Greenwood Heights

Preservationist titan Otis Pearsall opposes the landmarking of Green-Wood Cemetery

October 8, 2015 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The New York Landmarks Conservancy believes the Warren & Wetmore Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery should be landmarked — but not the entire cemetery. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan

One of the living legends of landmarking, Otis Pearsall, opposes the landmarking of Green-Wood Cemetery.

The renowned preservationist told the city Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at a hearing Thursday that officials at the celebrated 19th-Century cemetery do an outstanding job of caring for the historic 478-acre graveyard.

He questioned whether it would be a wise use of  the agency’s limited resources to monitor the preservationist efforts of this institution with its history of impeccable behavior.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” asked Pearsall.

The Yale-educated lawyer and Brooklyn Heights resident is famed in the preservationist world as a prime mover with his wife Nancy in the designation of their neighborhood as New York City’s first historic district in 1965.

In the half-century since then, he has worked tirelessly as a pro-landmarking advocate.

One of many preservationist awards he has received for his work is the Green-Wood Historic Foundation’s 2009 DeWitt Clinton Award, which he and Nancy won.

At the packed hearing at the LPC’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, Pearsall spoke of legal difficulties that would arise if Green-Wood were to be designated as an individual landmark.

For instance, if the LPC needed to send out notices about landmarking issues at Green-Wood, how would staffers be able to reach the 200,000 living owners of the 46,000 separate lots into which Green-Wood is divided?

How would they even figure out which of the 200,000 owners needed to receive notices about any given issue?

As is customary at LPC hearings, there was a three-minute time limit for each person presenting testimony. Pearsall was still speaking when a timer bell rang. Commission Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan told Pearsall he could not continue talking.

“I’ve said it all,” he told her, and stepped away from the podium.

 

Getting to work on ‘Backlog95’

Green-Wood was the highest-profile property among seven Brooklyn sites discussed Thursday. This was the first of four special hearings the Commission has scheduled about “Backlog95.”

These 95 sites located throughout the city were calendared by the LPC for consideration as landmarks at least five years ago. Some of them have been awaiting a decision for a half-century.

In January and February 2016, the LPC will follow up with public meetings. At these, the commissioners will either prioritize properties’ landmark designation by December 2016 or remove them from the LPC calendar by voting not to designate them. Or the commission will issue a “no action letter” that would remove the properties from the LPC calendar but allow them to be reintroduced as landmarking candidates in the future.

Pearsall was one of 36 people who spoke about the backlogged Brooklyn properties. Plus two City Councilmembers sent letters to the LPC.

Also, a rep for the Catholic Church spoke early in the morning when Bronx landmarking sites were being discussed. He said that both the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn oppose landmarking. He called the cost of maintaining church properties according to the standards required by landmark regulations “burdensome.”

Two Brooklyn Catholic churches are on the list of backlogged properties. 

As the Brooklyn Eagle previously reported, Green-Wood President Richard Moylan opposes the designation of Green-Wood as an individual landmark. He voiced his opposition in testimony on Thursday.

Moylan reminded commissioners that Green-Wood is a working cemetery — which averages 1,200 burials per year, he said.

Green-Wood has been on the LPC’s calendar for landmark designation consideration since 1981.

The cemetery is the final resting place for celebs including Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Green-Wood does own some historic structures. Andrea Goldwyn of the NewYork Landmarks Conservancy — which opposes landmarking of the entire cemetery — recommended that two of those structures be landmarked.

One is the Warren & Wetmore Chapel, “the most visually prominent building seen through the landmarked entrance gates,” she said.

The other is the Fort Hamilton Parkway Gatehouse, “an outstanding work of High Victorian Gothic residential design, perhaps the best in the entire city.”