The Flagg House Designation: Comments on its History and Background

On October 30, 2018 the Landmarks Commission heard an application for a new development of  nineteen very similar small houses to surround the landmarked Ernest Flagg House on Todt Hill in Staten Island. The proposed houses were disposed in a ring around the Flagg mansion and were to be accessed by a new ring road of formidable dimensions. It was represented that the construction of the houses would finance an extensive restoration and rebuilding of the landmarked mansion, which had housed a seminary, returning it to residential use.  The proposed development was reminiscent of many subdivisions and housing tracts that appeared on Staten Island after the construction of the Verrazano Bridge, and other similar suburbs in the metropolitan area.

At the October hearing, Commissioner John Gustafsson, representing Staten Island, called for delaying any action until the commissioners had made a site visit, and further, for a review of the institutional record.  He wanted to know what the commissioners were thinking when they acted on this item in the past. He was right to ask:  given the passage of time, a backward  look is in order.

Unusual Regulatory Issues.  The Flagg estate raises unusual regulatory issues because of its designation history. It illustrates the slow evolution of certain legal protections for New York City landmarks, and marks a turning point in the Commission’s interpretation of its possible jurisdiction. Unlike most individual landmarks, the estate was designated in two stages: first, in 1967, the mansion Flagg designed for his own residence, with its gatehouse and gate, the landmark site being limited to the footprints of these “improvements”, and then in 1983, the expansion of the landmark site to include enough of the land around the mansion to preserve it in its original context, a green and leafy retreat with an axial plan, a designed garden, domestic outbuildings, and an encircling retaining wall.

To recall the situation in 1967, the third year of the Landmarks Commission’s existence, commissioners and staff were in a rush, fighting to protect endangered individual works of architecture.  These were buildings that they saw as essential beacons of New York’s history and character, some of them potential landmarks of national significance that must be preserved at all costs before it was too late.  Almost everyone in the city was coming to recognize that even the most distinguished buildings were under threat of immediate destruction in the forward march of modernization and “progress” after the war.  Protecting context, especially when it was open space, would evidently have been fruitless if the landmark it framed no longer existed.  And in 1967, even the idea of context was yet to be recognized and popularized as it was later on by American architects and historians.

Enactment of the original New York City landmarks law had been a long struggle to find sufficient common ground with the real estate industry to make any landmark protection politically feasible.  Harmon Goldstone, the second LPC Chairman, believed that in the end, the only reason industry leaders allowed a considerably reduced version of the law to pass was that they were confident it would be found unconstitutional by the courts.

The Real Estate Board and some of our dearest friends thought, this idiotic piece of legislation is obviously unconstitutional, give us a year to have it in the courts, and we’ll be rid of it, and all the preservationist hullabaloo will die down. (“Interview with Harmon Goldstone,” Anthony C. Wood,  Village Views, Vol. IV, No.3, 40.)

Earlier, when the 1961 revision of the Zoning Resolution was underway, preservation advocates were looking for a way to use it to save the historic city. Preserving a few individual historic buildings as landmarks was generally admitted as a possibility, but the larger idea of preserving a landmark in its original surroundings was extremely alarming to the land use industry.

The Municipal Art Society was crusading for what they called “aesthetic zoning” to be included in the new zoning text. Its then land use committee chair, Geoffrey Platt gathered considerable forces in support, including the AIA, and attempted to sway City Planning chair, James Felt. According to Anthony C. Wood’s history, Preserving New York:

Platt recalled Felt telling him: “If you will stop talking about aesthetic zoning, I will do something to help you people with your—the question of preservation of older buildings.” Felt went on, “We can’t get aesthetic zoning into the new zoning law, and if we keep trying, we’re going to scuttle the whole thing.”  Platt’s reaction? “So I didn’t say another word.” (Preserving New York, 245.)

And indeed after obtaining his 1961 zoning, Felt was good for his word and eventually steered a landmarks law through the Wagner administration to enactment in late 1965.  During the interval, in 1963, Penn Station was demolished.  Platt became the first chair of the commission and was in office when the Flagg mansion was designated.

Remembering that the original text of the law did not specifically protect landscape, and recalling that designation as a Scenic Landmark was unavailable until the 1973 amendments were enacted, and then only for city-owned property, in 1967, a park-like private estate was in an anomalous position. The law did not dictate exactly how a landmark site was to be delineated; in theory, a larger area might have been attempted around the Flagg mansion. It is understandable that it was not.  Although the Verrazano Bridge had opened three years earlier, in 1967 Staten Island was still a relatively pastoral place, where protecting the surroundings of the mansion might not have been seen as urgent.  With hindsight, this was a mistake.

Mid-Century Subdivisions and Tract Housing.  But then not everyone foresaw what much of Staten Island was to become.  No longer the remote ocean outpost where Benjamin Franklin met Lord Howe to negotiate in 1776, no longer the rural residence of Olmsted and Garibaldi and Flagg, with amazing speed it became part of what Henry James called “the swollen city.”  Open spaces became tract housing, and as the easy targets sold and filled up, developers began to look at other already assembled opportunities like the Flagg estate, by then the property of the Pious Society of St. Charles.

Similar losses, or gains, depending on your point of view, were sweeping much of America, causing critics like Peter Blake to dub it “God’s Own Junkyard.”  Architects and planners, who had no role in most real estate industry business plans, expressed dismay at the large-scale failure to allow for any provision of services and amenities, scarcely alleviated by distant shopping centers, or even a rational transportation structure for the massive new subdivisions.  Architects noted the inferior materials and the duplicative designs that characterized this thoughtless multiplication of “homes,” awaiting sale on their miniscule individual lots.  Industry advocates represented their product as a patriotic gesture, a reward for veterans returning from the Second World War and a backbone of family life.  Critics instead saw vectors of isolation and financial stress, as some struggled with the debt required to own their shelter and means of transportation, necessities that would not have required capital investment in a traditional city.  The vast transfer of wealth involved was represented as being compensated by the opportunity to build up homeowner equity.  Absent, however, was any attempt to create community, or permanence, much less any beauty, or individuality, or any landscape feature that might bring a sense of place to the new settlements.

Unstated but pervasive was the widespread exclusion of people of color from such new developments, before and after federal legislation forbidding it; this aspect of the problem was a topic for liberal journalists and academics, as was the related automobile-based exodus from central cities, with Washington lavishing funds on new highways and bridges, rather than on the railways, shipping and public transportation that fed urban life.

While none of these considerations related directly to landmark issues, national policy debates necessarily affected the climate of opinion in the early 1980s, casting something of a pall over the reputation of tract housing in general. (See Suburbia in Transition. Ed. Louis H. Masotti and Jeffrey K. Hadden. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.)

From the aesthetic angle, nationally, subdivision development was a target of criticism.  Ada Louise Huxtable had engaged in a typically aggressive manner, indicting what she called “Slurbs” in the Times, February 9, 1964. She called them “Slurbs” with the implication that these ill-considered subdivisions were a slur on the romantic ideal of suburbs in the late 19th century, and would perhaps one day become slums.  Her Sunday article, further disseminated when quoted in Newsweek, bemoaned the cookie-cutter suburban developments that were springing up along New York’s edges. “The promise of … a new, improved suburbia in the greater metropolitan area, the dreams of beauty and better living are mired in mud,” Huxtable wrote.  New “ugly” developments on Staten Island “could not be better calculated to destroy the countryside if … planned by enemy action.”

Meanwhile, tides of opinion were turning in architectural circles.  Manifestos like Venturi’s Contradiction and Complexity or Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City were inspiring theorists and enthusiasts, and in New York, an architect resident of our own Greenwich Village Historic District, Brent Brolin, had published Architecture in Context, in 1980.  New York architects were directing new  attention to local influences on architectural history;  New York 1900 was first published in 1983, and in 1981, Robert A.M. Stern and John Massengale had produced an Architectural Design Profile, the first of several studies celebrating the planned garden suburb,  The Anglo- American Suburb, which they praised as an “umbrageous” setting.  That the setting of a building could have an influence on how it was perceived and understood by the spectator was a topic recognized as perhaps having a bearing on the protection of individual landmarks.

Negotiations.  Negotiated and renegotiated over a period of years, the landmarks law reflects a series of compromises, some of them barely resolving controversies that are with us still, such as the regulation of landmark sites of religious properties, or other open spaces that might be opportunities real estate development. The decision that designation of the exterior of a house of worship was constitutional,  but that the interior could not be regulated, enabled some designation of religious properties to move forward, without fully clarifying religious landmark site development issues, which were problematic from the first.  In 1967, much of the Flagg estate was owned by the Pious Society of St. Charles, which did not oppose individual landmark designation for the house and gatehouse, the landmark site being their footprints alone.  A decade later, the Society began sell its undesignated holdings.

In the past, as now, the LPC negotiates with ownership, attempting to avoid opposition to designation. Obviously there is no provision in the law for the creation of any public record of such discussions. Activists, perhaps ill-advised, have frequently pointed out that the law does not require owner consent. But what it does require of course is affirmation, now by the City Council, or until the 1990 charter revision, by the Board of Estimate.

Affirmation of a designation by the Board of Estimate was at substantial risk without the endorsement of the local borough president.  Under the voting arrangement later determined to be unconstitutional in Board of Estimate v. Morris, officials elected citywide (the Mayor, the Comptroller, and the President of the City Council) each had two votes, while every borough president had one.  In practice, the borough presidents generally protected local interests by voting as a unit, so that if there were borough president opposition, and one other elected official was opposed or did not vote, a designation could not be affirmed.

In 1982 the commission learned that Sanford “Sandy” Nalitt, acting as the Copperflagg Corporation,  had bought a portion of the former Flagg estate from the Seminary with the intention of building a crowded subdivision close to the mansion, which would have been outside LPC jurisdiction under the terms of the 1967 designation.  An investor in Copperflagg was the Deputy Borough President of Staten Island, Ralph Lamberti. Lamberti, who served as Deputy Borough President under Anthony Gaeta, was appointed Borough President when Gaeta resigned to pursue other opportunities.  Mayor Koch enthusiastically endorsed Lamberti in the 1984 campaign.

Todt Hill was seen, then and now, as an opulent location, with its sweeping ocean views.  When news of the 1982 development proposal reached the commission, there had already been discussions of the architectural importance of the outbuildings that surrounded the landmarked mansion, but other priorities had intervened.  Nalitt’s original subdivision concept would have been devastating to the context of the Flagg mansion and indeed to the entire neighborhood, both in terms of its site planning and its architectural design, and might have meant loss of the peripheral structures Flagg had designed.  As was customary at that time, the commission notified the office of the Staten Island Borough President of their intention to designate an expanded site.  Lamberti suggested a meeting with Nalitt.  When Nalitt had understood the concerns about his project from a preservation standpoint, he reconsidered his options, and hired Robert A. M. Stern Architects.  Starting over, with the idea that the site was susceptible of a different approach, and could become a unique asset,  a plan was devised whereby Nalitt’s holdings would be divided for design purposes, treating the potential expanded landmark site differently from an adjacent unregulated area, where a larger number of new buildings would rise, some by Nalitt’s original architects.  But Stern would design some unique residences of the kind he was known for, to be slipped in around the edges of Flagg’s garden among the trees, complimented by residential conversions of existing structures.  According to the Times:

The project’s architect, Robert A.M. Stern, has been working with the staffs of both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission to produce a masterplan that both commissions will accept.  https://www.nytimes.com/1983/08/07/realestate/postings-colonial-touch.html

The Stern office was in a position to move quickly, having already reviewed Flagg’s work and this particular site as part of their extended study of designed communities and early 20th century residential innovations. More often, of course, Certificate of Appropriateness applications are made and heard after the designation has been affirmed, but in this case, the Copperflagg application was brought forward, and the right to develop secured, before the Board of Estimate moved to affirm.

Other aspects of this history were also documented in New York Times, which noted, among other things, the multiple problems the Borough President eventually had with the law regarding his alleged transactional relationship with Sanford Nalitt, over Copperflagg and another property. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/07/18/opinion/the-unfinished-lamberti-business.html  A Staten Island Grand Jury subsequently found the evidence insufficient for prosecution, but the Department of Investigation stood by its initial report. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/10/25/nyregion/grand-jury-declines-to-indict-staten-island-borough-chief.html  In addition to the controversial sale of city-owned land to Nalitt for a s hopping center, questions were raised about Nalitt’s repurchase of Lamberti’s interest in Copperflagg for more than twice what he had paid.  https://www.nytimes.com/1985/06/21/nyregion/top-si-officials-is-said-to-face-conflict-charges.html

The Decision Makers in 1983.  Records of Landmarks Commission deliberations from the early 1980s are difficult to access, but recalling who the leading participants were, and what we know of them, is suggestive. Many commissioners had views that would have been relevant to their evaluation of Copperflagg.

To the dismay of the real estate lobby, in 1978 the Supreme Court had upheld the landmark designation of Grand Central Terminal. This was the beginning of the Koch era, still a relatively benign time for historic preservation.  In greater New York, thousands of properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn had been protected as part of the historic district movement, and popular support for landmark designation was considerable.  The new mayor appointed Kent Barwick chair of the LPC, and Anthony Tung was soon to become commissioner from Staten Island.

Mayor Koch staffed his commission with the statutory three architects, one historian or landscape architect, one realtor, and one representative of each borough, and going beyond that, was attentive to diversity of background to provide voices for New York’s Asian, African-American and Latino citizens.  He did not, although he could have, appoint a real estate developer to fill the realtor seat, rather, as other mayors have done, he looked to a residential broker, Commissioner Thomas Evans of Queens.

Commissioner Joseph Mitchell and his Longstanding Attachment to Rural Staten Island.  By 1979, the disappearance of familiar landscapes was becoming unsettling, and the redevelopment of the Staten Island countryside had gained alarming momentum as farmland and wild nature morphed into new subdivisions.  Barnett Shepherd of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences submitted photos of the Flagg House and outbuildings to the State Historic Preservation Office, together with the 1967 LPC designation report.  According to the CRIS database, the property was determined eligible but was not listed, presumably lacking owner consent (Site no. 08501.001143).  The inadequacy of the original designation, given the march of new development, was becoming a concern on the island and to preservationists elsewhere.

As a “Reporter at Large,” in 1956, Commissioner Joseph Mitchell had published in the New Yorker a long reflection on Staten Island called “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” which begins, “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.”  Not one to write in sound bites, Mitchell can best be understood when read in full. His deep connection to the Staten Island he had known in 1956 is vivid still in his account of it, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1956/09/22/mr-hunters-grave. In 1982, Koch appointed Mitchell to the Landmarks Commission.

Commissioner William Conklin’s Opposition to Conventional Suburban Development.  As designer of Reston, Virginia, the privately built new town and satellite city that was meant to demonstrate to the modern world what a well-planned and designed new suburb could be, Commissioner William Conklin, the vice-chair, was the ultimate enemy of conventional subdivision and tract housing development.  A student of Gropius at Harvard, a designer in the Brutalist mode, and an aggressive planner, he did not live to see his Lake Anne Village Center at Reston listed as an Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Nomination notes:

In the years since its completion, Lake Anne Village Center has received national and international attention from academics, architects, developers, planners and governmental entities.  Visitors from all over the world still come to see this unique example of architectural excellence in service to visionary, socially conscious planning…  The Lake Anne Village Center Historic District, constructed between 1963 and 1967, is a Modern-style European-like village set in northwestern Fairfax County, Virginia, 18 miles west of Washington, D.C.  The historic district is nationally significant under Criterion A in the area of Social History.  The planned development articulates the seven goals of its founder, Robert E. Simon, Jr., and illustrates his insistence on an open, racially integrated community even prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite that Virginia had fiercely resisted desegregation.  The historic district also is nationally significant under Criterion A in the area of Community Planning and Development, as the first village of the planned community of Reston, Virginia, and, as such, part of the nation’s first zoned planned unit community.  Its influences were drawn from the English Garden City movement first represented in the United States at Radburn, New Jersey, as well as European plazas, and townhouses of the urban areas of the northeastern United States. Lake Anne Village Center was the showcase of the “New Town” movement, with social, architectural, and land-use development innovations that are internationally recognized and have influenced development in the United States and around the world.  The historic district is nationally significant under Criterion C in the area of Architecture as an excellent example of Brutalist design tempered by its human scale and medieval-inspired elements. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/029-5652_LakeAnneVillageCenterHD_2017_NRHP_FINAL.pdf

On the front page of the Sunday Times, December 5, 1965, there was an aerial photo of the newly finished Reston, and Ada Louise Huxtable reported the opening: “Bells rang, the National Ballet danced, and Stephen Spender recited an original poem composed for the occasion.”  She continued:

Reston’s unconventional plan upended all the suburban building rules.  Zoning had to be changed to permit mixtures of commerce and housing and high and low buildings tightly clustered at high densities with open land between.  Reston was turned down by more than 70 corporate and lending institutions.  One well known lending source submitted a list of “deviations from the norm” that would have to be abandoned. These were all of the town’s most progressive and distinctive features.  At a time when the American landscape is being plowed under at the rate of one million acres a year, his [the developer, Robert E. Simon, Jr.’s] efforts are being recognized a by critics of conventional suburbia as the American answer to the European planned new towns. (Our emphasis.)

Commissioner Elliot Willensky’s Interest in a Wider Scope for Historic Preservation.  Commissioner Elliot Willensky, perhaps best known for the AIA Guide to New York, which he saw through three editions, kept his finger on the pulse of New York architecture, citing the new as much as the historic.  He was an early advocate for a broader view of cultural landmarks, enthusiastic for the oddities of the city and for structures that the man in the street might see as landmarks, when some architectural historian might not.  Thus he advocated designation of certain huge neon advertising signs, and the two giant gas tanks on the LIE  near Maspeth, and, with success in his lifetime, the Coney Island Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump and the Cyclone.  A former director of design for the Parks Department, as a commissioner he tortured the designer of the new Central Park luminaire, refining it in session after session until it met his standards for a positive advisory report. A nocturnal walk in Central Park still shows how right he was.  Landscape was a concern for him, and what is sometimes glibly described as sense of place.  He demanded protection for blank walls of old brick buildings, with their nuanced colorations and traces of earlier houses, similar, he said, to Rome, or half obliterated advertising signs, the signs, sometimes, for their links to social history.  He fought to retain a visible record of the historic name of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, organized in 1850 by Archbishop John Hughes to protect Irish emigrants from fraud and discrimination, when the bank’s landmarked second headquarters was converted to another use.  Described in his obituary as “caustic,” some of his put-downs of erring applicants live after him.

The Militant Commissioner from Staten Island, Anthony Tung.  Commissioner Anthony Tung was a persuasive proponent of using the law to the fullest to prevent the “irreplaceable loss” it describes, that being the loss to “the people of the city” of  “the city’s historic, aesthetic and cultural heritage.”  As a strict interpreter of the law, he was entirely ready to limit any new development he perceived as inappropriate, and demanded certain standards of design for any new building under the jurisdiction of the commission, whether or not such views would be welcome at City Hall. In a 1986 interview, he cited Peter Blake, the author of God’s Own Junkyard, quoting him, in part:

“The mess that is man-made America,” as a British magazine has called it, is a disgrace of such vast proportions that only concerted national effort can now hope to return physical America to the community of civilized nations… Our suburbs are interminable wastelands, dotted with millions of monotonous little houses, crisscrossed with highways lined with billboards…

Tung continued:

I think that is a very accurate appraisal of what we have been doing to this country.  In thinking about the Landmarks Law, in that context, the Landmarks Law seemed to me—a miracle. I thought about what architects are doing to the environment, and what kind of clients architects have, and what developers try to achieve, and how horrible it was, and I thought about this law, and I thought, “How did this ever get passed?” It’s a miracle that this law has been created, and it’s a law of great strength…  But…that description I read you out of God’s Own Junkyard is still a pertinent description of what America is like.  We see all the improvements in Greenwich Village, and it seems wonderful, but let’s not forget, out on Staten Island, and out in New Jersey, and not very far away in any direction you want to go, the other reality is still the majority reality of what is happening.  (Village Views, Vol. III, No.1)

Views on the Significance of Design, Style and Setting in Landmark Interventions.  What some perceived as an onslaught of unthinking  junk architecture, in tract housing and elsewhere, fueled debate at the Landmarks Commission.  Commissioners might have disagreements about exactly what constituted good architecture, but at that time still, there was a majority view that bad architecture should not be encouraged and could never be an appropriate addition to a landmarked property.   Obviously, this position was not explicit in the wording of the law, depending on interpretation of the term, “appropriateness.”  At the time, the Chairman led discussions of whether the appropriateness standard required such esthetic judgment in individual cases.  Commissioner Tung, for one, argued that restoration and regulation under the law could only lead to a secular tendency for landmarks and districts to increase in architectural beauty, fostering  a consistent sense of place.  If interventions of poor quality were approved in certain cases now, decades later they would stand out increasingly as faulty, and call for replacement, an embarrassment to the commission, so why not act and do the right thing now?

Commissioners Tung and Willensky were particularly interested in developments in contemporary architecture; not exclusively in the direction of Miesian modernism, but also in emerging variations on modernist conventions and references to earlier forms, now unfortunately all lumped under the label, post-modern, but quite various at the time.  The appropriate role for new architecture in a landmark context was of great concern to them, as evidenced in the intense controversy over the Agrest/Gandelsonas proposal for an addition on East 71st Street at Madison Avenue, which they supported, with the encouragement of Aldo Rossi, but which was ultimately rejected in a bitterly split vote, or similarly, Hugh Hardy’s proposed expansion of the New York Historical Society, also rejected.

Commissioner Charles Platt advocated a more established school of thought, enshrined in the National Register guidelines, and taught by James Marston Fitch at the Columbia University School of Architecture, which called for landmark additions to be clearly modernist in design and thus “of our time,” without deception or pretense.  While this outlook was in conflict with some of the ideology of Willensky and Tung, it shared a concern for quality. Certainly it could never welcome the debased retro design touches that characterized the merchandizing of tract housing.

Also an enthusiast for new design, in 1983 Commissioner Barbaralee Diamonstein was producing American Architecture Now, exploring that topic in a series of interviews with practitioners, published by Rizzoli.  Televised, these discussions were credited with drawing the architectural avant garde into the mainstream of public notice, as her earlier Old Buildings, New Uses had done for the then relatively arcane concept of adaptive reuse.

Commissioner Mary Childs Black, art historian and specialist in early American portraiture is remembered for the 1973 classic, Old New York in Early Photographs. Sifting through 50,000 negatives to create an exhibition of 196 photographic plates, she limited herself to Manhattan, but chose images of geographic focal points that drew photographers to “noteworthy buildings and settings that appear in many views” over time.

In these pre-Giuliani days, debate at the commission was vigorous and protracted, late into the night, and tended to be dominated by the participants noted above;  however, Commissioner Thomas Evans, Commissioner Barry Williams and Commissioner José Ithier also served with distinction to assist the more aggressive members in the proper application of the law as they all saw it.

The Chairman.  During his tenure, 1978 – 1983, Chairman Kent Barwick proved himself a master strategist and negotiator, achieving—through tenacity, ingenious compromise, and shrewd analysis of the vulnerabilities of the opposition—designations that at first seemed impossible, such as a huge Upper East Side Historic District, or the Street Plan of New Amsterdam and Colonial New York.  Some of the concessions he is thought to have made in behind-the-scenes exchanges remain controversial. However, he brought the Flagg Estate Extension into the fold, albeit eventually in somewhat modified form.  It is hard to argue that a compromise was not worthwhile, as a practicable alternative to the originally contemplated subdivision and obliteration of the historic site.

Designation.  The designation report was prepared by commission staff member Shirley Zavin, and a  co-author, Barry Bergdoll, who served as consultant and prepared the parallel National Register Application.  Subsequently, of course, Professor Bergdoll became known for exhibitions at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and at the Museum of Modern Art, where he served as Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design.  The devoted Shirley Zavin, herself a Staten Island resident, strongly believed that the mansion’s outbuildings and grounds within the encircling stone retaining wall should be preserved intact.  The report eloquently stated the rationale for the new landmark site expansion and carefully described the structures placed within its boundaries by Flagg for his own use, “the axially-arranged formal garden,” the Palm House, the Pool, the Water Towers, the Gardener’s Cottages and the Garage, while noting the “wide expanse of open lawn,” the specimen trees, and the “enframing wooded setting for the house and its immediate surroundings.”  Further, it offered an architectural rationale for preserving open space.

Flagg’s residence is a dominating architectural presence which shapes the surrounding environment.  Planned from the beginning by a sensibility formed at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, its center axis—accented by a number of elements—orders the entire site. Because of its scale, and because it is a structure with two facades—fronting on contrasting vistas—Flagg’s residence lays claim to significant amounts of open space both to the ‘front’ and ‘rear.’ The peripheral location of the drives and outbuilding—as well as the type and location of plantings—define and reinforce the spatial organization.

The report does not touch on the possibility of new structures on the site.

When the commissioners formally reviewed Robert A. M. Stern’s site plan and additions, they were in a position to agree with the architect, who had told the Times that “each house is considered a piece in an elaborate puzzle of artistic urban design.”  And indeed the proposal was ingenious, recessive, various, and scarcely noticeable from the public street—while meeting the commissioners’ demands for contemporary architecture of quality on the historic site.  Some 35 years later, Commissioner Tung (in an email to the current Commissioners dated January 17, 2019) still found the design exceptionally successful. “Once completed, the Copperflagg development constituted the finest example of approved new construction related to a designated historic property on Staten Island.”

The Current Proposal.  The proposal currently before the commission bears a striking resemblance to what might have been built in 1983 as a conventional development of that time, without LPC intervention.  It crowds small subdivided parcels in close to the mansion, visible from the street, proposing, as was customary all those years ago, houses built of inferior synthetic materials, cookie-cutter designs, inauthentic detailing and a total disregard of setting in the landscape.  It seems clear that the extended site designation of 1983 was an action intended to prevent that sort of development near Flagg’s house while conserving its natural and designed setting.  Arguably, individual commission decisions reflect particular circumstances and are not necessarily precedent forming, but in this case, given the struggle for damage control surrounding the enlarged site designation, which had meant suddenly initiating an unprecedented boundary expansion, and approving an alteration plan before the designation could be affirmed, it seems clear that the 1983 approval of additional structures in the garden was never meant as an invitation to build more.  Perhaps the unusual ensemble of new construction that was executed then is less a precedent for future additions than a determination of the maximum change that the site could reasonably accommodate without losing all connection to its origins.  While it is never impossible that some appropriate change could still be conceived, further additions would need to be more recessive and on a much smaller scale. The research staff member who was the co-author of the designation report was vehemently opposed to any compromise that allowed new construction in Flagg’s garden landscape; theoretically, that would have been ideal, but might have made designation impossible.

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