Commissioners Skeptical of Plan to Revert neo-Federal Rowhouse to Queen Anne design

15 East 75th Street. Image Credit: Stephen Wang + Associates.

15 East 75th Street. Image Credit: Stephen Wang + Associates.

Application would turn three adjoining rowhouses on the Upper East Side into one, one-family home. At its public hearing on April 4, 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered a proposal for work related to the conversion of three rowhouses in the Upper East Side Historic District into one single-family dwelling. The rowhouses, at 11, 13, and 15 East 75th Street were originally constructed as part of a row of six Queen Anne-style rowhouses in the late 1880s. In 1923, the front facade at 11 East 75th Street was reconstructed in the neo-Federal style by architect Henry Polhemus. The remaining Queen Anne buildings have also undergone alteration, with their stoops removed and areaways modified.

In 2012, Landmarks voted to approve a proposal by the then-owner of 11 East 75th to modify the facade at the first floor, replace the cornice, install windows, and replace rooftop equipment. The work was started but never completed, leaving the building in a boarded-up and unfinished state.

Architect Stephen Wang, of Stephen Wang and Associates, presented the proposed revisions to the buildings. The neo-Federal facade of 11 East 75th Street would be removed, and new Queen Anne-style facade constructed. The new front facade would be clad in cast stone closely resembling historic brownstone, as Wang attested that quarried brownstone was no longer commercially available. Since no pictures exist of the original façade, the new design would take its cues from the adjoining buildings and other Queen Anne homes in the area.

Existing party walls between the rowhouses would be largely demolished for the merger into one unit. Rear additions at the rears of all three buildings would be removed, and new rear extension with a uniform facade spanning all three of the original rowhouses, in a contemporary design composed of glass and brass. Existing rooftop accretions would be removed, and replaced with new work including the construction of a rooftop courtyard. The proposed construction at the rear and at the roof would not be visible from any public thoroughfares. The proposal also included new cellar excavation. The front facades of the other two existing rowhouses would be “restored to the highest quality.”

Wang justified the proposal appropriateness, saying it represented a “unique opportunity” to restore a “cohesive streetscape.” He called the neo-Federal facade an “outlier,” and noted that many of its original details had been lost. Wang argued that the two remaining Queen Anne buildings of the original row “look rather sad,” and their presence would be strengthened by taking the face of 11 East 75th “back one step in history.”

A representative read a letter from Columbia School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Professor Andrew Dolkart in which he argued that to permit the proposal would set a “terrible precedent,” and that the neo-Federal facade was an “authentic example of early 20th century architecture,” that should not be demolished to make way for a “faux Queen Anne house.” A representative of Friends of the Upper East Side agreed, saying that allowing the proposal to proceed would “erase a significant piece of history”.

The Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll said the merger of three individual houses into one constituted a “new level of egregious consumption,” and that the elimination of party walls and the rear facades “renders this project to facadism, at best.” The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough said the demolition of the 1923 facade, as well as the party walls and rear facades amounted to an “unjustifiable teardown,” “posing as a restoration.”

Manhattan Community Board 8 recommended approval of the application by letter to Landmarks.

In response to commissioners’ questions, agency counsel Mark Silberman advised that commissioners needed to make a determination regarding the threshold issue of whether the 1920s fabric merited preservation before opining on the planned new work.

Commissioners intensely questioned the value of preserving the existing 1923 facade against the construction of a new facade in the Queen Anne style. Commissioner Kim Vauss found that there was enough historic merit in the 1923 facade to justify it retention. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said the determination was one where the merits of “aesthetics versus history” needed to be weighed, and ultimately found that the arguments for appropriateness failed. Goldblum said that the compromised nature of 11 East 75th did not mean its “wholesale removal” was permissible. Commissioner Michael Devonshire agreed in strong terms, stating that he could not support the demolition of historic architecture to make way for “something bogus.” Devonshire also condemned the proposed removal of entrances from two of the rowhouses.

The planned work at the rear and the roof was generally determined to be appropriate.

Chair Srinivasan declined to call a vote, allowing the applicants to reconsider their application in light of commissioner comments. She urged the applicants to retain the existing façade of 11 East 75th an incorporate it into their proposal, as there lacked a compelling justification for its destruction. Srinivasan said that in any revised proposal, the individual rowhouses would need to read as distinct, with at least the appearance of their own entrances.

LPC: 11, 13, 15 East 75th Street, Manhattan (18-0406) (April 5, 2016) (Architects: Stephen Wang and Associates).

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