Certificate of Appropriateness Testimony

HDC@LPC – Testimony for LPC Hearing on September 19, 2017

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.

Item 1

28 Remsen Street – Brooklyn Heights Historic District


An Italianate style rowhouse built c. 1860. Application is to construct a shed dormer, a roof deck and a stair bulkhead.

If this roof has to be reframed, given the amount of effort the applicant is putting into this project, the bulkhead could be dropped by two feet without too much trouble. As it is currently proposed, the design is more complicated than it needs to be. Moving the stairs to the rear could help bring the height down. The portion of the bulkhead that contains an air handler could be reduced in width relative to the front façade by three feet. Both of these measures would help reduce visibility. Additionally, the material for the bulkhead is inappropriate for the district. Lead-coated copper, copper, or a similar utilitarian material such as zinc would all be more appropriate for the district.

LPC Determination: Approved with modifications

Item 2

Fort Greene Park – Fort Greene Historic District


A park, originally known as Washington Park, designed by Olmsted and Vaux in 1867. Application is to modify entrances and pathways, and install furnishings.

In this proposal, the Parks Department claims to be “reconciling multiple generations of design and intent” in Fort Greene Park. There are four such generations: the original Olmsted and Vaux design, which was then altered first by McKim, Mead and White, then Gilmore Clarke and finally A. E. Bye. Unfortunately, the part of this proposal with the greatest impact – replacing the retaining wall and trees at the park’s northwest corner with a paved plaza – is inspired by a never-realized schematic by McKim, Mead and White, not by any of the park’s actual layers of history. Over the last 150 years of changes to the park design, Olmsted and Vaux’s vision for a planted area protected from the street at the northwest corner has always been honored, even by the McKim, Mead and White design that was realized. Opening that corner up to the street and adding significant paving where there has always been greenery would be tantamount to destroying the artifact in the name of returning the site to some never-realized ideal. We also wish to point out that creating a wide, paved plaza like this could be an invitation for revenue-producing vendors within the park. Transforming this area, whose dense vegetation provides fresh air and a respite from the street grid, into a venue for commercial activity would be a shame.

Truly reconciling and honoring the park’s layered history would also include keeping some remnant of the 1972 park design by A. E. Bye, which, in this proposal, would be almost entirely obliterated. HDC often argues against returning sites with layered histories to one previous condition (for instance, removing studio additions on rowhouses in Greenwich Village). Therefore, we question the decision to remove almost all traces of A. E. Bye’s alterations to the park, including plowing over the mounds that the community continues to enjoy today. Everyone loves and admires Olmsted and Vaux’s picturesque landscapes in Central and Prospect Parks, but few would dream of removing their Moses-era playgrounds and ballfields. Why would a similar intervention be acceptable here? Furthermore, when championing the establishment of this park as a local journalist in the 1840’s, poet Walt Whitman called for “a place of recreation… where, on hot summer evenings, and Sundays, they can spend a few grateful hours in the enjoyment of wholesome rest and fresh air.” The notion here is a respite from urbanity and from the city streets, not an enlargement of them.

HDC would like to point out that there are significant communication issues that have led to community pushback on this proposal. Had the Parks Department begun the design process with a listening campaign and incorporated local stakeholders’ desires into its planning, the outcome could have been far less contentious. Why not try to incorporate those design features that currently work well into the new plan through a robust dialog with the constituents who use it the most? Perhaps the agency could start again, with an eye toward incorporating beloved elements—such as the mounds—in some way, rather than throwing them out completely. There is an opportunity here for the Parks Department to honor the park’s history, while also showing that it understands the needs of the Fort Greene community.

LPC Determination: No Action

Item 3

375 Park Avenue – Interior Landmark


An International style restaurant interior designed by Philip Johnson and built in 1958-59 within the Seagram Building, an International style office tower designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson and Kahn & Jacobs and built in 1956-58. Application is to legalize the installation of a reception desk at the ground-floor lobby and alterations at the Pool Room Mezzanine without Landmarks Preservation Commission permit(s).

As one of the city’s most famous Interior Landmarks and one which was very recently granted a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Landmarks Commission for its restaurant conversion, HDC is dumbfounded as to why the applicant performed additional work without LPC permits. This is unacceptable and the applicant should not be rewarded for it. The proposed changes would clutter up a space which was, in accordance with its Modernist design, simple and sparsely populated. Its muted tones and subtle details afforded a sense of calm within the chaotic city. In its new iteration, additional furniture makes the space more frenetic and will certainly only signal an increase in room capacity, an unfortunate change.

The application photographs exhibit a number of changes that are not included in this proposal, such as new carpeting in the Pool Room and Pool Room Mezzanine, the installation of a new sculpture suspended over the pool and the removal of the planters and trees in the Pool Room. Since these are all called out as protected features in the designation report, HDC questions why these changes are not also before you today and calls on the Commission to require a public hearing to review these illegal changes. As noted in testimony during the previous application, the planters were permanent fixtures in the Pool Room, to the extent of having hardwired telephone jacks installed within them, so that any table in the room could potentially receive a call. Such mid-century convenience might seem unnecessary now in our casual and all-too-slapdash age but it is indicative of the thoughtfulness which the original designers expended on this remarkable place. Thoughtfulness never falls out of vogue, but it, like integrity, must be maintained.

LPC Determination: No Action

Item 6

98 Greenpoint Avenue – Greenpoint Historic District


An Italianate style flatshouse designed by Frederick Weber and built in 1874-76. Application is to replace storefront infill and construct a rear yard addition.

This block is somewhat unusual given that it is purely residential on one side (Milton Street) and has a commercial overlay on the other (Greenpoint Avenue), resulting in rowhouses whose rears face commercial uses in the donut. The block also features a mix of building types and sizes, resulting in a barely-there garden core on the east side, but a significant and intact garden core on the west side of the block – where 98 Greenpoint Avenue is located. As the Commission knows, the garden core, or “donut”, of rowhouse and apartment blocks was a significant urban planning feature of the cityscape. Around the time which these buildings were being developed, New York City adopted the second Tenement Act, seeking to ensure that apartment houses provided sufficient light and air for human habitation. These buildings, with their generous backyards, did not require this, at least not originally. This western edge of the block has, so far, benefitted from an intact, shared green space, which would be marred by this banal rear extension. Although the commercial overlay allows for this rear extension, we wish to make a plea for minimizing its impact on its residential neighbors.

LPC Determination: No Action

Item 8

69 7th Avenue – Park Slope Historic District


A neo-Grec style rowhouse designed by William Flanagan and built in 1880. Application is to construct a rear yard addition.

Our committee found the proposed rear yard addition to be oversized for the neighborhood and is concerned that such an addition will adversely affect the garden core or “donut”. Ideally, new construction within the core should be clad in brick chosen to blend in with the rear elevations of the existing houses. Additionally, the proposed construction methods and materials reveal either a lack of knowledge or a willful indifference regarding appropriate practice for a rowhouse neighborhood such as this. Perhaps the applicant can work with staff to find a more historically- sensitive approach to this project.

LPC Determination: Approved with modifications

Item 9

225 East 5th Street – East Village/Lower East Side Historic District


An Italianate style apartment building designed by W.J. Gessner and built c. 1870-71 and altered in 1887 by Jobst Hoffmann. Application is to establish a master plan governing the future installation of through-wall and through-window mechanical units and louvers.

Given the through-wall penetrations already present on this building, it would be impossible for this proposal to have a satisfactory retrofit. With that in mind, it is that much more pressing that the applicant take a more sensitive approach than what is currently being proposed, which appears somewhat clunky. If the opportunity exists to put condensing units on the roof, perhaps piping can be run to individual air-handling units and the façade can be repaired and restored to its original historic condition. If that’s not possible, perhaps the applicant could find a grille that relates to the building’s ironwork or stairs and to its overall Italianate design. HDC asks that further thought be given to this master plan proposal in order to achieve the desired function and a more historic appearance for the building.

LPC Determination: Approved

Item 12

464 West 145th Street – Hamilton Heights Historic District


A Renaissance Revival style rowhouse designed by Francis J. Schnugg and built in 1897. Application is to install an awning.

Our committee finds no reason to install an unsightly awning on this building. A better solution would be to put a placard or typical doctor’s office sign at eye level. We hope the applicant will work with staff to find a solution that fits this historic building more appropriately.

LPC Determination: Approved

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