Threatened Mansion Designated Two Weeks after Calendaring

Maurice T. Lewis House. Image credit: LPC

Turn-of-the-century mansion, identified as part of Sunset Park survey, was calendared as a last-minute addition to agenda two weeks prior to hearing, followed immediately by designation. Landmarks voted to designate the Maurice T. Lewis House, at 404 55th Street in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, immediately following a public hearing on March 6, 2018. Landmarks had only added the item to its calendar two weeks prior, as a last-minute addition to the day’s agenda.

The Renaissance Revival mansion was constructed in 1907 and designed by architect R. Thomas Short, of the firm Harde & Short. Other individual landmarks designed by the firm include the 23rd Police Precinct Station House, the Alwyn Court Apartments, and the Red House. The Lewis House is one of the largest one-family homes constructed in the area and was built for physician and president of the Bay Ridge Savings Bank, Maurice Thomas Lewis. One of the few free-standing homes in an area characterized by speculatively built rowhouses, the building’s intact brick and limestone facade is arranged in a tripartite configuration, with “restrained classical detail,” according to Landmarks’ Research Department, including a projecting cornice and a central entrance portico with Palladian-inspired window. Its corner-lot location accentuates its grandeur and distinctiveness.

The designation does not include the entire tax lot but excluded two garages on the property.

The property, which changed hand in December of 2017, is owned under the name Shuang Lin.

At the hearing, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan explained that the situation was “somewhat unprecedented.” Landmarks staff had been studying the building when they learned that demolition permits had been filed with, and approved by, Buildings to demolish the mansion and redevelop the property, and the Commission moved quickly to calendar the property before permits were pulled.

Council Member Carlos Menchaca attended the hearing to advocate in “full-throttled support” for the building’s designation, as the neighborhood’s only freestanding mansion, “anchoring a block that remains intact from the passage of time.” Menchaca stated that the Sunset Park was registered as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation did not confer any protection. He urged the Commission to work with the community to designate a City historic district in the neighborhood to protect it from the growing threat of “insensitive development.” A representative of Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez also offered support for designation of the mansion and the creation of an “overall historic district.”

Over two dozen area residents testified in support of designation at the hearing. One neighbor called the Lewis House a “welcoming, precious building” whose protection was imperative. Joanna Slater said the building was a “standout” that helped foster a sense of community. Yasuka Yoshida testified that the neighborhood had seen substantial destruction of historic fabric in recent years, and the Lewis house was one of the most important buildings in Sunset Park. John Murphy called the building a “pleasant anomaly” in the rowhouse-dominated neighborhood. Maria Roca, of Friends of Sunset Park, said the building told a story of science and civic engagement, as the former home to a gynecologist and a politician, and of those who brought economic stability to the area. One speaker asked landmarks to designate the entire tax lot, rather than the proposed lot-in-part, to preserve the mansion’s setting and integrity.

Delvis Valdes of the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District remarked on the unlikeliness of a pro-growth organization speaking on behalf of a landmark designation, but told commissioners they just “need eyeballs” to understand the building’s obvious merit.

Several speakers noted that the building was long home to local politician and State Assembly Member Felix Ortiz. The Historic Districts Council and other speakers praised Landmarks for their swift action in moving to protect the threatened building.

No representative of the owners testified at the hearing, and there were no speakers in opposition to designation.

Chair Srinivasan stated that Brooklyn Community Board 7 had issued a resolution in favor of designation, and Lott Community Development had also communicated their support.

Srinivasan took the unusual step of calling for a vote on designation immediately after closing the public hearing. She said she was calling the vote due to both the sensitivity of the situation, with “the permits in play,” and also because of the “significant support” voiced by the community. She said the building was meritorious and worthy of individual landmark designation.

Srinivasan stated “our role is not to come in and stop development,” but with such a building at stake, in this instance, it was “important to act.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to designate the building an individual landmark. The designation covers the lot-in-part, as recommended by the agency’s Research Department. The designation vote was greeted with raucous applause from the audience.


LPC: Doctor Maurice T. Lewis House, 404 55th Street, Brooklyn (LP-2608) (March 6, 2018).

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


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