and the Clinton Hill historic district in 1981, the ensuing 25 years were not especially kind to Wallabout’s antebellum frame houses. Professor Dolkart’s survey was both timely and needed when the community decided to renew its preservation campaign.
What Professor Dolkart found was that among the residential blocks of Wallabout, the blocks from the east side of Clermont Avenue to the east side of Washington Avenue between Myrtle and Park Avenues, contain “the largest concentration of pre-Civil War wood frame houses in New York City, including many displaying Greek Revival and Gothic Revival motifs.” The report goes on to state: “The district also contains many significant brick or stone rowhouses, including notable Italianate and Neo-Grec buildings. Among these are unusual brick houses with porches and with gable ends facing the street, and what appear to be the earliest houses erected by the prominent Pratt family as a speculative investment. There are also a few later tenements and apartment houses in the proposed area, some of great architectural interest, and a historically significant industrial complex.”
The report admits that the majority of the wood frame structures have been altered since construction – really, how many 1860’s buildings in New York haven’t been? – and a great many have been resided with unfortunate materials. However, these could be restored with a modicum of effort, especially since many would be eligible for the LPC’s façade improvement program, and as the report states, trepidation at designation “must be weighed against the rarity of the resources. The area retains an extraordinary concentration of early wooden houses, complemented with early brick and stone rowhouses. Most of these buildings were erected for working-class and middle-class households…[and] the designation of this area would complement the nearby Fort Greene and Clinton Hill Historic Districts, with the majority of their houses erected for households which were considerably more affluent”.
HDC supports the Landmarks Commission’s current proposal for a historic district in Wallabout but strongly hopes that this is only the first phase of a more comprehensive district in the neighborhood. Much of the preliminary work of research, evaluation and community education has been done. The stage is set; what’s needed now is for the LPC to act.