GUEST COMMENTARY: Demarest Be Damned

The Demarest Building, at 339 Fifth Avenue. Image Credit: Google Maps

Landmarks decisions should not be made behind closed doors. Yet they are when the Landmarks Preservation Commission refuses to hold a hearing as it recently did with the Demarest Building.

You probably know the building. You have walked past many times and never given it a thought. It was always just another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the New York City streetscape. I expect that you will, however, notice when it is gone.

The Demarest Building stands at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, directly south of the Empire State Building. Designed by the firm of Renwick, Apsinwall & Russell, it went up in 1890, and while at first glance it seems merely historicist, the design utilizes steel frame construction and incorporates many forward looking elements, such as large plate glass windows arching upward and the first electric elevator.

This building has been sold and the new owners intend to erect a 26-story mixed-use building. Preservationists, of course, responded by petitioning the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the building.

The LPC said no. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Keith Powers support designation, as do the Historic Districts Council, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, The City Club of New York, the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, and many, many New Yorkers.

But the question now is not whether the Demarest Building is worthy of designation. The question is why the Landmarks Commission refuses to hold a public hearing. How the agency came to that determination is unclear. Was it a staff member? The Chair? What is clear is that the Landmark Preservation Commission did not make that determination by a vote of the 11 commissioners.

This same situation has confounded the nomination of the Brooklyn house where Walt Whitman lived. The commission has denied multiple appeals for a public hearing, but that decision also was not made in a public forum. In 2017, after the LPC refused to calendar a public hearing on additions to the historic districts in Tribeca, the Tribeca Trust sued, but the courts rejected their arguments (City Land, September 6, 2019,

Advocates are requesting a public hearing where the merits of the Demarest Building may be debated. Even assuming that the commissioners voted to designate, the building still would not become a landmark. Every designation has to go before the City Council, the political arena where more than one designation has been devoured by lions.

One question is whether the building deserves official protection due to its architectural and historical significance. The other question is whether a 26-story building should rise on the site. The first is a question for the LPC. The second is essentially political. If by a vote of the City Council the City of New York determines that redevelopment is a greater social good than preservation, so be it. But let that political question be settled in a political arena. Let our elected officials show by their votes the future they envision for our city. We cannot accept that the decision should be made behind closed doors at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.


By: Jeffrey A. Kroessler. Mr. Kroessler is the chair of the preservation committee of The City Club of New York.


One thought on “GUEST COMMENTARY: Demarest Be Damned

  1. Jeffrey Kroessler’s comments are on point. The issue should be debated publically, not by putting the kibosh on hearing it.

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