Applying the New York City Landmarks Law: St. John’s Parish Church (1829-1917)

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by Kristina Nugent

By the early Twentieth Century, New York City was indeed America’s most populous and rapidly growing city. It was not long before undeveloped land became scarce and the cycle of demolition and renewal began to transform New York from an early industrial city to the metropolitan “Gotham” of the present time. Local preservation efforts justifiably had an early start. The effort to save St. John’s Church in lower Manhattan from imminent demolition during the first decade of the 1900s demonstrated that ample support for historic preservation existed in order to achieve a variety of individual agendas. Rarely was the impetus for the earliest preservation efforts simply a knee-jerk reaction to the changing times. Especially in the case of St. John’s, the preservation campaign surrounding the church received broad support from both individual New York citizens, such as the collector and progressive reformer I.N. Phelps Stokes, to government officials that included President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Root and George B. McClellan, the New York Mayor at that time. Other advocates for the preservation of St. John’s included the Reform and Tammany mayors, architects Charles Follen McKim and George Post, Metropolitan Museum of Art president Robert W. De Forest, and J.P. Morgan.[1] There were several other instances in which this kind of ardent public support for preservation had been sufficient in ensuring the survival of many of New York’s beloved historical buildings to despite more lucrative development proposals. The losses that occurred in the twentieth century, for the most part, did not result from an apathetic citizenry, or a lack of political leverage, but rather from the absence of binding regulations to prevent demolition by private landowners.

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St. John’s was a notable failure in the early history of the preservation movement in New York City. The ultimate demolition of St. John’s Parish Church typified the shortcomings of early advocacy-based preservation efforts of concerned New Yorkers. Had the New York City Landmarks Law been in effect in 1908 when the impassioned advocacy effort surrounding St. John’s Church occurred, would the church have been saved? This paper will first discuss the protections offered by the New York Landmarks Law, which Tony Wood has called “the best landmarks law in the country.”[2] Whether this statement is true or not, will not be the focus of this paper. For the purposes of this investigation, the assumption will be that the landmarks law is as good as it can be, but that it is insufficient when not accompanied by public and political support for the landmark designation process. I will argue that a favorable social and political context, in addition to legal mechanisms for listing and saving buildings, is a crucial part of the landmarks designation process. As will be demonstrated, the benefits of legal protection for historic landmarks can not be initially secured, or later upheld by the courts, if there is not adequate public and political support for historic preservation.

The arguments in this paper were inspired by Wood’s mini-epiphany during a Preservation Vision speech during the most recent National Trust Conference in 2008 that: “Preservation happens both in space, that is in particular places AND it also happens in a particular moment in time. What a shocker that the act of preserving history actually happens in a historical context of its own and is shaped by the events of that time.”[3] From observing the historical moment in which the campaign to save St. John’s was underway, and the protections offered by the later Landmarks Law and establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, this paper will additionally attempt to answer the question posed by Wood, (which was referred to earlier): “Despite having the best landmarks law in the country, why do we keep losing buildings and historic neighborhoods that we would rather have saved?”[4] Perhaps reflecting on the Landmarks Law and how it could have been successfully used in a previous era, will help illuminate why this is the case.

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With the passage of the New York Landmarks Law in 1965, finally there was a political mechanism in place to determine which of New York’s historic buildings merited binding legal protection from demolition. As Title 25, Chapter 3 of the New York Administrative Code Section § 25–301 stated, the purpose of the law was as follows:

The council finds that many improvements, as herein defined . . . have a special character or a special historical or aesthetic interest or value and many improvements representing the finest architectural products of distinct periods in the history of the city, have been uprooted, notwithstanding the feasibility of preserving and continuing the use of such improvements and landscape features, and without adequate consideration of the irreplaceable loss to the people of the city of the aesthetic, cultural and historic values represented by such improvements . . . .  It is the sense of the council that the standing of this city as a world wide tourist center and world capital of business, culture and government cannot be maintained or enhanced by disregarding the historical and architectural heritage of the city and by countenancing the destruction of such cultural assets.[5]

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Reflecting back on the early years of the 20th century, would this statement have appropriately described the public and private interest in protecting St. John’s Parish Church from demolition? According to Max Page, in The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, the battle to prevent the demolition of the church represented: “One of the most intense and unsuccessful campaigns to save a building . . . [and as a result of the eventual defeat] revealed the broader possibilities for preservation and called for a ‘larger movement for economic responsibility for neighborhoods in the face of speculation.’”[6] The situation Page described seemed to be kind of circumstance that the Landmarks Law professed to prevent.

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St. John’s Chapel was one of the many parish churches owned by the larger Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. Page wrote that “the church was admired for its age and its architecture for ‘antiquarian reasons.’”[7] St. John’s Church superficially represented “a preservation battle of the simplest, most elitist kind,” according to Page, since the importance of the church was mostly based on its beauty, as well as the fact that it was designed by a well-known architect. But when scratching beneath the surface, Page came to realize that the “St. John’s Chapel crusade revealed not simply a repetition of preservation campaigns following the patriotic model of Mount Vernon or the Jumel Mansion. Rather, it [showed] that possibilities for a broader notion of historic preservation were ripe [and] even as some suggested that buildings might more properly be preserved for posterity by moving them elsewhere away from the furnace of private real estate development and public works, others were beginning to argue that the historic building’s power was imminently tied to its site and use.”[8]

There were several reasons why the Trinity “mother church” was eager to sell St. John’s church in 1908. The primary one was that Trinity hoped to generate a sizable profit from the sale of the property, which it could then use to fuel the church’s further expansion into the greater city, since during that time the bulk of Manhattan’s population was moving northward with the development and speculation around Central Park. The larger issue at stake with the demolition of St. John’s was that Trinity Church was making a sly attempt to rid itself of not only the St. John’s property to generate revenue for expansion, but a second motive was that the church was trying to ‘get out of the tenement housing business’ and hoped to allow the city to shut down its tenement housing under more stringent tenement housing laws. Preservation, in this instance, transcended the architectural beauty of St. John’s Church: “Critics were enraged that the church evaluated its policy toward the tenements and St, John’s according to economic calculations.”[9] Preservation advocates, such as I.N. Phelps Stokes, “had urged that St. John’s not be moved and that it continue to be used as a church. He produced statistics showing that while some wealthier parishioners may have been moving northward there was still a sizable real and potential population for the chapel to serve. Others insisted that although the church no longer served its religious function, it could at least be used as a public forum.”[10] According to Page:  “St. John’s parishioners and clergy organized a protest and brought their case to court, attempting to stop the closing order. “Bowing to the pressure . . . Trinity agreed not to destroy the church, at first. However, with the widening of Varick Street to make way for the dual subway system and more auto traffic, the Church was [again] slated for demolition.”[11]

During the progressive era, “preservation battles came increasingly under the leadership of a group of upper-class reformers, city builders, professionals and managers,” since often they were intertwined with other social and political issues of the time. The Landmarks Law that was later adopted, “. . . hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of improvements . . . of aesthetic interest of value is a public necessity and is required in the interest of the health, prosperity, safety, and welfare of the people.”[12] The “interest” in preservation based on the “health, prosperity, safety, and welfare clause,” was very much relevant in the case of the St. John’s Church, which surpassed mere issues of aesthetics. Yet, aesthetic distinction and historic significance were nevertheless central. Protection under the Landmarks Law was offered to “buildings properties or objects” that had “a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state or nation (and aged at years or older).”[13] St. John’s chapel was considered one of the city’s masterpiece buildings since it was designed by John McComb Jr., one of the designers of the architecturally-beloved, though otherwise controversial City Hall building.[14]

Had the law existed during the first decade of the 1900’s, St. John’s church could have been nominated for consideration as a local landmark to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) by submitting a Request for Evaluation (RFE) form. Once the LPC Staff receive the RFE, the application sent on behalf of the historic church would have waited an indeterminate amount of time while the LPC Research Committee staff review the history of the nominated property in order to determine whether the proposed landmark meets the criteria for designation. The staff can either recommend that the RFE be formally reviewed by the LPC Commissioners, or retained on file with no further action. As a side note, since there is not a set timeline, this process can potentially take several years. For example, at present, the LPC has a backlog of RFE’s that were received as early as the 1970s. One such potential landmark, the Hubbard House in Gravesend, Brooklyn, was first proposed in the 1970s and designated in the fall of 2008.

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Continuing with the example of St. John’s Church, the considerable support of Mayor McClellan at that time should have been sufficient for the Church to avoid excessive delays in the “landmarking” process. The Landmarks Law established that the Landmarks Preservation Commission would consist of eleven members (of specified backgrounds and professions) who are all appointed by the mayor for periods that range from one to three years, including one of the members who the mayor appoints as the chair of the commission (and a vice-chair).[15] The law also outlined that the commission “may employ technical experts and such other employees as may be required to perform its duties,” which further emphasizes the political connection between the LPC, the Commissioners, and the Mayor. Once the LPC research staff review the RFE and determine that it meets the LPC criteria for designation, they are responsible for formally recommending the RFE the Commission. Following receipt of the recommendation, the Commission then has an unlimited amount of time to review the staff’s recommendation report. The next step in the process is “Calendaring” a Public Hearing, which is an official process that happens, according to the Historic Districts Council: “Once the staff, the Chair, and perhaps a Committee of Commissioners have agreed that the district has potential for designation and that they want to go forward with its designation . . . [and the potential landmark is] officially placed on the calendar of items to be considered by the LPC [However, again] there is no deadline for the LPC to move forward on designating a [landmark] after it has been calendared [and therefore] there is sometimes a lengthy period of time before calendaring and the next step, the public hearing..”[16]

During the period after the proposed landmark is officially “calendared” the Commissioners and the LPC research staff could continue to gather information and together create a formal “Designation report” that will be used during the public hearing, whenever the public hearing happens to take place. Returning to the timeframe referred to in the previous paragraph, there continue to be potential landmarks that were “calendared” several decades ago, and public hearings have yet to be held. This is where the mayor and other political officials’ support for designating St. John’s church would have given the building a tremendous advantage over hundreds of other potential landmarks that have not make it beyond this step.

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Returning again to the hypothetical example of St. John’s Church, assuming that a public “designation hearing” for the church was scheduled, which is mandated by the New York Landmarks Law, members of the general public, as well as LPC Commissioners would gather to discuss the merit of designating the potential landmark. Public Comments would be voiced either during the commission hearing, or submitted in paper. Typically this process would have begun with a presentation by the LPC Research Staff to demonstrate how the property meets the designation criteria of the landmarks law, then the commissioners would have been invited to present their own research or opinion, and following that, the hearing would have been open to members of the public. At the hypothetical St. John’s designation hearing, members of the congregation would have likely presented their case for preserving the church for its functional importance as a historic house of worship, while elite Manhattanites may have argued how the church represents one of the finest works of architecture in the city, as well as progressive housing advocates who would expose the insensitivity of Trinity Church and make a plea for housing reform. On the other side of the argument, Trinity Church would likely present its case for closing the parish, selling the property, and allowing for the church’s demolition. While the ultimate resolution of this case is unclear, the LPC could permissibly designate St. John’s Parish Church, even though its owner, Trinity Church, opposed its designation. The final determination would rest with the LPC Commissioners and Chair, who through the Landmarks Law are entrusted with voting to protect St. John’s Church. A majority of the Commission would have needed to vote in favor of designation in order for the landmarking process to continue, and following the public hearing would need to designate a “landmark site” for St. John’s church and indicate “the location and boundaries of such site.”[17] Additionally, following the public hearing the commission may “specify the nature of any construction, reconstruction, alteration or demolition of any landscape feature which may be performed on such scenic landmark without prior issuance of a report [as well as] amend any specification made pursuant to the provisions of this subdivision.

© Kristina Nugent and Ephemeral Urbanity, [2013 – present]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristina Nugent and EphemeralUrbanity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

New York Landmarks Law (an excerpt):

e. Subject to the provisions of subdivisions g and h of this section, any designation or amendment of a designation made by the commission pursuant to the provisions of subdivisions a, b and c of this section shall be in full force and effect from and after the date of the adoption thereof by the commission.

f. Within ten days after making any such designation or amendment thereof, the commission shall file a copy of same with the council, the department of AA

Buildings, the city planning commission, the board of standards and appeals, the fire department and the department of health and mental hygiene.

g. (1) Within sixty days after such filing, the city planning commission shall (a) hold a public hearing on any such designation of a historic district and (b) shall submit to the council a report with respect to the relation of such designation, whether of a historic district or a landmark, interior landmark, scenic landmark, or landmark site, or amendment of such designation to the zoning resolution, projected public improvements and any plans for the development, growth, improvement or renewal of the area involved. The city planning commission shall include with any such report its recommendation, if any, for council action with respect to any such designation of a historic district.

(2) The council may modify or disapprove by majority vote any designation of the commission or amendment thereof within one hundred twenty days after a copy thereof is filed with the council provided that the city planning commission has submitted the report required by this subdivision or that sixty days have elapsed since the filing of the designation or amendment with the council. All votes of the council pursuant to this subdivision shall be filed by the council with the mayor and shall be final unless disapproved by the mayor within five days of such filing. Any such disapproval by the mayor shall be filed by the mayor with the council and shall be subject to override by a two-thirds vote of the council within ten days of such filing. If the council shall disapprove such designation or amendment, such designation or amendment shall continue in full force and effect until the time for disapproval by the mayor has expired; provided, however, that if the mayor disapproves such council disapproval, it shall continue in full force and effect unless the council overrides the mayor’s disapproval. If the council shall modify such designation or amendment, such designation or amendment as adopted by the commission shall continue in full force and effect until the time for disapproval by the mayor has expired, and after such time such modification shall be in effect; provided, however, that if the mayor disapproves such council modification, the designation or amendment as adopted by the commission shall continue in full force and effect unless the council overrides the mayor’s disapproval, and in the event of override the modification shall take effect on and after the date of such override.

h. (1) The commission shall have power, after a public hearing, to adopt a resolution proposing rescission, in whole or in part, of any designation or amendment or modification thereof mentioned in the preceding subdivisions of this section. Within ten days after adopting any such resolution, the commission shall file a copy thereof with the council and the city planning commission.

(2) Within sixty days after such filing, the city planning commission shall submit to the council a report with respect to the relation of such proposed rescission of any such designation, whether of a historic district or a landmark, interior landmark, scenic landmark or landmark site, or amendment or modification thereof, to the zoning resolution, projected public improvements and any plans for the development, growth, improvement, or renewal of the area involved.

(3) The council may approve, disapprove or modify such proposed rescission within one hundred twenty days after a copy of the resolution proposing same is filed with the council, provided that the city planning commission has submitted the report required by this subdivision or that sixty days have elapsed since the filing of such resolution. Failure to take action on such proposed rescission within such one hundred twenty-day period shall be deemed a vote to disapprove such proposed rescission. All votes of the council pursuant to this subdivision shall be filed by the council with the mayor and shall be final unless disapproved by the mayor within five days of such filing. Any such mayoral disapproval shall be filed by the mayor with the council and shall be subject to override by a two-thirds vote of the council within ten days of such filing. If such proposed rescission is approved or modified by the council, such rescission or modification thereof shall not take effect until the time for disapproval by the mayor has expired; provided, however, that if the mayor disapproves such rescission or modification, it shall not take effect unless the council overrides the mayor’s disapproval. If such proposed rescission is disapproved by the council, it shall not take effect unless the mayor disapproves such council disapproval and the council fails to override the mayor’s disapproval.

i. The commission may at any time make recommendations to the city planning commission with respect to amendments of the provisions of the zoning resolution applicable to improvements in historic districts.

j. All designations and supplemental designations of landmarks, landmark sites, interior landmarks, scenic landmarks and historic districts made pursuant to subdivision a shall be made pursuant to notices of public hearings given, as provided in section 25–313. In addition to such notice, the commission shall give notice to the city planning commission, all affected community boards and the office of the borough president in whose borough the property or district is located in advance of any public hearing relating to such designations.

k. Upon its designation of any improvement parcel as a landmark and of any landmark site, interior landmark, scenic landmark or historic district or any amendment of any such designation or rescission thereof, the commission shall cause to be recorded in the office of the register of the city of New York in the county in which such landmark, interior landmark, scenic landmark or district lies, or in the case of landmarks, interior landmarks, scenic landmarks and districts in the county of Richmond in the office of the clerk of said county of Richmond, a notice of such designation, amendment or rescission describing the party affected by, in the case of the county of Richmond, its land map block number or numbers, and its tax map, block and lot number or numbers, and in the case of all other counties, by its land map block and lot number or numbers.

“Desesignation report.” The report prepared by the commission and used as a basis for designating a landmark or historic district pursuant to this chapter.

§ 25–302 Definitions. As used in this chapter, the following terms shall mean and include:

a. “Alteration.” Any of the acts defined as an alteration by the building code of the city.

b. “Appropriate protective interest.” Any right or interest in or title to an improvement parcel or any part thereof, including, but not limited to, fee title and scenic or other easements, the acquisition of which by the city is determined by the commission to be necessary and appropriate for the effectuation of the purpose of this chapter.

c. “Capable of earning a reasonable return.” Having the capacity, under reasonably efficient and prudent management, of earning a reasonable return. For the purposes of this chapter, the net annual return, as defined in subparagraph (a) of paragraph three of subdivision v of this section, yielded by an improvement parcel during the test year, as defined in subparagraph (b) of such paragraph, shall be presumed to be the earning capacity of such improvement parcel, in the absence of substantial grounds for a contrary determination by the commission.

c-1. “Chair.” The chair of the landmarks preservation commis- sion.

d. “City-aided project.” Any physical betterment of real property, which:

(1) may not be constructed or effected without the approval of one or more officers or agencies of the city; and

(2) upon completion, will be owned in whole or in part by any person other than the city; and

(3) is planned to be constructed or effected, in whole or in part, with any form of aid furnished by the city (other than under this chapter), including, but not limited to, any loan, grant, subsidy or other mode of financial assistance, exercise of the city’s powers of eminent domain, contribution of city property, or the granting of tax exemption or tax abatement; and

(4) will involve the construction, reconstruction, alteration or demolition of any improvement in a historic district or of a landmark.

e. “Commission.” The landmarks preservation commission.

f. “Day.” Any day other than a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday; provided, however, that for purposes of section 25-303 and subdivision d of section 25-317 of this chapter, the term “day” shall mean every day in the week.

g. “Exterior architectural feature.” The architectural style, design, general arrangement and components of all of the outer surfaces of an improvement, as distinguished from the interior surfaces enclosed by said exterior surfaces, including, but not limited to, the kind, color and texture of the building material

and the type and style of all windows, doors, lights, signs and other fixtures appurtenant to such improvement.

i. “Improvement.” Any building, structure, place, work of art or other object constituting a physical betterment of real property, or any part of such betterment.

j. “Improvement parcel.” The unit of real property which (1) includes a physical betterment constituting an improvement and the land embracing the site thereof, and (2) is treated as a single entity for the purpose of levying real estate taxes, provided however, that the term “improvement parcel” shall also include any unimproved area of land which is treated as a single entity for such tax purposes.

k. “Interior.” The visible surfaces of the interior of an improvement.

l. “Interior architectural feature.” The architectural style, design, general arrangement and components of an interior, including, but not limited to, the kind, color and texture of the building material and the type and style of all windows, doors, lights, signs and other fixtures appurtenant to such interior.

n. “Landmark.” Any improvement, any part of which is thirty years old or older, which has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, state or nation, and which has been designated as a landmark pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.

o. “Landmark site.” An improvement parcel or part thereof on which is situated a landmark and any abutting improvement parcel or part thereof used as and constituting part of the premises on which the landmark is situated, and

q. “Minor work.” Any change in, addition to or removal from the parts, elements or materials comprising an improvement, including, but not limited to, the exterior architectural features or interior architectural features thereof and, subject to and as prescribed by regulations of the commission if and when promulgated pursuant to section 25-319 of this chapter, the surfacing, resurfacing, painting, renovating, restoring or rehabilitating of the exterior architectural features or interior architectural features or the treating of the same in any manner that materially alters their appearance, where such change, addition or removal does not constitute ordinary repairs and maintenance and is of such nature that it may be lawfully effected without a permit from the department of buildings.

q-1. “Offense.” As used in the phrase “second and subsequent offense”, a violation encompassing some or all of the conditions or actions described or encompassed by a prior notice of violation or summons. For purposes of this definition, there shall be a presumption that the conditions encompassed by a second or subsequent offense have been in existence for each day between the time the respondent admits to liability or is found liable for or guilty of the prior offense and the time the second or subsequent notice of violation or summons is served.

r. “Ordinary repairs and maintenance.” Any:

(1) work done on any improvement; or

(2) replacement of any part of an improvement;

for which a permit issued by the department of buildings is not required by law, where the purpose and effect of such work or replacement is to correct any deterioration or decay of or damage to such improvement or any part thereof and to restore same, as nearly as may be practicable, to its condition prior to the occurrence of such deterioration, decay or damage.

s. “Owner.” Any person or persons having such right to, title to or interest in any improvement so as to be legally entitled, upon obtaining the required permits and approvals from the city agencies having jurisdiction over building construction, to perform with respect to such property any demolition, construction, reconstruction, alteration or other work as to which such person seeks the authorization or approval of the commission pursuant to section 25-309 of this chapter.

t. “Person in charge.” The person or persons possessed of the freehold of an improvement or improvement parcel or a lesser estate therein, a mortgagee or vendee in possession, assignee of rents, receiver, executor, trustee, lessee, agent or any other person directly or indirectly in control of an improvement or improvement parcel.

u. “Protected architectural feature.” Any exterior architectural feature of a landmark or any interior architectural feature of an interior landmark.

v. “Reasonable return.” (1) A net annual return of six per centum of the valuation of an improvement parcel.

(2) Such valuation shall be the current assessed valuation established by the city, which is in effect at the time of the filing of the request for a certificate of appropriateness; provided that:

(a) The commission may make a determination that the valuation of the improvement parcel is an amount different from such assessed valuation where there has been a reduction in the assessed valuation for the year next preceding the effective date of the current assessed valuation in effect at the time of the filing of such request; and

(b) The commission may make a determination that the value of the improvement parcel is an amount different from the assessed valuation where there has been a bona fide sale of such parcel within the period between March fifteenth, nineteen hundred fifty-eight, and the time of the filing of such request, as the result of a transaction at arm’s length, on normal financing terms, at a readily ascertainable price, and unaffected by special circumstances such as, but not limited to, a forced sale, exchange of property, package deal, wash sale or sale to a cooperative. In determining whether a sale was on normal financing terms, the commission shall give due consideration to the following factors:

(1) The ratio of the cash payment received by the seller to (a) the sales price of the improvement parcel and (b) the annual gross income from such parcel;

(2) The total amount of the outstanding mortgages which are liens against the improvement parcel (including purchase money mortgages) as compared with the assessed valuation of such parcel;

(3) The ratio of the sales price to the annual gross income of the improvement parcel, with consideration given, where the improvement is subject to residential rent control, to the total amount of rent adjustments previously granted, exclusive of rent adjustments because of changes in dwelling space, services, furniture, furnishings, or equipment, major capital improvements, or substantial rehabilitation;

(4) The presence of deferred amortization in purchase money mortgages, or the assignment of such mortgages at a discount;

(5) Any other facts and circumstances surrounding such sale which, in the judgment of the commission, may have a bearing upon the question of financing.

(6) For the purposes of this subdivision v:

(a) Net annual return shall be the amount by which the earned income yielded by the improvement parcel during a test year exceeds the operating expenses of such parcel during such year, excluding mortgage interest and amortization, and excluding allowances for obsolescence and reserves, but including an allowance for depreciation of two per centum of the assessed value of the improvement, exclusive of the land, or the amount shown for depreciation of the improvement in the latest required federal income tax return, whichever is lower; provided, however, that no allowance for depreciation of the improvement shall be included where the improvement has been fully depreciated for federal income tax purposes or on the books of the owner; and

(b) Test year shall be (1) the most recent full calendar year, or (2) the owner’s most recent fiscal year, or (3) any twelve consecutive months ending not more than ninety days prior to the filing (a) of the request for a certificate, or (b) of an application for a renewal of tax benefits pursuant to the provisions of section 25-309 of this chapter, as the case may be.

w. “Scenic landmark.” Any landscape feature or aggregate of landscape features, any part of which is thirty years old or older, which has or have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, state or nation and which has been designated a scenic landmark pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.

x. As used in section 25–317.1:

(1) “Type A violation.” Except as otherwise defined by the rules of the commission, the following work done or condition created or maintained in violation of this chapter without an appropriate approval from the commission:

(a) the removal of or alterations to, except for painting, a significant portion of an exterior architectural feature, including, without limitation thereof, removal of or alterations to:

(i) the windows on a single facade or, where original, historic or special windows exist, the removal of or alterations to a significant portion of such original, historic or special windows on a single facade;

(ii) a decorative element made of metal, glass, wood, brick, ceramic and/or stone including, without limitation thereof, a cornice, lintel, grille or molding;

(iii) the paving stones or curbstones of a stone sidewalk;

(iv) an exterior doorway or stoop;

(v) a wall, fence, railing, porch, balcony or roof, including dormers, bays, gables and parapets; and

(vi) a storefront, but not including the installation of signs, awnings, flagpoles or banners;

(b) the removal of or alterations to a significant portion of a protected feature of an interior landmark as described in the designation report;

(c) the construction of all or a portion of a new building, structure, addition or any other improvement on a landmark site or within the boundaries of a historic district. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, any significant modification of the existing bulk or envelope of a building shall be a violation under this paragraph;

(d) the elimination by paving or other construction of a significant portion of an area-way, planting area, or front, rear or side yards, where such feature is a significant component of the landmark or historic district;

(e) where the improvement is not a building or an interior landmark, the removal of or alterations to a significant portion of such improvement;

(f) the failure to submit to the commission any periodic inspection report required under the terms of a restrictive declaration recorded in connection with any zoning permit, certification or authorization granted to an improvement under the jurisdiction of the commission.

(2) “Type B violation”. Except as otherwise defined by the rules of the commission, the failure to maintain an improvement in a condition of good repair in violation of section 25-311 of this chapter, and where such condition results or may result in significant deterioration of either a significant portion of the improvement or a character-defining, protected, architectural feature of such improvement.

(a) For purposes of this subdivision, and without limiting the scope thereof, the term “significant deterioration” shall include the failure to maintain:

(i) the improvement in a structurally sound or reasonably water-tight condition; or

(ii) a character-defining, protected, architectural feature in a structurally sound or reasonably water-tight condition or otherwise failing to preserve the integral historic material of such feature.

(b) For purposes of this subdivision, the term “significant deterioration” shall not include:

(i) any condition that may permit some water penetration and/or evidence slight structural deterioration, unless such condition has existed over a period of time such that it has led or may reasonably lead to significant water penetration or structural damage to a significant part of a facade or roof; or

(ii) the failure to maintain a small part of a single, character-defining, protected, architectural feature or a small portion of the decorative, architectural features of the improvement taken as a whole.

(3) “Type C violation”. All other violations of this chapter, except for violations of section 25-311 of this chapter.


[1] Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.145.

[2] Wood, Tony. Remarks delivered at the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference

October 2008. Preservation Vision: NYC by Anthony Wood and Kirstin Sechler, p.2.

[3] Wood, Tony. Remarks delivered at the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference

October 2008. Preservation Vision: NYC by Anthony Wood and Kirstin Sechler, p.2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] New York City Charter §3020, New York Administrative Code Section 25-301, Title 25, Chapter 3: Landmarks preservation and Historic Districts, Modified Jan. 10, 2000.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.145.

[8] Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.145.

[9] Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.145.

[10] Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, p.147.

[11] Ibid, 149.

[12] Ibid.

[13] New York City Charter §3020, New York Administrative Code Section 25-301, Title 25, Chapter 3: Landmarks preservation and Historic Districts, Modified Jan. 10, 2000.

[14] Ibid.

[15] New York City Charter §3020, New York Administrative Code Section 25-301, Title 25, Chapter 3: Landmarks preservation and Historic Districts, Modified Jan. 10, 2000.

[16] Historic Districts Council. PRESERVING YOUR HISTORIC NEIGHBORHOOD: New York City Designation Process. Online: <http://www.hdc.org/preservingnyc.htm&gt;. Accessed May 2, 2009.

[17] New York City Charter §3020, New York Administrative Code Section 25-301, Title 25, Chapter 3: Landmarks preservation and Historic Districts, Modified Jan. 10, 2000.

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Behind that Brownstone Fascade: a glimpse inside the second floor study of a storied UES Townhouse

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by Kristina Nugent

A town house on 255 East 71st street raises the question of whether or not historic preservation can be proven to demonstrate a bias towards protecting architecturally and aesthetically distinctive buildings at the expense of assigning an equal importance to embodied historic value. Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic magazine, editor of Architectural Record and author of several books concerning American politics and Progressive ideals, lived in the townhouse on 255 East 71st street for the final eight years of his life. Author Waldo David Frank noted in The American Jungle that:

Most men are set and long past growing before they are forty. This is true of the conspicuous and successful, no less than of the common. Herbert Croly [on the other hand] was a growing man until he was stricken, and the rate of his growth kept on accelerating with the years. This rare capacity, which toward the end transfigured him, was his true genius.

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But even if one could make the case that Croly’s final years spent in the townhouse on the Upper East Side were indeed the most significant years of his life, is this enough to justify the preservation of his residence at the time, regardless of the building’s architectural qualities?

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A similar question arose in an instance in the summer of 2000 when the New York University school of law, “planned to raze a town house on West Third Street where [Edgar Allen] Poe lived briefly in the 1840’s and replace it with a 13-story tower with classrooms and offices,” after, “the Landmarks Commission declined to designate the building,” according to the New York Times.[i] . The reasons against preserving the town house given by NYU’s president, John H. Beckman, were namely that, “While we agree that commemorating Poe is important, and we are committed to finding a way to do it, we do not believe that preserving this structure is the appropriate way to do it.”[ii] Can – and should – this conclusion be applied to other preservation scenarios where there is a strong case for historic significance but a weak argument for architectural merit?

The House and the Neighborhood

The house where Herbert Croly lived in New York is located on the north side of East 71st Street between Second and Third Avenues. The property upon which the physical structure was built originally was owned as part of the estate of Colford and Eleanor Jones. Prior to Mrs. Jones death on June 23, 1855, the land holdings were divided among her relatives and the parcel upon which the town house in question now sits was originally granted to Isaac Carew and James J. Jones in 1822. In 1831, a portion of the parcel was sold to John Jones Schermerhorn. After the death of Eleanor Jones in 1855, Edmund H. Schermerhorn desired to purchase the entire parcel on East 71st Street from the grantees of Eleanor (Pendleton) Jones, but several family members refused to sell their shares. The matter was brought to the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and the outcome was that much of the land was sold to individual members of the Schermerhorn family while several Pendleton and Jones family members held on to their shares of the estate, including the property that was to become 255 East 71st Street. The land continued to be sold or passed down. In 1865 the area around East 71st street was transforming into a residential area, and accordingly, when the property was granted to Richard M. Hoe by his parents in 1865, he initiated the construction of the row house that has occupied this lot up until the current time.

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The row house came into the Croly’s ownership in July 2, 1923 when Louise Croly obtained it from the Redmond sisters. That same year, Croly was given money from Dorothy Straight of the New Republic to “remodel the house on 255 Seventy-First Street,” and, “Herbert, for the first time in his life, had his own study.”[iii] According to Christopher Gray, Dorothy Straight and her husband, Willard Straight, were both deeply influenced by Croly’s first book, The Promise of American Life, and since, “The Straights were particularly interested in liberal politics, in1914 Croly was invited to meet Dorothy and Willard at their Long Island home. While there, Croly commented that Norman Hapgood, the recently appointed editor of Harper’s Weekly, had failed to turn it into the liberal journal that America needed. Dorothy suggested that the three of them should start their own journal.”[iv] Together, they founded The New Republic journal, which first appeared on 7th November 1914. Willard Straight financed the journal and appointed Croly as its president and its editor-in-chief. The journal was, “outspoken in favor of women’s rights, the labor movement and American involvement in international affairs, and also became a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement.”[v]

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In a letter to Mrs. Straight, Herbert wrote “he worked [in the new study on 255 East 71st Street] every morning, usually on next week’s leader or editorial. Around noon he brought his handwritten notes to the typist at the office and, at one lunched with those staff members and guests who happened to be present. He then retired back to his study on the second floor and took a nap on his couch – he had installed a special “vita glass” in the windows because he had been persuaded that it would screen out actinic rays and preserve health.”[vi]

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For Croly, this row house was more than his residence, but was the setting in which several of his most important writings were created.

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Structural History and Alterations

This wood-framed, masonry-sheathed Italianate row house was built in 1869, altered in 1923 by Herbert Croly, and again in 1972 by owner George S. Borey by the architect Robert H. Simpson who converted the former single-family house into a duplex. The original construction drawings are missing from the Building’s Department file, but the 1923 alteration drawings reveal that the formerly transitional Italianate/Georgian-style facade (that still remains on the adjacent row house to the right-hand side of this building) was altered. The architect’s drawings to alter the façade were not fully realized, and while the decorative right-side stoop and second-story entrance was later removed and a new entry door was added to the ground level.

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The former second-story entrance had consisted of Doric-pilasters that flanked the wood-paneled front entry door, with an arched pediment over and an oversized decorative keystone and still appeared in the 1939 tax photo. An additional aspect of the 1923 design was to add a ground-floor entrance on the right side of the building and the architect’s plans indicated that the entry was intended to be recessed (as was popular in Beaux-Arts designs). It is uncertain why this plan was not carried through since there is documentation stating that Croly received funds from Mrs. Straight to remodel the home in 1923; these plans are from 1923 but it is clear from the tax photos that many of the exterior alterations were not made during Croly’s lifetime.

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In 1972 the house was converted into a duplex and a ground-floor entrance was finally added. The plans of the architect indicate that he changed very little on the façade with the exception of removing the stoop and elaborate decoration around the second-story entrance, and adding a metal spiral-staircase to the exterior in order to provide access to the upper-story apartment. More extensive changes were made to the interior in order to add an additional kitchen and more bathroom facilities that were needed to accommodate two tenants.

In past landmark discussions, board members of the Landmarks Commission have given the fact that a building, “had been significantly altered over time,” as a reason for not designating the historic resource.[1] While the modernizations may have substantially altered the original use of the building, the overall aesthetic quality of the row house on 255 East 71st street has not drastically changed from the time in which Croly lived there from around 1922 to 1930. It follows that, while alterations may influence the potential significance of a historic structure, in this instance, the modernizations have had a negligible impact on the historic character of this row house.

Career of Herbert Croly (1869-1930):

­            From his obituary in the New York Times, the defining moments of Croly’s life were noted.

While these few details only begin to hint at the achievements and contributions of Mr. Croly during his lifetime, they offer a succinct biographical sketch:

Mr. Croly was a son of the late David G. Croly of this city, a former editor of The World, and of The Graphic. After spending a year (1884-85) at the College of the City of New York, he studied for a year at Harvard, leaving to return in 1985 and study philosophy with the intention of teaching the subject until 1899, when he left (again) without getting his doctoral degree. He obtained a position with The Architectural Record, was its editor from 1900-1906, and continued as a member of its staff until 1913. He relinquished the editorship in order to throw himself into the preparation of the book that made his reputation, “The Promise of American Life,” issued in 1909. The impression made by this volume led him to write, “Marcus Alonzo Hanna, His Life and Work,” 1912, which was followed by “Progressive Democracy,” in 1914. In November 1914, The New Republic made its appearance. His home in the city was at 255 East Seventy-First Street.”[vii]

To add, author David W. Levy published a longer biographical narrative, Herbert Croly of The New Republic, in 1985. Levy focused his investigation primarily on Croly’s political ideas, but necessarily grounded Croly’s beliefs in a study of his early life, which was seen by the author to have had a measurable influence on his career path, his political writings and involvement in the political events of his adult lifetime.

Although Croly began his career with Architectural Record, it was not architecture that enflamed his passion, but politics. However, from the standpoint of American architectural history, Croly’s contribution to the field was far from insignificant. He wrote several books on the subject, and over one hundred articles relating to American architecture that are useful snapshots of architectural discussions that engaged Americans during that time. In the Architectural Record, Croly, in one instance, looked at the rise and fall of the once ultra-fashionable brownstone facades, and “traced it back to the 1830s and points to its final triumph during the early eighties in the Vanderbilt houses opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral, [but wrote that] thereafter it was abandoned so speedily, both by speculative builders and by the richer men who built their own houses, that the sudden change can only be accounted for on the ground, partly, no doubt, unconscious, of an utter weariness of the flesh and spirit.”[viii] His political ideologies often colored his writings on architecture, and in one such instance he wrote on the lack of progress made in New York City for public improvements, and wrote with great zeal on the role of the city government should play in promoting aesthetics and why it is not practical in his time, given the widespread corruption of city officials:

…Thus the municipal art reform movement is closely associated with the general movement towards municipal reform. As long as our municipal governments are untrustworthy, public opinion will be loath to sanction any considerable increase in their legal powers; and as long as such increase in legal powers remains unsanctioned the vision of a beautified and glorified future for our larger American cities must remain, to a large extent, impracticable.[ix]

As a brief overview of the political events that occurred during Croly’s lifetime, he was raised during the heyday of the “spoils system” in American politics and grew weary of the candidacies of Benjamin Harrison, “ … and Tyler too,” and the dishonesty of “log cabin” campaigns which functioned more as popular spectacles than as serious, issues-based elections. Growing up in New York City, especially, and seeing firsthand the vast exploitation of the city’s immigrant populations through the mastermind political machine of Tammany Hall, and the detestable legacy of Mayor “Boss” Tweed, it makes sense why Croly supported the governmental reforms that were championed by the Progressive Party that aimed to end “machine politics” and re-establish a more just, democratic electoral system.

Yet, Croly refused to align himself with the any political party even though the agenda of Theodore Roosevelt especially resonated with Croly. He was even offered a job by President Roosevelt, himself, which Croly, “politely declined on the grounds of political independence.”[x]Croly’s first book, The Promise of American Life arguably cemented Croly’s reputation as an esteemed political thinker in America during this time.[xi] According to Richard Hofstadter in, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., “American Magazine, at the height of the 1912 presidential campaign, hailed Croly as the “man from whom Colonel [Theodore] Roosevelt got his ‘new nationalism.”‘[xii]

As Levy wrote, the years between 1909 and 1914: “…were particularly thrilling for Herbert Croly. His work was widely respected. His services were eagerly solicited: to write articles or deliver papers, to prepare planks for the platform of an old party, to serve as an officer for a new one … [and] Croly came to know a number of Washington luminaries … and other socially prominent, politically important men.”[xiii] In 1918, with endowment funds from Mr. Straight, the two men founded a new college in New York City, “to be devoted to Political Science,” which The Nation called, “a profoundly important and fascinating educational experiment,” and arguably was the forerunner for such an educational curriculum that continues to be taught in the current age.[xiv]

The nineteen twenties were initially difficult for Croly after the death of his business partner, and good friend, Willard Straight, which he captured in a biography of Straight which was published shortly after his death. Croly and The New Republic, continued to carry on, and Croly continued to take on more responsibility in order to see to it that his agenda was being carried out by supporting such causes that would further its reach. Unexpectedly, in 1928, Croly became, “seriously ill at his home, 255 East Seventy-First Street, having suffered a paralytic stroke several weeks ago, it was learned yesterday. Inquiries at the home brought the information that he was improved yesterday.”[xv] A day later, it was reported in the Times that he was, “in a “satisfactory condition at his home, 255 East Seventy-First Street, last night.”[xvi]

Yet Croly did not fully recover and two years later, he “died in a hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif. on May 17, 1930 at the age of sixty one (apparently he had been staying with in Montecito, since November).[xvii] Croly’s letter of administration read: “Herbert D. Croly (May 17th). Estate, $35,000. To Louise E. Croly, widow, 255 East Seventy-First Street. Other heir, sister.”[xviii]

Croly House in New Hampshire:

As an aside, Croly’s vacation home in Cornish New Hampshire is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On the designation report, the historic significance of the property was:

Herbert Croly came to Cornish initially in 1893. For the next two summers his family rented “Barberry House”, then belonging to Frank Johnson. In 1897 Herbert Croly, then editor of the Architectural Record bought this piece of pasture land from Edward Bryant and commissioned Charles Platt to build this house overlooking Dingleton Hill, the Connecticut Valley and Mt. Ascutney. It was here that Croly wrote The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1914). Croly also served as editor of the liberal weekly, New Republic, founded in 1914. Philip Littell, who lived down the hill, served as the first literary editor. Croly was one of a handful of colonists who remained in Cornish for the greater part of the year.[xix]

The critical aspect of this property, as opposed to Croly’s New York townhouse was its undeniable architectural merit, and that Croly, himself, commissioned the “prominent” architect Charles Platt to design his home, as well as the fact that his formative years writing The Promise were spent at this home.

Conclusion:

The criteria by which most historic buildings become landmarks or are eligible for the national register is by exhibiting distinctive architectural qualities that generally reflect the work of a well-known professional architect. But why include the additional category for historical significance if a building is unlikely to qualify if this unstated, but essential criterion is not met?

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Arguably, historic places have a dual purpose: as a stage for contemporary human life, and as ciphers that collect the memories from an earlier age. The buildings themselves must function didactically, and are essential resources for the present society to learn about the past. Therefore the question in this example is what we can learn about Croly’s life through the townhouse on 255 East 71st street, and does the exemplified personal history in question warrant designation of the physical structure in question? In this instance, the facts at hand justify a hearing. Then, as with any landmarks designation in New York City, it is the responsibility of the Commissioners, based on historic evidence and public input, to make a final finding on this matter.


© Kristina Nugent and Ephemeral Urbanity, [2013 – present]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristina Nugent and EphemeralUrbanity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


[i] Grady, Jim, “City Lore; Fear! Dread! Torment! Why Poe’s Fans Are Obsessive,” New York Times, February 18, 2001.

[ii] Siegal, Nina, “Rapping on Poe’s Door, A Hint of Nevermore; Anger in Village Over N.Y.U. Tower,” New York Times, July 19, 2000, C4.

[iii] Levy, David W., Herbert Croly of the New Republic: the life and thought of an American progressive, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), 1985, p.287.

[iv] Gray, Christopher, “Streetscapes/1915 Straight Residence, Until Recently the International Center of Photography; The Northernmost Mansion Built on Fifth Avenue,” October 14, 2001.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Herbert Croly Dies at Santa Barbara,” The New York Times, (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 1851 – 2004), May 18, 1930, pg. 31.

[viii] “Art as a Humanizer,” (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), Jun 7, 1903, pg. 11.

[ix] Croly, Herbert, “Civic Improvements: The Case of New York,” Architectural Record, 21(May 1907): 347-352.

[x] Levy, David W., Herbert Croly of the New Republic,” p.159.

[xi] “Croly, Herbert David.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Oct. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9027961&gt;.

[xii] Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., (Vintage: New York, 1955), p.147.

[xiii] Ibid, 160.

[xiv] “Found New College, Faculty to Control,”  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), May 10, 1918, pg. 9.

[xv] “Herbert Croly Very Ill,” New York Times,  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers; 1857-Current file), Nov 27, 1928, pg. 25.

[xvi] “Herbert Croly Recovering,” New York Times,  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers; 1857-Current file), Nov 28, 1928, pg. 20.

[xvii] “Herbert Croly Dies at Santa Barbara,” The New York Times, (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 1851 – 2004), May 18, 1930, pg. 31.

[xviii] “Classified Ad 1 — No Title,” (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), Jun 8, 1930; pg. 36.

[xix] “Croly House in New Hampshire,” Site: N08-048, Cornish, NH. Location: Saint-Gaudens Road, north side. Site Type: House. UTMs: (Zone 18) E: 713570. N: 4820080. Lisa Mausolf, Preservation Specialist, Upper Valley-Lake Sunapee Council, 314 First NH Bank Building, Lebanon, NH 03766, November 1989.

Images

Image 1: “DWE US Office,” Papers of Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst. (From left: Herbert Croly, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, and Louise Croly. The car is a 1925 Sunbeam 14/40 coupe.)

Image 2: Croly, Herbert David.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Oct. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9027961&gt;.

Image 3: “Croly’s Second-Floor Study,” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 4: “Townhouse on 255 East 71st Street, Evening” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 5: “Townhouse on 255 East 71st Street, Morning” author, October 26, 2007.

Image 6: “Croly’s Second-Floor Study, Morning ,” author, October 26, 2007.

Image 7: “Fence: 255 East 71st Street,” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 8: NYC Department of Finance, Conveyance Records, Block 1426, (Prior to 1916).

(Lot 20 is the current address for 255 East 71st Street)

Images 9, 10: NYC Department of Buildings, File for 1426-0020. Alteration “300,” 1972.