At Final Backlog Hearing, Testimony Considered on Manhattan Items

Landmarks Preservation Commission. Credit: LPC.

Landmarks Preservation Commission. Credit: LPC.

The proposed designation of the former Yuengling Brewery Site in East Harlem proved contentious, dividing preservationists and those who wished to see site developed.  On November 12, 2015 the Landmarks Preservation Commission held the final of four special hearings organized to address the backlog of items added to the Commission’s calendar before 2001, but never brought to a vote on designation.  The final hearing consisted of items in Manhattan, occupying Community Boards six through twelve.  Landmarks is expected to make determinations on the items in early 2016.

Joseph Rosenberg, speaking on behalf of the Catholic Archdioceses of New York, reiterated the church’s opposition to the designation of its properties, which included St. Joseph’s Church, and St. Paul’s Rectory, Church, and School.  Rosenberg said designation would constitute an “untenable burden,” and infringe on the church’s mission and ministry.  Support for the designation of St. Joseph’s was voiced by a representative of Save Harlem Now, who said it represented a “community’s collective reverence.”  Historic Districts Council representatives testified in support of the designation of the early-20th-century, Romanesque-Revival, St. Paul’s, calling it an “impressive complex” in “a neighborhood sorely lacking landmark buildings.”

The Chester A. Arthur House at 123 Lexington Avenue is where the 21st President took the oath of office in 1883 following the assassination of President James Garfield.  It remained Arthur’s home after he left office and until his death.  The 1855 rowhouse has been substantially altered throughout its history.  A representative of Manhattan Community Board 6 said the house merited designation because of its “historic associations,” noting that Arthur was the only President other than George Washington to take the oath of office in New York City.  The Guides Association of New York City’s Robin Garr testified that the house merited designation as the “physical presence” of where a U.S. President was sworn into office.  Garr further argued that the presence of Kalustyan’s specialty food store in the building added a layer of meaning to the building as “an immigrant success story.”

Co-owner of 412 East 85th Street Susan Jordan endorsed landmarking, saying the preservation of the 19th-century wood-framed house was important to the immediate and larger communities, and that the building served as a “reminder of Yorkville’s agrarian past.”  Council member Ben Kallos called the building “absolutely amazing,” and noted that it was one of only six wood-framed houses still standing on the Upper East Side, including Gracie Mansion.  Area resident Franny Eberhart called the building a “window to the history of Yorkville.”

The 1965 Edgar J. Kaufman Conference Rooms, Lecture Hall, and Elevator Lobby, designed by Alvar and Elissa Aalto, were first heard as a potential interior landmark in 2001.  The Institute for International Education currently owns the floors of 809 United Nations Plaza on which the rooms reside.  Vice president and general counsel of the Institute, Kay Murray, said the rooms were well taken care of and an “important part of our heritage,” but that it was infeasible to invite public access, given the active use of the rooms and security concerns.  Public accessibility is a requisite for designation of an interior landmark.  Attorney Frank Chaney, land use counsel to the Institute, stated that the rooms were rented out for private events approximately 15 times per year, which did not meet the “habitual” standard of public access required for landmarking.  He said the very nature of the Institute’s business was “private, not public,” and the rooms should not be designated.

Thomas Collins called the proposed landmark the “finest expression of Scandinavian Modernism in New York.”  A representative of Docomomo Tri-State said the rooms were of “extraordinary significance,” and testified that the rooms had been “carefully designed to accommodate the public,” with a dedicated entrance allowing visitors to bypass the building’s offices.  John Arbuckle, representing the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, spoke in support of designation of the “unique architectural treasure” designed by “one of the greatest masters of 20th-century architecture.”  Representatives of Manhattan Community Board 6 said the rooms were meritorious, but left the question of eligibility to Landmarks.

Katherine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church supported partial designation, favoring the landmarking of the church building, but asking that Landmarks remove the parish house and rectory from its calendar.  Flexer said the congregation was “aware and proud” of the church’s historic and aesthetic qualities, but designation of all the proposed buildings would “inhibit our ability to do our work well.”

Council member Mark Levine said the three buildings “maintain a stylistic cohesion,” and that designation would not prevent the church from realizing its priorities.  The church’s archivist, Jean Ballard Terepka, also supported designation of all three buildings, calling the complex “rare and important.”

The former D.G. Yuengling Brewing Company Complex, composed of six building in Harlem, proved to be the most controversial item on the day’s agenda.  The remaining buildings in the complex, dating back to the early 20th century, are faced in red brick, and display features typical of industrial architecture of the era, like projecting piers and stone coursing.  Bryan Cave Attorney Judith Gallent spoke on behalf of the owners of the complex in East Harlem, Janus Property, which intends to redevelop the area as a commercial district.  Gallent said any “character-defining qualities” of the brewery building had been demolished, and the complex lacked significance even if it had not, as it was not designed by celebrated architects or technically innovative.  Gallent derided the complex as a “low-rent warehouse district,” composed of an “anonymous group of brick buildings.”

Janus’s Jerry Salama said the planned redevelopment would “create new vibrancy in a community left for dead,” and removing the item from Landmark’s calendar “will allow this neighborhood to flourish.”  An engineer retained by Janus testified that there was “evidence of severe structural issues” in all of the buildings proposed for designation.  A representative of Manhattan Community Board 9 urged landmarks to de-calendar the property, saying “the architectural merit has been lost.”

Council member Levine said the “landmark limbo” the complex has been in since 1991 has prevented the “best use” of the property.  He asked that Landmarks de-calendar the property to make way for commercial development that would lead to job creation.  Former Council member Robert Jackson said landmarking was not desired by the community, and would create hurdles for any prospective tenant in a neighborhood that required economic development.  Jackson asked Landmarks to de-calendar the properties so the long-standing issue could be resolved “once and for all.”

Yuien Chin, a representative of the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization, supported the complex’s designation as one of the only reminders of the neighborhood’s contribution to the industrial history of the City.  The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough called the complex “a robust relic of an industrial past,” and noted that “local brewing is making a comeback, but the adaptation of industrial buildings even more so,” pointing to neighborhoods like DUMBO.  The Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll said that “real estate pressure is eating Harlem alive,” and that the complex merited designation as the last intact brewery-related complex in Manhattan, where brewing was once a major industry.

The Thomas Lamb-designed former Loew’s 175th Street Theater, occupying an entire block in Washington Heights, was described as “extravagantly ornate” and “one of the finest and most ornate of the movie palaces” by Landmarks Research Department staff.  The 1930 brick building, with Eastern-inspired terra-cotta ornament, now serves as a church, the United Palace House of Inspiration.  Attorney for the church Juan Reyes spoke in opposition to landmarking, saying the church had been a good steward of the property and it should be removed from Landmarks’ calendar without prejudice, to be reconsidered if the ownership should change hands.  Another representative said designation would impose a “financial burden,” but the church’s “goals are aligned with that of Landmarks,” and the building did not require the Commission’s protection.  Church representatives said their position was supported by Council member Ydanis Rodriguez.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn submitted testimony in support of designation, calling the freestanding theater an “architectural masterpiece,” visible from all sides, with ornamentation inspired by “Moorish Spain, Hindu India, and Buddhist Thailand.”  A representative of the Historic Districts Council called the building “a flamboyant display built during a time of extreme austerity, undoubtedly meant to uplift Depression-era audiences.”  A representative of Community Board 12 also expressed support for designation.

Landmarks will accept written testimony on the items considered until November 24.

LPC: Special Hearing for the Backlog Initiative (Nov. 12, 2010).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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