Wins and losses in 2019’s preservation battles
2019: Year in Review
A lot happened in Brooklyn this year — from environmental policies to infrastructure changes to housing reform. We’ve wrapped up the key pieces for you in “2019: Year in Review.”
Brooklyn’s preservation advocates fought hard in 2019 against the threatened demolition of historically significant properties, and sought to win city landmark designation for beloved buildings and neighborhoods.
There were triumphs and tears — and a significant amount of unfinished business the Brooklyn Eagle will keep an eye on going forward.
The importance of city landmarking extends far beyond the honor and distinction it bestows on Brooklyn’s built environment. Individual landmarks and buildings in historic districts cannot be torn down, nor can their exteriors be changed in major ways, unless the city Landmarks Preservation Commission gives its approval.
Here’s a recap of our biggest preservation stories over the past year.
Loss: The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition campaigned to save an 1880s Red Hook industrial building U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca described in a July 2019 letter to its owner as “the most visible 19th-century warehouse on the Gowanus Canal.”
The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, which originally was a processing site for hay, feed and grain for New York City’s horses, was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The coalition tried to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to put the storehouse on its calendar for designation consideration. But the LPC didn’t help them. The iconic canalside building was doomed.
The city Buildings Department gave the storehouse’s owner, the Chetrit Group, a demolition permit in February 2019. The city agency halted the demolition at various times with Stop Work Orders. But on Labor Day, workers ripped the roof off the historic building and knocked down nearly all that was left of the property.
As a complicating factor in the fight to preserve the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, there had been a deliberately set two-alarm “incendiary fire” (which is how the FDNY described it to the Eagle) at the old grain storehouse at 595 Smith St. in June 2018. The investigation into the fire remained open for many months. Preservationists told the Eagle the Landmarks Preservation Commission won’t calendar a property that’s the subject of an open investigation.
In late summer 2019, after the FDNY closed its investigation into the Bowne building blaze, a Bureau of Fire Investigation report revealed that a red plastic gas container holding a mixture of ethanol and gasoline was found on the property after the conflagration.
Also, during the fire, a hydrant at the scene wasn’t working correctly. A firefighter opened the hydrant and found it was stuffed with a brick and screws.
There were no security cameras at 595 Smith St. at the time of the fire — and no suspects were identified, the report indicated.
Loss: The Masonic Club in Bay Ridge
In the spring 2019, Bay Ridge preservation advocates tried in vain to stop the demolition of the former Masonic Club at 7604 Fourth Ave. In recent years, the eye-catching Victorian wood-frame house with a turret had been used as a nursery school.
Bay Ridge Conservancy President Victoria Hofmo led the efforts. The preservation advocates hoped that the mansion could be used as a school, private home or neighborhood cultural center.
But the developer who had purchased it in 2017 tore it down and posted a design drawing showing a modern apartment building on the fence around the property.
Win: The Sunset Park Historic Districts’ designation
Grassroots groups in Sunset Park spent three decades trying to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to honor their neighborhood’s working-class homes by creating a historic district there. Sunset Park’s historic two-family brownstone, limestone and brick rowhouses were constructed between 1885 and 1912 for immigrants and today house a vibrant community with a large immigrant population.
In recent years, a group called the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee led the campaign for historic district designation.
In January 2019, the LPC put onto its calendar for designation consideration four small Sunset Park historic districts located between Fourth and Seventh avenues and 44th and 59th streets.
At a public hearing in May 2019, community leaders and residents gave the Landmarks Preservation Commission an earful about encroaching development and its threat to their beautiful blocks.
In June 2019, the commission voted the four historic districts into existence. They are Sunset Park North, Central Sunset Park, Sunset Park 50th Street and Sunset Park South. In October 2019, the City Council made their designation official with a vote of its own.
Win: The Doctor’s Row Historic District’s designation
Bay Ridge residents have loved and appreciated Doctor’s Row for decades. Dignified, century-old limestone rowhouses line this Bay Ridge Parkway block between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Many of these homes have medical offices in them.
The Bay Ridge Parkway 400 Block Association campaigned to get Doctor’s Row designated as a historic district.
At a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing in May 2019, State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, City Councilmember Justin Brannan and Community Board 10 Zoning Committee Chairperson Brian Kaszuba expressed support for the measure.
In June 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate Doctor’s Row as a historic district. It’s the first one in the entire neighborhood.
In October, the City Council voted to affirm the designation.
Win: The Towers’ adaptive reuse
In November 2019, the owners of a former 1920s Brooklyn Heights Historic District hotel called The Towers showed the Eagle the progress they’ve made in painstakingly rebuilding it as upscale housing for seniors.
The housing development will be called the Watermark at Brooklyn Heights.
The former hotel at 21 Clark St. is historically significant in part because the top-paid Brooklyn Dodgers lived there during the baseball season. After that, the Jehovah’s Witnesses owned it for several decades.
Starrett and Van Vleck, the architecture firm that designed The Towers, also designed Saks Fifth Avenue’s and Lord & Taylor’s Manhattan flagship stores.
The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights is expected to open in March 2020. It will have 29 independent-living units, 204 assisted-living units and 42 memory-care units for residents with cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Win: The Lidgerwood Building
The Lidgerwood Building at 202 Coffey St. is the pride of the Red Hook waterfront.
The red-painted brick 1880s foundry and other historic industrial buildings form a semi-circle around Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier and give the park a unique sense of place.
UPS decided to demolish the Lidgerwood Building in 2019 as part of a plan to construct a multi-block distribution facility. Community activists couldn’t get company executives to hear them out about their hopes the Valentino Park-facing side of the Lidgerwood Building would be preserved.
On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, bulldozers showed up and started demolition. In a matter of days, they tore down the part of the Lidgerwood Building that stood on the corner of Coffey and Ferris streets.
But at the end of May, UPS President of Global Public Affairs Laura Lane halted the demolition after conversing with U.S. Rep. Velázquez about the community’s wishes.
In July, Lane met with Red Hook community advocates and residents. She promised UPS would reconstruct the demolished section of the historic property, renovate the undemolished portion of its facade and add new space on top of the building.
UPS has torn down modern industrial buildings on the rest of the Red Hook site and is doing environmental cleanup. The company expects to start work on the Lidgerwood Building’s preservation in the first quarter of 2020.
Question mark: The proposed East 25th Street Historic District
In fall 2019, members of the 300 East 25th Street Block Association in Flatbush asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider turning East 25th Street between Avenue D and Clarendon Road into a small historic district.
They fear developers will buy and tear down some of their 110-year-old limestone and brownstone rowhouses and thereby mar the area’s visual harmony.
Block association President Julia Charles is leading the landmarking campaign, which has the support of City Councilmember Farah Louis. Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council is assisting the block association in its efforts.
The residents’ landmarking push also has the support of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s head honcho, Scot Medbury. They’ve won the garden’s annual Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition four times since 2004.
If the landmarking campaign proves successful, this will be the first historic district in Flatbush that is populated by rowhouses rather than Victorian stand-alone suburban-style homes with lawns.
Question mark: Walt Whitman’s house
Walt Whitman’s fans celebrated his 200th birthday in 2019. A group of them campaigned for landmark status for the only New York City house he lived in that’s still standing. The campaign is ongoing.
Whitman, widely considered America’s greatest poet, lived at 99 Ryerson St. in Clinton Hill when he published the first version of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. This ground-breaking volume of verses revolutionized American poetry. He was the Eagle’s editor in the 1840s.
In June 2019, Walt Whitman Initiative board member Brad Vogel and other supporters of landmark designation for Leaves of Grass House gave surprise testimony about 99 Ryerson St. at an LPC hearing about other properties.
Later that summer, New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, who’s the president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, led students from Columbia University on a pilgrimage to Brooklyn places that were important to the poet’s life. It culminated with a stop in front of the modest, siding-covered rowhouse at 99 Ryerson St.
In November 2019, Whitmanites used the occasion of Walt Whitman Way’s street co-naming to renew their call for Leaves of Grass House to be landmarked.
The new street sign stands at the intersection of DeKalb Avenue and Ryerson Street across from Pratt Institute.
Question mark: The Abolitionists’ house
In 2019, a group called the Circle for Justice Innovations led a campaign for landmarking 227 Duffield St., a Downtown Brooklyn house where prominent abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell lived before the Civil War. That campaign is ongoing.
The house’s late owner, Joy Chatel, believed it was used by the Underground Railroad to assist slaves escaping to freedom.
The house is threatened with demolition. The developer who owns it plans to tear it down and construct a 13-story apartment building.
At various moments throughout the year, advocacy groups staged demonstrations to draw attention to the fate of the house — including one in August in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.
In September 2019, demonstrators on a 10-mile march against gentrification, racism and police violence made a stop at the Abolitionists’ house.
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment