New York City’s Landmarks: Is it Really Just a House of Cards?

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By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
ThePreservationDiaries@gmail.com

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In Stéphane Brizé’s new film, Mademoiselle Chambon, a rugged-looking builder, whose weathered face reads like a tourist map through the life of a man supporting the weight of the world on his shoulders, is invited to give a talk to his young son’s class. Standing before his pint-sized audience, this modern-day Atlas, here called Jean, offers a matter-of-fact primer on what he knows best: the art of building.

The single most important thing to remember, Jean tells the eager young crowd, is to always begin with a solid foundation. For any building to stand the test of time, he explains, a sturdy foundation is a construction imperative.

The schoolchildren seem to quickly grasp the gist of Jean’s lesson as it just makes good common sense. Apparently, even by the age of 6, one can fairly easily reason that if a foundation is weak or becomes compromised, the building it supports may come toppling down. What sounds so fundamental to good building practices in the movie, however, has proven much more complicated on the mean streets of Gotham, where real estate development still rules the roost.

Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) issued a permit approving the demolition of 74 Grand Street, a landmark in the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District. The rationale for razing this architectural gem was that excavation at the adjacent lot had severely compromised the landmark’s foundation, causing it to tilt and thus posing a danger to public safety. Before consigning the 1886 neo-grec style landmark to the wrecking ball, LPC determined that the building was “leaning to the west approximately 25”.

How, you may ask, could a protected New York City landmark have suffered such a fate? Well that’s exactly what I wanted to know, so I called Alex Herrera, Director of Technical Services for the New York Landmarks Conservancy. While myriad factors can contribute to construction mishaps at historic sites, Herrera told me, part of the problem is the difference in the way foundations were built historically and how they are built today.

According to Herrera, most of the City’s historic structures were not built with foundation footings. A standard part of any modern foundation, footings — which are often twice as wide as a structure’s foundation wall — provide added stability as they spread the load of weight over a larger surface area. This helps to prevent settlement or shifting.

By contrast, 19th century houses — which account for most of the city’s landmarks — were built atop rubble stone foundations which have no added platform area over which to spread a structure’s weight, Herrera explained. Rubble stone foundations were clearly built to last, as evidenced by the 19th century structures still standing in all five boroughs. These foundations can quickly become compromised, however, when one goes digging around and beneath them.

Because the city’s historic houses are often co-dependent — sharing party walls, for example — and do not have footings, Herrera said that when adjacent property owners dig below the line of a rubble foundation without proper underpinnings, the excavation itself can cause neighboring structures to shift as a result of removing the dirt which had been supporting the historic buildings all along.

This destabilizing process appears to also be what caused another city landmark, at 287 Broadway, to tilt. A fusion of Italianate and French Second Empire styles, this John B. Snook-designed structure was completed in 1872 and designated a city landmark in 1989. While excavating the adjacent site in preparation for a 20-story condominium complex called 57 Reade Street, the landmark at 287 Broadway registered a shift serious enough to prompt the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) to issue a vacate order. Now, in addition to such architectural features as grand arched windows and a mansard roof, 287 Broadway is being held up by what looks like an elaborate system of hooks and ladders.

Landmark migrations like these happen far too frequently, according to Teri Slater, co-chair of the Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side. In a recent phone interview, Slater said that since renovations so often involve demolition and excavation (both of which have proven to have serious consequences to neighboring landmarks), the LPC, without whose approval such work can not proceed, “should hesitate to sign off” on permits allowing property owners to renovate and alter landmarks “before somebody consults with an engineer.”

Slater worries that the LPC staff reviewing these permit applications lack the requisite expertise to sufficiently recognize red flags. And while, ultimately, it is the DOB that is responsible for determining the structural integrity of buildings (both extant and as they exist in construction plans), Slater says the LPC has a duty to protect all the landmarks in the city’s collection.

Echoing Slater’s frustrations, one resident of a 19th century landmarked house that was seriously damaged as a result of demolition work on a neighboring property this spring, told me that if the LPC does nothing else, it should be “to keep these walls up so these old 19th century houses don’t collapse and disappear forever.” Speaking to me on the basis of anonymity, this homeowner said that his concern stretches beyond the value of his own house. “Fortunately, nobody has died in these wall collapses this year.” But, he added, “It’s only a matter of time.”

In addition to inadequate care for historic foundations, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council has grave concerns about the effect that all these alterations are having on the well-aged walls of the city’s landmarked structures. “If you are putting something on a weight-bearing wall, you should be required to discover the history of the wall,” or find another way to first test its strength, he said.

Considering the fact that approximately 95 percent of all the permits approved by the LPC are issued by staff without any public hearing or outside review, a closer look at those permits would seem in order. Over the last five years, the LPC has issued 46,990 permits, peaking during the construction juggernaut in 2008 when it gave its imprimatur to 10,730 permits.

On average, the LPC issues around 9,000 permits annually for alterations and other work on landmarked structures. Granted, some of these permits are for executing fairly benign tasks, like painting or power-washing a house in a historic district. But other permits issued by the LPC involve major renovations and even full-blown demolitions.

Yet despite the extraordinary number of permits the LPC issues, it does not conduct routine follow-up inspections. In fact, a spokesperson for the LPC emailed me and said that the Commission “is not required to inspect projects once they’re completed, nor does it have the power to enter private property without owner permission.”

Public safety issues raised by the city’s current inspection practices are why Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer responded to my inquiry on this topic with the following statement:

The City needs to take a serious look at how inspections across its many agencies are coordinated. The current system has clearly become unmanageable and is in need of serious change. We have an important opportunity to make reforms to City inspection protocols through the charter revision process. In fact, the creation of an Office of Inspection is one of the key proposals in the agency reform recommendations that I submitted to the New York City Charter Revision Commission earlier this year.

For some preservationists, reforms cannot come fast enough. Early last month, during demolition work relevant to a major renovation at the Dalton School on East 91st Street in the Carnegie Hill Historic District, a construction accident resulted in a football-sized hole being punched through the wall of the landmarked house next door.

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After a neighbor notified the DOB about the breach, a stop work order was promptly issued to the school. The DOB web site describes the Dalton transgression as follows:

…at time of inspection the party wall between 51 and 49 East 91 Street was damaged due to demo of rubble foundation.

I’m quite sure the children that attend the Dalton School are just as smart as the little French pupils in Mademoiselle Chambon. So, perhaps, Dalton’s engineer should have first consulted with the youngsters before barreling ahead into an ancient rubble foundation.

In response to a request for an interview about the hole in the wall, Dalton’s Head of School, Ellen C. Stein, emailed me the following statement:

There was a condition that was addressed. We complied with all laws and regulations, and the stop work order was lifted. We will continue to work with and be sensitive to our community.

Meanwhile, also early last month, a staff member at the HDC notified the LPC in writing about the construction accident at Dalton and the attendant stop work order. At the time, the HDC was told that the LPC would follow-up on the Dalton incident. But the Commission failed to do so.

In fact, it was not until the LPC was pummeled with questions for this particular column that anybody even bothered to look into the matter — a full month after the wall of a landmarked house in Carnegie Hill was accidentally and quite seriously breached.

Although Dalton was required to promptly notify the LPC about the accident, it did not. And that transgression alone could make Dalton liable for a substantial fine. A DOB hearing on the Dalton matter is scheduled for July 1, 2010.

Technically, both the DOB and the LPC have the power to levy fines for the recent construction accident at Dalton. But Slater claims that while the LPC was given the legal teeth to impose serious fines and even criminal penalties, to protect the city’s priceless collection of historic structures, it only ever barks and never bites.

Perhaps it’s time for the LPC to start taking its enforcement responsibilities more seriously. The purpose of these fines is to discourage property owners from doing substandard renovations on landmarks. At a time when city and state budgets are shrinking rapidly, levying the sort of fines the LPC is empowered to issue might also help the Commission finally pull its own bureaucratic weight.

Most of the Dalton students will probably be summering out of town by the time the DOB hearing rolls around on July 1. And that’s probably a very good thing. After all, those brainy little tykes might not understand how such a smart collection of adults could have forgotten such a basic lesson about building.

Please send preservation news tips and info to: ThePreservationDiaries@gmail.com.

Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.

The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.