Designation Testimony

HDC@LPC: Designation Testimony – Park Terrace West-West 217th Street Historic District

HDC’s testimony on Inwood’s first Historic District:

Park Terrace West-West 217th Street Historic District

ITEM TO BE HEARD, LP-2621

Borough of Manhattan

Boundary Description

The proposed Park Terrace West 217th-West 217th Street Historic District consists of the property bounded by a line beginning on the northwest corner of 91 Park Terrace West, Block 2243, Lot 385 extending northerly along the western property lines of 91 to 97 Park Terrace West, then extending northerly to the south curbline of West 218th Street, extending easterly along West 218th Street, to the western curbline of Park Terrace West, then extending southerly along the western curbline of Park Terrace West to 93 Park Terrace West, then easterly across Park Terrace West, along the northern property line of 96 Park Terrace West, and along the northern property lines of 539 to 527 West 217th Street, then extending southerly along the eastern property line of 527 West 217th Street, then to the northern curbline of West 217th Street, then extending westerly along the northern curbline of West 217th Street, then across Park Terrace West to the western curbline of Park Terrace West, then southerly along the western curbline of Park Terrace West, to the southern property line of 77 Park Terrace West, then westerly along the southern property line of 77 Park Terrace West, then northerly along the western property lines of 77 to 81 Park Terrace West, then easterly along the northern property line of 81 Park Terrace West then northerly along the western curbline of Park Terrace West to the southern property line of 91 Park Terrace West, then westerly along the southern property line of 91 Park Terrace West, to the point of beginning

The Historic Districts Council supports the designation of these 15 buildings as Manhattan’s 80th historic district. Given the change coming to this area brought on by the recent rezoning, it’s good that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is turning its attention to Inwood, a neighborhood rich with historic architecture and underrepresented in landmark designations. These stately homes comfortably sit in the context of this verdant area, and Inwood’s early 20th century residential architectural character.

This small suburban community is of a sort found nowhere else in Manhattan and quite unexpected for the borough. The enclave is best accessed by the pedestrian from Broadway via the 215th Street Stair, with its Ionic-column lampposts, which until now were some of the only structures in the neighborhood protected by landmark status. This proposed historic district will be the only privately owned landmark properties in Inwood. The stairs serve as a transition from the thoroughfare of Broadway, to the quiet, even bucolic, area bound by Isham and Inwood Hill Parks, Broadway, and the Columbia University Athletic Complex. This proposed district is characteristic of Inwood’s unique pattern of development and architecture that was created in relation to the natural landscape. The front gardens of the houses in this district accentuate the street’s connection to nature and carry the greenery of the parks into the residential blocks. Though these buildings are convenient to the city’s subway system, they appear to nevertheless anticipate an automobile-based way of life, further accentuating their suburban character.

Benjamin F.V. Driesler, who designed the 1-family Tudor Revival/Cotswold Cottage homes on 217th Street, was also the architect behind 175 buildings, more modest than those at issue, developed by Realty Associates in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Historic District. Driesler is identified in the designation report as one of three architects who give the district its character and coherence.

The three 1926 two-family dwellings designed by A.H. Zacharius on Park Terrace West represent an interestingly late development in the Arts and Crafts-style, in a period where Art Deco was popular and Modernism was nascent. The buildings’ rough-hewn ashlar quoins, cellar-level cladding and steps are representative of the movement’s emphasis on natural materials. Their sympathetic interaction with the natural landscape, the round-arch entrances that look to the past, and the fenestration patterns of groups of three on the front façade are all characteristic of the style.

One of the buildings in this proposed district, 529 West 217th Street, possesses unique historical interest. In 1970, members of the Weather Underground attempted to firebomb this house, then the home of State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh, who was presiding over pre-trial hearings of Black Panthers accused of conspiracy to bomb public places. Three gasoline bombs were detonated outside the house, harming no people, but shattering two windowpanes, scorching a hanging eave, and charring the paint on Murtagh’s car. A contemporaneous New York Times article noted that Murtagh refused to publicly discuss the incident, but detectives said, “he and his family had taken the incident coolly.”

Perhaps frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their gasoline bombs, the group acquired a quantity of dynamite. Inexperienced in explosives, they inadvertently detonated the bomb they were making in the basement of townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, leveling the townhouse and causing the deaths of three Weather Underground members. A new infill building designed by Hugh Hardy was later approved by the LPC for the site, with a significant modern twist on the rowhouse form which adds to the row and has borne the subsequent test of time.

While this small collection of buildings is lovely and definitely meritorious of preservation, HDC is disappointed in the commission’s limited actions in Inwood. Inwood’s distinct and special character derives in large part from the predominance of handsome Art Deco apartment buildings. The neighborhood possesses the largest concentration of Art Deco apartment houses in Manhattan, and one of the largest in the country. It’s befuddling that in an area typified by Art Deco apartment buildings, the Landmarks Commission is only choosing to recognize single-family Arts & Crafts houses. It seems the equivalent of only celebrating the masonry buildings of SoHo – they’re a part of the neighborhood, but not the defining part. We urge the Landmarks Commission to reassess this soon-to-be transformed community and protect the residential and institutional buildings which truly constitute Inwood’s historic character.

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