Although the original landmarking proposal also included an application to designate the Headquarter’s interiors, the Colonial Dames Society withdrew their support for that application. On June 11, 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the Headquarters of the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York as an individual landmark. The four-story Headquarters building is located at 215 East 71st Street in Manhattan, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York commissioned Richard Henry Dana Jr. to design the building in 1928 to serve as the Society’s headquarters and a house museum displaying colonial residential architecture and interior design. Dana, a specialist in colonial revival architecture, designed the Headquarters in the Georgian Revival style, using as inspiration a variety of colonial homes along the eastern seaboard, with the 1750 Colonel John McEver House as his primary reference.
In the late 1800s, centennial celebrations of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s inauguration sparked a renewed interest in the Colonial Era. As a result, several patriotic women’s organizations formed at this time, including the National Society of Colonial Dames in America in 1891. Membership with the Colonial Dames requires proof of direct descent from a significant figure in the development of the country during the colonial period.
The National Dames New York Society was founded in 1893 with a dedication to promoting national heritage and colonial history through historic preservation, patriotic service, and educational programs. The New York Society offered lectures, created a library on genealogy and history, and managed the Van Cortland Mansion, an individual City landmark in the Bronx. Additionally, the New York Society reached out to the immigrant community offering classes in English, the naturalization process, and civic responsibility for adult women and provided lessons on American history to children through the City History Club.
In keeping with the Society’s desire that the Headquarters resemble homes of the Colonial period, Dana selected a red brick, Flemish bond façade defined by stringcourses and brick quoins, and a modillioned cornice with a quartet of pedimented dormers and cast-stone balustrade above. The building’s fenestration imitates Colonial-Era multi-light double-hung sash, and is set within keyed, brick surrounds.
In December of 2017, Landmarks added the Headquarters building and the building’s interiors to its calendar for landmark designation. The proposed designation of the interior would have included the first floor’s entry foyer, the stair hall on all three floors, the Members’ Dressing Room and Dining Room, a Member’s Lounge and Member’s Room on the second floor, and an Exhibition Hall on the third floor. The Colonial and Georgian Revival Style finishes are evident in the building’s features, including its paneled doors, crown moldings, fireplace mantels, doorway pediments, and silk wallpaper. The rooms house a variety of 18th Century objects and memorabilia.
On May 21, 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on both proposals. Sarah Hewitt spoke on behalf of the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. Hewitt stated that the Society’s Board of Managers and members no longer supported the designation of the interiors of the building. “Landmarking would impose strict requirements on our ability to operate and complete normal wear-and-tear work, all at a significant financial detriment to the Dames,” stated Hewitt. She assured the Landmarks Commissioners that the Society does not intend to alter the building’s interiors, and was still supportive of the Headquarters building designation as an individual landmark.
Kelly Carroll testified on behalf of the Historic Districts Council in support of both applications. Commenting on the architectural significance of the exterior of the building, Carroll said, “The building and the society it serves together synthesized the totality of the Colonial Revival, with the building exemplifying the architectural aspect of the movement while the Dames represented its cultural and social aspects.”
Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts’ Rachel Levy said, “The singular mix of authentic 18th century objects and ephemera and skillful tribute to pre-Revolutionary design through Colonial Revival architecture that has been preserved inside [the Headquarters] is unique in New York City, and exemplify the Colonial Revival sensibility, little of which has been preserved elsewhere in the City.”
On June 11, 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York Headquarters as an individual landmark. The Commission took no action on the proposed designation of the interiors. Landmarks Chair Sarah Carroll stated that the Commission would continue the conversation with the Colonial Dames about possible designation of the interiors in the future. To read Landmarks press release on the designation, click here.
By: Viktoriya Gray (Viktoriya is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2018).