Carrying the preservationist torch in NYC
Meet Brooklynite Lisa Kersavage, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s new executive director
Lisa Kersavage’s two-decade career journey has taken her from rural Pennsylvania to a top job at America’s largest municipal preservation agency.
The long-time Brooklyn resident got a promotion in March to the position of executive director at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“It is a dream job,” Kersavage told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“I really do believe in the importance of municipal government and specifically the ability of Landmarks to protect the city’s most important buildings and neighborhoods and to regulate them efficiently and then address issues related to sustainability and equity,” she said in a recent interview at her lower Manhattan office.
The commission’s headquarters is — appropriately— in a century-old limestone landmark at 1 Centre St., designed by famed architectural firm McKim Mead & White.
Kersavage worked at the Landmarks Preservation Commission for four years as director of special projects and strategic planning before her promotion. The director position was open because Sarah Carroll, who held it, became the commission’s chairperson last fall.
Kersavage now oversees the agency’s operations and works closely with its chairperson to develop strategic plans for the agency. The majority of its approximately 80 staff members report to her.
‘Preservation opportunities’ in Gowanus
Kersavage has lived in Brooklyn for almost 20 years.
She currently resides in a 1960s Kensington high-rise with a view of historic Green-Wood Cemetery. She can see all the way from Coney Island’s landmarked Parachute Jump to lower Manhattan.
She previously lived in Downtown Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens and Gowanus.
As Kersavage settles into her new job, looming Brooklyn-centric preservationist issues include the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition’s campaign to win protected status for historic neighborhood sites.
“We are actively studying preservation opportunities in Gowanus,” Kersavage said.
It’s too soon for her to weigh in on another big Brooklyn preservationist issue, namely the city Department of Transportation’s threat to demolish the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade for BQE repairs.
“Until we have DOT plans that we can review, I can’t speak about this issue,” she said.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the creation of a panel to study different scenarios for repairing the highway running beneath the famous esplanade.
Historic sites rescued from landmarking limbo
During Kersavage’s years at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, she developed a plan for evaluating landmark eligibility for 95 historic sites that were on the commission’s calendar for up to a half-century.
“It was challenging. It was consuming,” she said. “But it was exciting.”
She collaborated with Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan and Executive Director Carroll on the mammoth project.
The preservationists did lots of outreach to property owners — and in many cases were able to alleviate their concerns about having their buildings landmarked, Kersavage recalled.
She was especially proud of getting several backlogged Brooklyn treasures designated as landmarks. These include St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, the former Williamsburgh Trust Company Building on South Fifth Street in Williamsburg, the Gravesend property known as Lady Moody’s House and Green-Wood Cemetery’s chapel, Fort Hamilton Parkway Gatehouse and Gatehouse Cottage.
Backlogged Manhattan sites she’s proud of getting landmarked include the IRT Powerhouse on West 58th Street and the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre. It also was gratifying, she added, to get the Vanderbilt Mausoleum in Staten Island designated.
Another major project Kersavage spearheaded at the preservation agency concerned the rezoning of East Midtown. She got a dozen sites in that area landmarked — including the iconic Citicorp Center.
Degrees from Penn State and Columbia
Kersavage grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania called State College, where Penn State University is located.
Her undergraduate work at Penn State stoked her interest in preservation. She earned a degree in art and architectural history.
“So many of the great American buildings that we were studying have been demolished,” she said.
Her career began with a job as a historic preservation intern for the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After that, she got a master’s degree in historic preservation with a planning concentration at Columbia, where “the professionalization of preservation really started,” she said.
Kersavage has worked for several important preservationist organizations.
Confronting climate change and development pressures
Kersavage counts herself lucky to have worked for eight years at the Municipal Art Society. Kent Barwick, who had been the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s chairman, was the society’s president at the time.
“It was very informative to me as a preservationist to be there and see how preservation fits into bigger issues facing the city,” she said.
For instance, she worked on an initiative on preservation and climate-change issues that found the conflict between the two is more perceived than real.
“Old buildings can become more energy-efficient. They can be greener. And preservationists should be taking that on,” she said. There are ways to do this that aren’t financially ruinous and don’t hurt the historic character of the properties, she added.
Kersavage worked jointly with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on a plan to retrofit the 1830s Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side for greater energy efficiency.
An important Brooklyn project she handled at the Municipal Art Society was sparked by development pressures on the brownstone area near the Atlantic Yards mega-development. She worked with the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council to muster community support for the creation of a landmarked district there.
The Prospect Heights Historic District won landmark designation in 2009.
Kersavage’s love of New York City burns bright after two decades of working here. She admires its “phenomenal” architecture, cultural diversity and stature as a “global city,” she said.
“I remain passionate about how great New York City is,” she said.
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