Convent at Angel Guardian site to be razed for housing, developer says

September 28, 2020 Editorial Staff
Convent at Angel Guardian site to be razed for housing, developer says
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By Helen Klein
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The convent at Dyker Heights’ Angel Guardian Home is on borrowed time.

While the main structure is on its way to being landmarked, and neighbors continue to push for the landmarking of both buildings at the site, one of the developers of the property told this paper that the adjacent structure is slated for demolition in the next couple of months in order to expand the footprint of housing now being constructed on the campus.

In an exclusive interview with the Eagle, Scott Barone said that he bought the site, which occupies the square block bounded by 12th and 13th avenues, and 63rd and 64th streets, as a joint venture with the Basics Group, which is currently constructing the new housing complex there.

The distinctive rear façade of the convent building can be seen behind the ongoing construction on the new residential development at the site.

They took ownership of the open land, he said, to develop as housing (except for the 13th Avenue side of the property, which was sold to the School Construction Authority, to build a new public school), and he kept the two buildings, originally intending to use the larger main building, 6301 12th Ave., for an assisted living facility. That plan, however, was a casualty of the Covid 19 pandemic, Barone said, and the main building is now slated to become a school, run by Boro Park-based Ger Talmud Torah Imrei Emes.

The main building, he said, had always been intended for adaptive reuse; but he contended that topographical and structural issues with the smaller convent building, 1230 63rd St., had always presented difficulties that made it an unlikely candidate for preservation. He said that he intends to sell it to the Basics Group within the next couple of months, at which point it would be taken down to enlarge the residential development.

Barone said he completely supports the likely landmarking of the imposing main structure on the site, which received a hearing in August (via Zoom) in front of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which seemed disinclined at the time to landmark the convent, and thus protect it from demolition or significant changes.

LPC’s reluctance to landmark the convent building saddens and angers local activists. “Obviously, the way it is built, it is meant for this building to be included with [the main structure],” noted Frank Grassi, a member of the Guardians of the Guardian, a grass-roots group that sprung up to protect the beloved neighborhood site. Among the details Grassi and others in the group pointed out are the stonework and roofs on the two structures that echo each other, as well as a door in a wall to the right of the convent building leading to the main building.

“Look at the copperwork,” Grassi enthused, standing outside the convent on Monday, Sept. 21. “You’re not going to see that kind of architecture again.”

Both buildings were constructed in 1899, said preservationist Victoria Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy. Hofmo also stressed that beside the architectural connection, there was a “mission-based” connection between the two structures, which had been built for the Sisters of Mercy, who operated the property as an orphanage and home for unwed mothers.

The nobility of the architecture, she added, reflected that mission. “These types of buildings were built for people in need,” she explained. “They are very majestic, with a sense of dignity and respect, to make them feel uplifted.”

A significant portion of the campus has already been altered, added Hofmo, who said the concept of compromise was, in her view, already being stretched to the limit. With “80 percent of the property,” being built on, she asked, “How much more can they compromise?”

Disagreeing with Barone, Hofmo contended that the convent building, like the main building, is ideal “for adaptive reuse.” Until 2017, the year before it was sold, it was used for a senior center. “It needs work on the inside but it’s beautiful,” noted Pauline “Doll” Castagna, who lives across the street from the convent and was a frequent attendee at the center. While the windows and door were changed, she went on, “everything else is original.”

The main building can be seen close behind the convent, in this photo.

Even with the clock ticking, the activists want to try to save the secondary structure. To that end, they said area residents could submit testimony in support of landmarking the convent building to LPC, which “will accept written testimony until the vote is scheduled,” according to LPC spokesperson Zodet Negron, who also said, “We are considering all of the factors and testimony from the hearing.”

One of the things that bothers advocates is what they see as Barone going back on promises he made to them. While, said Grassi, Barone told members of the Guardians that he would let them know what was going on, it’s been “about a year” since the group heard from him. “Now, it’s back under the cloak of secrecy again,” he noted.

Barone disputed this. “We stayed on message with this from day one,” Barone told this paper, about the likely fate of the convent building, which he said had been significantly altered since its construction. “The convent building was never going to work. We’ve done the best we could with them [the residents], and stayed in regular contact with all the elected officials and LPC. I’m sorry to hear that the neighbors are somewhat upset, but it’s not because of anything I’ve done.”

He added that the design for the portion of the housing development closest to the main building would salute its distinctive architecture. “The first section of the building is going to be built to match the façade of the Angel Guardian Home, with the same windows, brick and roofline.” And, he added, in order to maintain the main building’s status as the most prominent building on the site, the adjacent portion of the development would not be taller than the main building. “We are maintaining the character, per Landmarks’ request.”

It’s in preparation for this expansion, which will abut the main building, that windows along the rear façade of the Angel Guardian Home are being filled in, and metal fire escapes taken down, Barone acknowledged. Those alterations have the blessing of LPC. “After carefully reviewing the drawings, staff determined that the proposed work will have no effect on the significant features of the building and therefore, had no objection with DOB issuing the permit,” LPC spokesperson Negron told this paper.

Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, is skeptical that efforts by activists at this point will change the trajectory with LPC. He described the convent building as “architecturally meritorious, a well-designed, beautiful building.” Nonetheless, he said, “Landmarks is doing one of its patented ‘not-paying-attention-to-the-actual-merits-of-the-case.’ There are many cases where there are conditions cut with Landmarks before designation; that’s nothing new. It really stinks that this would be the first landmark in Dyker. LPC should designate it.”

The neighbors agree. “The two buildings are one entity and should not be separated,” contended Maryjo Tipaldo, who lives across the street from the campus. “They both served the community as one.”

The convent building is slated to be demolished, according to a developer of the site.

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