Is the Preservationist Movement Dead?

Crain’s NY writes about the debate over the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District this week. Add in recent comments here about what type of building should end up in the empty lot at 27 Cranberry Street and one could totally jump to the conclusion that the preservationist movement is on the ropes. Okay, that’s total hyperbole but there’s clearly been a change in perspective when it comes to development in historic districts:

Crain’s NY: “I think it oppresses good design, and I don’t think it allows a great diversity of design choices,” says Tricia Martin at WE Design in Brooklyn. “Much good development that could happen—like green or more affordable development—doesn’t fit what the review board would consider historic.”

After a fierce battle between preservationists and Robert Moses, Brooklyn Heights became a landmark district in 1965.

What are your thoughts about the state today of the preservationist movement?
Photo: the Nabeguy collection

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  • my2cents

    The Preservationist movement went too far…from *saving* architecture (good) to constraining it (bad).

    And as I have said a million times before on this site, what constitutes “historic” regarding new construction and renovation in this neighborhood is mostly a sham. Look at the otherwise pleasing new facade at 56 Hicks. That building is basically a made-up fiction. The original structure that was there was built in the 20th century, but the current owners have renovated it to look like it was constructed in the mid to late 1800s. I am not in the least complaining that it’s ugly (in fact it’s a massive improvement over the eyesore that was there –click link for google streetview But I am saying that it is just a phony historicism that is no different from a movie flat. If that is “good architecture” to a preservationist, then that shows how far the movement has gone astray… I say if the architect building on the vacant lot on Cranberry follows code and shows respect for the scale of the surrounding structures, he should make whatever the hell he wants, just like people in the 19th century made whatever the hell *they* wanted. In the case of the empty lot on Cranberry, and the facade on 58 Hicks, nothing old or historic was at stake. So the only reason to try and control the looks of what someone builds is to impose a false sense that we are not living in 2010–that time has stopped and we live in Olde Towne. I’m sorry but I reject that. We can preserve the old, and still make new things that harmonize with them. Preservationism needs to embrace that.

  • Jeremy Lechtzin

    Thanks for your two cents, m2c.

    Let me chime in since my wife Amy and I own 58 Hicks Street.

    It’s a wood-frame house built around 1814, and has seen several significant alterations over its almost 200 year life. You posted a link to what it looked like from the mid 1950s to earlier in 2010; here’s what it looked like in 1940 and before:

    Obviously I’m partial to our current renovation, and I don’t think it’s accurate for you to say that the facade is “made-up fiction” or “phony historicism,” but I agree that the house’s 1950s incarnation raised some interesting design choices for us related to preservation when we decided to renovate. Let me give you some background about the house’s history, which I think will make for a more productive discussion (or my verbosity will just kill it!).

    The c.1814 part of the house was a tiny wood-frame structure, probably built as a store or workshop, because even by period standards it was a lot smaller than the surrounding houses. Just one room each on its two stories and in the basement, with a peaked roof that was too low for a habitable attic or dormer windows. The footprint was 22 feet wide by 16 feet deep, and a 4-foot alley ran along the right side to access the rear yard. The house was built in the Federal period but was almost too utilitarian to be called “Federal style.” For example, the front door surround contained side lights and a transom, but didn’t feature any of the delicate columns or carved detail seen on more elaborate Federal doorways in the neighborhood like 24 Middagh Street or 51 Hicks across the street. The basement was brick, and the body of the house was covered in clapboard siding. A high stoop, running parallel to the street, led to a porch and the front door. A tall shed was built along the back, 1.5 stories tall, so in its early incarnation the house must have been like a little saltbox. Almost immediately, the shed was enlarged into a 2-story rear building, with a 30×12 footprint, oriented perpendicular to the front house, creating a side yard that would have been accessed through the alley. The two buildings were connected internally (although they have slightly different floor levels), creating a single house. At some point in the second half of the 19th century, a small extension was built onto the rear part of the house, probably to incorporate indoor plumbing. Around 1880, the peaked roof on the front of the house was raised to a flat roof, creating a third story, which was a popular alteration at the time. Still later, an extension was built over the alley on the second and third stories of the front house, turning it into a passageway. In the early 1950s, the facade was radically altered – the passageway was widened just enough to allow a car to pass through and park in the side yard, the clapboard was replaced with asbestos shingles, the wood windows and cornice were replaced with aluminum versions, and most significantly, the front door and stoop were removed and the window pattern changed. The only access to the house was by walking through the driveway and going through a new door in the rear. Not surprisingly, the interior was also completely gutted in the 1950s renovation. The house probably never had much in the way of period detail but whatever existed was tossed out then.

    We decided to start with an interior renovation, because nothing really had been updated in decades, and the 1950s layout was an odd 2-family configuration that didn’t work well for a single-family house – there was a redundant stairway, a kitchen in the front of the house and a couple of railroad rooms. After our modest project snowballed and we ended up planning to re-do the entire interior layout, we decided to incorporate the crazy idea of having a front door again, and this led to thinking about how we wanted to renovate the exterior.

    Although we had a photo of the house from 1940 when it was still covered in clapboard, and some research uncovered other clues to its history, there was no obvious way to do a “restoration” – going back to the beginning would have required major structural work to basically demolish half of the house, and there was no other point in time to choose that seemed more definitive than others. We really had a blank slate on the outside and could have opted for a completely contemporary design. Nevertheless, there was still an old wood-frame building lurking underneath, with mortise-and-tenon joints that were already old-fashioned even by the 1820s, and it felt most natural to return to some form of traditional clapboard sided house with a wooden stoop like many of its neighbors. We decided to keep the alley-turned-passageway-turned-driveway (who gives up parking in Brooklyn Heights???) but even apart from being a desirable modern amenity, taking out the driveway would have required more structural work than seemed necessary considering that the rest of the facade wasn’t a pure restoration anyway. In coming up with a facade design, we ended up with mostly Greek Revival style – many of the other early wood frame houses in Brooklyn Heights, especially those where the roof had been raised, had been altered from “utilitarian” Federal to add Greek Revival door surrounds and cornices, and the style suited the current dimensions of our house’s front exterior. Our door surround and cornice design are largely borrowed from a couple of houses around the corner on Middagh Street (a borrowing process by which most of these houses were originally designed anyway). Our new front porch and stoop are still being built but will be similar to what used to be there, with the stoop running parallel to the street (similar to 27 Middagh Street).

    Reasonable minds can differ on the design we came up with. The staff of the Landmarks Preservation Commission reacted positively, but they actually urged us to consider an even more elaborate stoop/porch/entryway, tending more to an Italianate wood-frame style that’s sometime seen in other, later developed parts of Brooklyn but not so much here. The Historic Districts Council wrote a somewhat off-the-cuff review that said our facade elements were too elaborate and we shouldn’t be attempting to “fancy up” the house, urging that we “restore the original design” (if only it were so simple). Someone showed at our LPC hearing and complained the design would turn the house into a McMansion. (We didn’t take that one personally – it was amusing to think that in a neighborhood of 5,000+ sf brownstones, our little frame house would ever be considered a mansion.) We were most pleased with the letter that Alex Herrera of the Brooklyn Heights Association’s Landmarks Committee wrote to LPC, summarizing the BHA’s approval of the project. Herrera is a professional preservationist (in his “day job”, he’s a top official at the Landmarks Conservancy and he used to be Director of Preservation at LPC), and I think his summary speaks for itself:

    “It is always difficult to decide how to approach an historic building like this that has lost so much of its exterior historic fabric through unfortunate re-modelings and yet remains, in all other terms, an historic house. Firstly, the committee agreed that the existing asbestos-shingled façade is very deteriorated and that it does not contribute to the special architectural and aesthetic character of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. Secondly, the committee understands the constraints imposed on the new design by the existing entry drive, which altered the original structure in that part of the house and makes the re-creation of the historic façade impossible. Therefore the committee viewed the proposal as a new façade on a nineteenth century house. We found the design of the new façade appropriate in terms of its materials, its scale, the proportions of its various elements, and its overall visual cohesiveness. We think it is well done. As a result, the BHA approves the proposed design and hopes that it will mark the beginning of another chapter in this house’s ongoing evolution.”

  • AEB

    Thanks, Jeremy, for the fascinating house “biography” and renovation info.

    Though I take my2’s point, it seems to me that authenticity can be (literally) in the eye of the beholder; the issue, to my mind, is the care and sensitivity with which a period redo is done.

    And context is all; I live across the street from your renovation, which I can see from my living room windows, and would feel a visceral jolt if a “modern” structure suddenly appeared on your site on “our” block.

    Now–will you be taking prophylactic measures to avoid light-headedness before climbing the (soon to be) stairs to your front door, which is at second story height? At the moment the entrance seems almost in the clouds!

  • my2cents

    Jeremy, Thanks for all the info! I want you to know my points were not an attack on you personally in any way. As I said, I think you beautified the building, without a doubt, and i commend you for taking on such an ambitious renovation (also, no shame in keeping your off-street parking!) But I stick by my claim that the facade is made up, because as you said you had a blank slate to start with, and you weren’t re-creating something that existed before, which you make clear. You can’t say “Here is a photo/drawing of the house how it was and we returned it to that state.” Also, I have seen surveys of this block from the 1800s, and one of them (can’t recall the date but I thought it was 1850-something) shows your lot as having no structure at the street frontage at all. Only a small structure in the back of the lot, with sort of a “front yard” that goes to the street. I was surprised, therefore to hear you say that your building dates to 1814. I thought it was much later than that.

    But the larger point is that you as a homeowner decided to make an “old-looking” 19th century style building, and as homeowner that should be your prerogative. You did a great job! I am just saying that had you chosen a modern style for your renovation, I would be backing your rights to make that choice for your own property. Since there is no pre-existing “historical structure” on your site that could be preserved, you should have the freedom to make it how you as the owner like it. I doubt your path with the LPC and BHA would have been so easy had you wanted to make it a modern facade…

  • A Neighbor

    my2cents, as I understand your position, it is that (i) you prefer a modern structure to a sham reproduction, (ii) the LPC and BHA require the sham reproduction, and (iii) therefore the preservation movement has gone astray. I think you are not familiar with positions of either the LPC or the BHA going back at least 20 years. You need to do a little research and see how they have responded when homeowners have sought approval for modern buildings that, in your words, “respect the scale” of surrounding structures. Guess what? In most cases, they support good design, whether it is Federal Style, Romanesque Revival or, alas, modern.

    To cite a bricks-and-mortar example you might be familiar with — 11th St between 5th and 6th in the Village where, you may recall, an historic house on an historic block blew up in the 60’s. Have you seen the LPC-approved replacement?

    This community, LPC and BHA included, is, by and large, a whole lot more design savvy than you imagine.

  • Jeremy Lechtzin

    My2cents, no offense taken. FYI, you must be talking about the 1855 Perris fire insurance map. It shows an empty front lot at what was then numbered 46 Hicks Street (now 54 Hicks), next door to us (north), with a building at the rear. I found a newspaper clipping that describes what happened – the new owner (Sanneman) bought the lot, moved the existing frame house from the front to the rear, and built a new brick house in the front (today’s 54 Hicks). If you look at the facade of 54 Hicks, you can still see the outline of a second door on the front, which used to be part of the horsewalk that led to the rear house (the passage itself, like the rear house, is long gone). The guy was eccentric – no one was building horsewalks by the 1850s in NYC – and probably the only brick horsewalk that ever existed in the Heights.

    On that same map, our house is numbered 48 Hicks, with our front and rear houses making an L shape in beige (for frame construction) (and two more outbuildings behind that, in green, for manufacturing).

    The rear buildings at the old 46 and 48 Hicks are why, when the street was renumbered in the early 1870s, the front buildings (which still stand today) were numbered 54 and 58, and the rear buildings (gone) are 52 and 56. So the numbering on the block today (from Middagh to Cranberry) is 48, 50, 54, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66.

    AEB, as for the stoop – yes, the front door on our house was always high off the street (see the old pic in my link above). It should look more normal when the steps get built – I agree, right now it’s a door to the sky. Because of the slope of Hicks Street, No. 51 across the street was built at the same exact height – you can still see the outline of the old front door and its lintel at what’s essentially second-story height. I think its original stoop went straight out from the house and the steps must have been even steeper than ours to avoid running into the street!

  • my2cents

    Jeremy, thanks for the clarification! That is the map I was referring to. I always thought that was your building which had the empty lot. Thanks for straightening me out.

    A Neighbor, I am familiar with the Weatherman-exploded townhouse you cite on 11th. But wasn’t the replacement built many years ago? Your summary of my views is basically correct, but oversimplified of course. :-)
    The “astray” part is mainly a reaction to the fact that although the LPC can dictate the paint color of my townhouse, or the scrollwork around my doorway, they failed to save 2 Columbus Circle from being ruined (in a modern way, I might add!). If anything 2 Columbus Circle was the type of case we HAVE a preservation commission for in the first place.

    I am sure you are right that some of the LPC folks are design savvy, but I am mainly reacting to things I have seen take place in our neighborhood within the time I have lived here. I mean, remember when someone wanted to put a modern code-correct structure on Montague where the Sleepy’s is? They were forced to completely redesign it into a cookie cutter faux-historic piece of junk.

  • nabeguy

    I applaud Jeremy for his unrelenting passion for getting to the root of his buildings architectural roots, all the while navigating the myriad directions that the LPC can send you in. The fact that he used a good deal of the architectural features of my own house on Middagh (many of which are not original to the house, as he seems to well understand) strikes me as less case of historical accuracy and more as one of expediency, as the LPC is notorious for seeking “like” structures as precedents. Given his research, and the photos he’s provided, I think he’s done one of the most impressive jobs of “restorative” preservation in the North Heights in recent memory.

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    What a wonderful discussion to read. I’m a big fan of Jeremy and appreciate his intellect and how he went about researching the historical character of the plot of land that his house now resides.

    I can’t add anything of significance to this wonderful conversation, I especially appreciated the civility of all participants but would expect nothing less from my2cents, AEB and Jeremy, all great Brooklyn Heights residents.

    My only comment is that the beauty of Jeremy’s house has altered my homeward direction from the “A” train. I previously walked along Middagh to and fro to the “A” now I walk along Cranberry from Henry and make a right on Hicks just so I can pass and admire Jeremy’s wonderful addition to the nabe.

    Added note on the beautification of the North Heights, it really looks like 20 Henry is getting its act together and is laying the groundwork for a resumption of work/construction. The parking spaces have been rescinded on Henry Street due to “Temporary Construction” and the lights are on in the building. Time will tell but I can assure you that something is going on there that wasn’t happening before.

  • AEB

    Thanks, Karl. So nice to see you posting again! And, yes: I seen the lights, I seen the harbor lights (well…) in 20 Henry this AM. That is, there’s evidence of human activity within….