Special hearing on Backlogged Items Devoted to Staten Island Properties

Landmarks Preservation Commission. Image Credit: LPC

Image Credit: LPC

Items at issue included a former retirement community for sailors, a Colonial-era stone farmhouse, a lighthouse, and the Vanderbilt family mausoleum. On October 22, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held the second of four special hearings to address the backlog of items calendared before 2012 but never brought to a vote on designation. The hearing consisted of three batches, of seven to eleven items each, all located in Staten Island. Twenty-six items in total were considered at the hearing.

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center opposed designation of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a former retirement community for aged seamen developed between 1845 and 1916, as a historic district. Cultural Center CEO Lynn Kelly testified that the property was already regulated by the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Public Design Commission, and was subject to further restrictions because the Center occupied mapped parkland and a Special Natural Area zoning district. Kelly said that as a “cultural non-profit,” the Center had no interest in the commercial development of its property. Furthermore, the Center was facing a “major fiscal crisis,” leading it to resist landmarking from an “operational perspective.”

Several buildings that were part of the retirement community have already been designated as individual City landmarks, including the Chapel and administration building.

Author and historian Barnett Shepherd, speaking for the Preservation League of Staten Island, spoke in support of Sailors’ Snug Harbor’s designation, calling it an “unusually complete 19th-century environment.” The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Colleen Heemeyer said designation would “complete the story of Sailors’ Snug Harbor.” Former Landmarks Commissioner Anthony Tung called the proposed district “one of the singular landmarks of Staten Island” and said it had not been designated in the 1980s due to the opposition of the Borough President, who then had the power to vacate the designation at the Board of Estimate.

Representatives of Wagner College also spoke in opposition to the designation of its 1852 Cunard Hall, which was acquired by the college in 1918. College President Richard Guarasci stated that both the function and appearance of the hall were now vastly different than they were at the time of its construction, noting that the building had been converted from a dining facility, to a dormitory, and then to an office space, with associate alterations. Guarasci stated that the college had the support of Borough President James Oddo in rejecting designation. One trustee of Wagner College argued that designation would compromise students’ privacy.

The 1860 Second Empire-style Garner Mansion served as the original home for the St. Vincent’s Hospital and is now occupied by the Richmond County Medical Center. Hospital attorney Catherine Paulo testified that the hospital had plans to expand the building to house a new emergency facility at the site, which was desperately needed by the area’s growing populations. Daniel Messina, the hospital’s CEO, said that the center served a disproportionate amount of the borough’s elderly, disabled, and indigent patients, while another representative said that its use as a medical facility shielded the building from the “pressures of development.”

The Vanderbilt Mausoleum and Cemetery, located in New Dorp’s Moravian Cemetery, was designed by Roger Morris Hunt, architect of prominent Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, including The Breakers, which was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt. The landscaping of the private cemetery was done by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park. William Henry Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, commissioned the cemetery and mausoleum. When a hearing was held in 1980, representatives of the Moravian Cemetery spoke against designation.

Preston Percy, Jr., secretary of the Vanderbilt Cemetery Association, spoke in support of designation, provided the Vanderbilt family continued to have the right of burial in the mausoleum. Preston also proposed that the designation be expanded to include an associated entrance arch, driveway and esplanade. The Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carrol read a letter from two great-grandchildren of George W. Vanderbilt, who is interred in the mausoleum, which called the site “significant to New York City’s heritage and to the history of architectural and landscape design in this country.” Anthony Tung said the site was of “national significance.”

The Dorothy Day Historic Site, at 457 Poillon Avenue, occupies space where the Catholic Worker once owned property and where founder Dorothy Day sometimes occupied a cottage. The cottage itself was demolished by the owner in 2001. The Historic Districts Council’s Simeon Bankoff called the loss of the cottage a “shandah,” but that given the site’s current state, landmarking was not the “right tool” for commemorating Day’s legacy on Staten Island. The Preservation League of Staten Island’s John Foxell, himself a Catholic Worker, said Day would have wanted the place where she “found solace, spirituality, and peace” to be designated.

The owner of the 3833 Amboy Road House, Joseph Diamond, resolutely opposed designation, and said landmarking would constitute an “unjustified seizure” of his property. Owner of the 122 Androvette Street House, Owen Reiter, also opposed the designation of his property. Reiter said it had been heavily altered and little resembled the original structure. Douglas Ford, who owns 5466 Arthur Kill Road House disputed many of the findings of Landmarks’ Research Department, and said his only request of the Commission was to be “left alone.” A representative of Assembly Member Joseph Borelli said he only supported designation when it was voluntary on the part of the property owner, and the owner was compensated for any additional associated costs. He strongly opposed designation over an owner’s objections, which he called a government imposition, and in intrusion on property rights.

The stone Dutch Colonial Lakeman House, which dates to the late 17th or early 18th century, is thought to be among the oldest building in Staten Island. The farmhouse had been altered, but an extensive restoration was undertaken in 2001, under the guidance of Rampulla Associates. Philip Rampulla testified that that the house was now part of a commercial complex, and asked Landmarks to omit any property outside of the house’s footprint from any future designation.

No speaker at the hearing opposed the designation of the Prince’s Bay Lighthouse and Keeper’s House on Hylan Boulevard. The current structure was built in the late 19th century, but a lighthouse has stood on the site since at least 1826. Kelly Carroll testified that “lighthouses are landmarks in every sense of the word,” and noted that other surviving lighthouses in the City have benefited from landmarks protection, such as the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, also known as the “Little Red Lighthouse,” located on the Hudson in Upper Manhattan. The Victorian Society in America’s Hilda Regier also testified in support of designation.

Landmarks is expected to render its determinations on the properties in early 2016.

LPC: Special Public Hearing for the Backlog Initiative (Oct. 22, 2015).

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