30 Properties Advance from Backlog as Likely Landmarks

CHEN landmarks cover story IS

The interior of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at 225 West 99th Street. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | A Midtown luxury department store, an Episcopal church on the Upper West Side, a wooden-frame house on the Upper East Side, and a conference center at the United Nations Plaza will get their chance to forever be a part of Manhattan’s architecture after the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) decided to give each a designation hearing by the end of 2016.

But while most preservationists rejoiced in the likelihood of many new landmarks, more than double that amount of backlogged properties throughout the city were removed from the commission’s calendar.

As part of the commission’s Backlog Initiative — where it addressed the 95 city properties left in landmark limbo — Bergdorf Goodman, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 412 East 85th Street, and the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center were able to move to the next step in landmark designation.

The Bergdorf Goodman name is familiar to many (see “Preservationists Clear Huge Hurdle as Bergdorf Goodman Slated for Designation Hearing,” in the last issue of Manhattan Express), but likely far fewer people know of a wood-frame house tucked well back from the property lines of adjacent red brick buildings. At 412 East 85th Street, the well-preserved former farmhouse dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Its current resident, architect Alfredo De Vido keeps the secluded property — one of few remaining wood-frame buildings on the Upper East Side — in pristine condition.

A wood-frame farmhouse at 412 East 85th Street also made the cut. | JACKSON CHEN

A wood-frame farmhouse at 412 East 85th Street also made the cut. | JACKSON CHEN

In contrast, a 12th floor conference center inside the United Nations Plaza is well accustomed to visitors. Constructed in 1964 by the accomplished Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center is one of four of his works remaining in the US. Currently, the conference center serves as a meeting space for the Institute of International Education, which oversees the Fulbright Scholars program.

For St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, at 225 West 99th Street, the preservation efforts date back to the 1980s, when the commission first held a hearing for its landmark designation. Like the other properties, the commission’s inaction on St. Michael’s led it to be included in the backlog that was finally addressed on February 23.

According to the church’s archivist, Jean Ballard Terepka, the church building was consecrated in 1891. From the 1890s until the 1920s, Louis Comfort Tiffany — a prominent artist whose name is carried on in his distinctive style of stained glass — and his company decorated the church with striking religious depictions.

Landmark West! has long had the church on its landmark wish list and the commission’s promise for its designation was good news. But, according to its advocacy director, Sean Khorsandi, the preservation group remains hesitant to celebrate until the church is officially deemed a landmark.

“It’s a little bit of a tricky situation,” Khorsandi said. “The record is closed and there’s no more additional testimony or opportunity to speak… This decision is going to be based in the building’s own merits.”

Still, these properties are in a much better position than the sites that were removed from the commission’s calendar.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at 225 West 99th Street, was one of 30 backlogged properties, out of 95, that were advanced to a designation hearing. | JACKSON CHEN

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at 225 West 99th Street, was one of 30 backlogged properties, out of 95, that were advanced to a designation hearing. | JACKSON CHEN

If properties were de-calendared with a no-action letter, they are removed with no judgment from the commission and can later be considered for designation. However, preservationists are concerned that developers will swoop in during the meanwhile to redevelop the historic properties overlooked in this go-round.

“There was not a building on that list that did not deserve to be made a landmark,” said Michael Henry Adams, a longtime preservation advocate. “Most of the buildings have been identified by the landmarks commission in the first place as being potential landmarks.”

But that potential wavered as complications arose and prevented certain properties from being landmarked. Left neglected for decades by the commission, the 95 backlogged properties were finally addressed during the February 23 meeting. With decisions required on each, properties were de-calendared for a variety of reasons, including a lack of historical merit, owner opposition, or no support from city councilmembers.

Such was the case for the former Hotel Renaissance site at 4 West 43rd Street, which now houses the headquarters of the Unification Church and several other nonprofit organizations. The property originally served as a hotel before being converted into the meeting place for the Columbia University Club in the early 1920s. Despite its historical significance, the commission decided to de-calendar the property, amidst some disappointment, due to opposition from the Unification Church.

“I’m slightly agonizing over Hotel Renaissance,” said commissioner Fred Bland at the backlog meeting. “I know owner opposition is the chief issue here as opposed to quality of the building.”

The former Hotel Renaissance at 4 West 43rd Street, now owned by the Unification Church, was not approved for a landmark designation hearing. | JACKSON CHEN

The former Hotel Renaissance at 4 West 43rd Street, now owned by the Unification Church, was not approved for a landmark designation hearing. | JACKSON CHEN

Many other buildings suffered the same fate, but for differing reasons. The five-story Sire Building, a modest structure at 211 West 58th Street, was judged to be too ordinary, according to the commission’s research staff. Seven theaters on West 42nd Street were discounted since they already have historic preservation regulations through New 42nd Street, the nonprofit that oversees the redevelopment of the theaters.

And while the building housing the Osborne Apartments at 205 West 57th Street was designated a landmark in 1991, the ornate lobby within was de-calendared by the commission. Because the interior lobby is private property and not accessible to the public — the Osborne doormen are quick to shoo away photo-taking nonresidents — the commission said it did not qualify.

As the commission undertook an enormous amount of research to tackle the massive backlog, preservationists were still hoping for more than the 30 properties citywide that will receive a designation hearing by the end of the year.

On top of their disagreements with the commission, preservationists charged that the LPC should have stuck to considering the architectural and historical merit of the properties and left the politics out of their discussions.

According to New York Landmarks Conservancy, “the commission’s job is to decide whether a building merits designation” and “the [City] Council was the place to consider politics.”

Though the Osborne Apartments on West 57th Street have long been landmarked, its ornate lobby did not qualify for designation. | JACKSON CHEN

Though the Osborne Apartments on West 57th Street have long been landmarked, its ornate lobby did not qualify for designation. | JACKSON CHEN

With five buildings removed because they lacked merit, the conservancy said the remaining 60 deserving buildings are now left vulnerable to demolition. Agreeing with the conservancy, Adams said that positions staked out by building owners and the City Council should not have diluted the commission’s consideration of landmarking merit.

“What was really deplorable was to hear the commission, instance after instance, say on the record that this building is meritorious but the Council and owner are opposed,” Adams said.

He added, “Had that attitude been taken with theaters, hotels, and Grand Central Terminal, all those buildings would’ve been knocked down.”

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