The Grand Central Terminal Controversy

Village Views and the Society for the Architecture of the City have a longstanding policy of not taking part in litigation of Landmarks issues. However, we must note that this year, 2021, a number of citizen lawsuits are challenging recent decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission: notably, 250 Water Street, the McGraw-Hill Building and the Williamsburg Savings Bank are now to be joined by Grand Central Terminal. Recently, attorney Michael Hiller filed Gough v. City of New York et al. which contends that the recent LPC procedure for approving Project Commodore was incorrect. The Verified Petition is attached here.


March 16, 2021

Demolition? About the McGraw-Hill Lobby

In the depths of a pandemic when many are facing hardship or death, perhaps no one wants to know if the agency trusted to protect our New York City landmarks forgets its mission. But reportedly, short-sighted investors are demolishing what should have been a landmark, the extraordinary lobby of the McGraw-Hill Building. Such demolition had (and retains) the blessing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the form of a demolition permit. Now, as social media lights up and costly public relations firms rush in for damage control, we hear that perhaps nothing has happened, yet.

But “the” Landmarks Commission should not be condemned without correctly distributing the blame: its operations are not simple. Governed by complex law negotiated years ago, and freighted with a thousand rules and regulations, the agency does have the power to preserve, but also the power to destroy.

In this Rashomon moment of varying reports, perhaps broken shards of the emerald green glass walls that Raymond Hood designed for the Art Deco lobby of his 1931 landmark, smashed, were gathered up, and shipped to a dump–perhaps the same dump that received the sculptures decorating the original Pennsylvania Station–a very classy dump, as Ada Louise Huxtable noted at that time. Or not?

Opportunities for destruction do exist in the administrative detail of our landmarks law, a compromise in 1965 between idealists and investors, with key roles for elected and appointed officials. It is widely regarded as a model statute, nevertheless.

It created a small agency with limited resources: the LPC cannot save all potential landmarks at once. But there are practical expedients, warnings that work if the agency chair wants them to work–and work in ways that the founders intended. Take the decorated lobbies of individually designated New York skyscrapers. Interior demolition requiring a Buildings Department permit cannot proceed in a landmark without a Certificate of No Effect on Protected Features (CNE) from the LPC. When the applicant files for that CNE, the agency has warning that the lobby is threatened, and if that CNE is issued anyway, the chair’s signature is on it, literally and figuratively, and demolition is next. This does not have to happen. An Operation Policy and Procedure Notice of the Department of Buildings (OPPN#19/88) can provide a window of opportunity for landmark designation. The LPC has 40 days to act. If the chair and the commissioners believe that landmark designation is warranted, notice can be given, and there is just time to calendar the statutory hearing and vote. If the lobby of an individual landmark is demolished under a CNE, that is an action of the chair who issued the CNE, as surely as if the chair had personally driven the jackhammer.

There is also a catch. The chair is not required by law to tell the commissioners, the public, or the press that demolition was requested. Obviously, a mayor is quite free to appoint a chair willing to condone the destruction of potential landmarks in secrecy. Even if some civil servant endangered his career by speaking out, it might not help, since by law the chair, acting alone, can control the scheduling of the hearing and the vote.

Administrative arcana like the OPPN have little appeal for the concerned public, who love their landmarks and want to love (or on occasion, hate) their governmental caretaker. A crafty person with civil service experience can play this mindset like a violin. What former commissioner Joseph Mitchell described as the “save this, save that people” (and he added that he was one of them) are often missing in action at some critical moment that they know nothing of, like September 24, 2020 when demolition of the McGraw-Hill lobby was authorized by the LPC without public notice. A failure of good government, perhaps, but also a failure of many distinguished, even brilliant, well-meaning people, who wanted to participate according to their lights, but didn’t know how, because they were shut out and betrayed by a leader they had trusted. Too late, many individuals, experts and preservation organizations petitioned the LPC to save the McGraw-Hill lobby, only to learn that its fate had probably been sealed much earlier by a valid demolition permit. The public is left with a bitter disappointment. Now it would be up to ownership to recognize the public concern, and respond by accepting designation, followed by a move to preserve and restore whatever may be left of their wonderful asset.

Editors’ note: Citing Engineering News/Record, October 8, 1931, “How the New McGraw Hill Building was Built for Economy and Efficiency,” by J. A. Fouilhoux and Andrew J. Eken, Theodore Grunewald comments that the material of the lobby walls was probably not (as we thought) tinted structural glass but rather enameled steel. This raises further questions about their demolition.

December 27, 2021

Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

The LPC has refused to calendar two significant markers of Black history, while publicizing a new policy of “inclusivity” just in time for Black History Month.

Apparently, 116 Edgecombe Avenue and 857 Riverside Drive are to be lost, through complex decisions made behind closed doors, before the commissioners have the opportunity to vote, or the public to comment at a hearing.

How can this be happening?  We call on the LPC to reconsider.

116 Edgecombe Avenue is the address of a picturesque 120 year old Harlem church, which has been home to various congregations over time; most recently, it was Mount Calvary Methodist Church, which merged with nearby St. Mark’s Methodist Church, and subsequently, congregations shrinking, the unused building was offered for sale, according to the Daily News, February 3, 2017. “The developers are expected to turn the church into condos that largely preserve the historical exterior, Carrington [the Pastor] said.” Subsequent events put this in some doubt.

As a matter of public record, the buyer of the church was 116 Edgecombe LLC, and James Taussig, partner in 116 Edgecombe Avenue LLC, whose address is given as 767 Fifth Avenue, New York, soon applied for a full demolition permit for 116 Edgecombe Avenue, and obtained it on December 4, 2017.

Our ubiquitous helpmate, Google identifies Mr. Taussig as the real estate specialist at GF Capital Management, a private equity company for which Google shows two addresses, one of which is 767 Fifth Avenue, (otherwise known as the General Motors Building.)

To judge from the smiling photographs on its website, GF Capital Management (whose offerings seem to be attuned to the needs of  high- net-worth individuals) would be unlikely to qualify as a Minority or Woman Owned Business.  They offer a wide range of investment opportunities in sports, entertainment and fashion as well as three in real estate. Seemingly a boutique firm, they are not listed among New York’s top ten private equity companies.

Obviously now, the handsome church would have no future as an individual landmark. The LPC can no longer prevent demolition once a demolition permit has been issued, making the site effectively a vacant lot. However, that is not the end of the story. The picture has been clouded by a posting from an entity called Invictus, undated and unsigned, which announces that the church has been sold to an unidentified party for “conversion”. As of January 24th, the most recent deed recorded on Automated City Register (ACRIS) for 116 Edgecombe is the one dated 2017 and subject to the demolition permit.

Perhaps following the lead of the State and National Register of Historic Places, the LPC has been looking at a Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District. It has consulted the community, distributed a potential boundary, and obtained community support. The map shown to the community, like the State and National Historic District, included 116 Edgecombe Avenue, a key architectural feature and anchor of the district. Yet at the last moment, the site has been cut out from the local district proposal, before the commissioners’ vote to calendar for a public hearing.

No new building permits have yet appeared on the DOB website, and there has been speculation that existing zoning (R7-2) could be limiting the site’s marketability at the highest price levels.  “The height factor regulations for R7 districts encourage lower apartment buildings,” according to a city zoning guide. So the future  appears to be in flux and potentially unclear.

Nevertheless, it seems unfortunate that just as it is ushering in Black History Month by publicizing its newfound concern for inclusivity, the LPC has nevertheless simultaneously (though privately) refused to consider designation of not only one, but two significant markers of Black history, for which elected officials, the public at large and the local communities are demanding protection.

It has been be argued that since this church can be demolished it need not be included in the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District, but this is specious.  The church has not yet been demolished, but if it is, something will replace it. If the site were included in the historic district, the LPC would regulate the new construction. 

There have of course been rumors that the church is “not really” going to be demolished “after all,” so we should not “worry.”  Without dignifying that undocumented contention with further discussion, let us move on to the LPC’s second recent refusal to protect an endangered building in Harlem.

It is profoundly discouraging to see cynical speculators bent on the destruction of scarce historic resources even characterized as “developers.” It is worse when protection of the public interest  is denied by a government body, based on a rationale that has no basis in law. 

The Landmarks Law specifically protects properties with a “special character or a special historical or aesthetic interest” (our emphasis).  Even if the architecture is damaged, significant history alone can be the reason for designation, avoiding an “irreplaceable loss to the people of the city.” (§25-301a)

In an action now questioned by the New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, the LPC Research Department has refused to consider 857 Riverside Drive for landmark designation. The department  opines that the building is too much altered.

 The Society for the Architecture of the City recalls contesting that same flawed rationale before.  Oddly enough, it was also invoked to avoid protecting another marker of Black history, 227 Duffield Street.  We were told, way back in 2006, that the building was too much altered to be considered. The rationale was that it had “lost its integrity.” There was a quiet intervention at a different level of government, and the house was not taken by eminent domain.  Years passed, the owner who had fought to protect it in 2006 died of old age.  A new generation of advocates arose.  In July of 2020 the Research Department must have discovered that the house had not lost its integrity after all, because it was calendared and heard for individual landmark designation, with widespread support, including that of the Attorney General of New York State, Letitia James. Reportedly, the reconsideration was generated by an inquiry from First Lady Charlene McCrae. Perhaps now 227 Duffield Street will be designated with fanfare during Black History Month?

Like 227 Duffield Street, 857 Riverside Drive has indeed been much altered architecturally, its small wooden porch and cupola dismantled, its front covered with siding. Its original appearance is fully documented in a lovely photograph by Berenice Abbott, recently reproduced in the New York Times, as part of an extended study by John Freeman Gill.  Abbott had been chosen to record the distinguished old buildings of New York City by the WPA Federal Art Project during the Depression, leading to her celebrated photographic study, Changing New York. There was no Landmarks Commission then.  Exterior restoration of 857 would be feasible, the photograph provides documentation, reconstruction of its wooden decorative elements would not be technically difficult or particularly costly, nor is removing fake siding unusual or problematic. Similar projects in historic districts are routinely approved at staff level by the LPC. Research in support of designation has been submitted by historians Matthew Spady and Joseph Armodio.

When it was first established, the LPC was properly concerned to identify and designate landmarks of African American significance, and the Hunterfly Road Houses, the last survivors of the 19th century free African community of Weeksville were designated in 1970.  The houses were in dire need of protection and repair, but the LPC did not hesitate. James Hurley had found Hunterfly Road on a 19th century map and rediscovered it by flying over the neighborhood with a friend in a small plane, as the old road was by then off the grid, hidden and long forgotten. Once protected, it was possible with great effort and over many years for community activists to restore the houses, and they are now honored as the Weeksville Heritage Center.  That was the original LPC in action.

Marketing an opportunity is not the same thing as moving to build a new building, but that ubiquitous term, “the developer” circumvents all rational analysis and shoots straight for the heart, whether you are preservation minded, in which case you might be expected to respond negatively, or growth minded, in which case you might cheer. Neither response is exclusively aligned with a rational public policy, and unfortunately, public policy is not immune from confused terminology.  Even so, it is unnerving when someone called a “developer” is able to give at least the appearance of stifling debate and setting a governmental agenda behind the scenes–and this just to secure a future for his relatively minor private investment

Jesse Jackson exhorted us to “Keep hope alive” at a time when civil rights protests were fraught with danger, and despair was indeed a rational response to unpunished murder and false incarceration.  So in these less dire circumstances today, we must try to have hope. During the Giuliani administration in New York City, Mr. Michael Henry Adams chained himself to the double doors of the LPC headquarters at Old Slip, blocking the entrance, and stood there shouting “Save Harlem Now!” The LPC Chair called the police and had him arrested.  But his outcry still resonates, because 857 Riverside Drive and 116 Edgecombe Avenue may not be there much longer, without intervention.

                                                                        The Society for the Architecture of the City

                                                                        Ronald J. Kopnicki, President

                                                                        Christabel Gough, Secretary

227 Duffield Street Hearing

Never abandon hope:  after sixteen years of hesitation, the LPC has calendared 227 Duffield Street–the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House, a small brick building in downtown Brooklyn that was home to militant abolitionists before the Civil War. There will be a designation hearing on July 14.  The house still stands, now largely alone, surrounded by demolition and new development, and its continued presence is largely due to a fighting spirit who would not forget the history of her people: Joy Chatel, the former owner, “Mama Joy” of African drumming fame, who fought the Downtown Brooklyn Plan to the ground to preserve her small island of history.  Not alone, of course, then Councilmembers Charles Barron, Eric Joia and Tony Avella led a series of ultimately devastating City Council hearings exposing a consultant’s biased EIS report that claimed the house lacked historic significance, and the Bloomberg administration allowed the house to stand.  Since that time, the Landmarks Commission has developed designation policies that better reflect the law’s mandate to protect “improvements…having a special character or a special aesthetic or historic interest or value.”

Recognizing that historic interest has parity with aesthetic interest under existing city landmarks law was a feature of the Commission’s decision in June, 2019 to designate a group of six individual landmarks for their association with the LGBTQ civil rights struggle.  Some of those designations solved administrative problems, for instance, the James Baldwin house in the Upper West Side Historic District is not classified as an architecturally “contributing” building in its district, and thus lacked adequate protection before the supplemental individual landmark designation.  Based on its architecture alone, the Audre Lorde Residence probably would never have been designated, and its significance to the city could have been entirely lost.  Cultural landmarks can serve as markers of the evolution of civil rights, and the Supreme Court’s decision in, for instance, United States v. Windsor deserve to be indirectly celebrated in the world of historic preservation.

Historic events may or may not take place in buildings of architectural distinction. Yet as the Municipal Art Society has been insisting since 1998, “Place Matters.” Buildings may speak memorably about origins, like the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born–but where is the monument to citizen abolitionists like the Truesdells who fought the corrupting institution of slavery in their own home town?  We will keep the street name, Abolition Place for the block of Duffield Street where the Truesdell House still stands, but how will that ever be understood, if the reason for the naming no longer exists?

Below is a link to a PDF of  our publication, Village Views, Vol. X, No.1 from 2006, Three Small Houses Linked to the Abolition of Slavery: Destroyed for the Downtown Brooklyn Plan?

Duffield St VV X.1


Second Thoughts about Demolition at Rockefeller Center

Sometimes scorned as a mere bureaucracy, on occasion the Landmarks Preservation Commission can become a forum for interpretation of architectural history.  Thus the public hearing of January 12th  led to interesting revelations about Rockefeller Center.  In question were the essential design features of the sunken plaza: why, perhaps, is it not all right to demolish the north and south terraces, those high walkways with polished granite walls and water features that frame the skating rink  and the Prometheus Fountain?

Consultants argued that these terraces were not discussed in the Designation Report and so were fair game to be cut down and made into seating. But a closer look at the Report shows the Commission had no such intention:  “SUNKEN PLAZA; SKATING RINK   DESCRIPTION”  (page 173) notes “Significant features include but are not limited to: -Configuration of the sunken plaza and its staircases  -Polished granite walls…”

If looking for more than a pretext for change, the LPC bibliography points the way. In the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Winston Weisman argued in 1959 that Rockefeller Center was “The First Landscaped Skyscraper”—a progenitor of the Seagram Building and many works of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and so a huge influence on American commercial architecture later in the 20th century.

“Landscaped” is the operative word in this case, bringing forward the perception that at the center of the Center is in fact a great garden, largely sculpture, stone, and water, different in this respect from New York’s more pastoral Olmstedian landscapes, but a garden still.

Michael Gotkin, who has extensive expert knowledge of 20th century landscape architecture spoke in the public comment session about the derivation of the garden and what would be lost if the terraces were altered.  The defining element of the whole garden,  he said, is the water that courses down the Channel Gardens, splashes in the alcove fountains of the terraces and terminates in the Prometheus Fountain with its broad basin.  Designing in 1930, the architects of Rockefeller Center had Beaux Arts training, and as with many early Art Deco experiments, there are underlying Classical references; here, 16th century Italian water gardens, as exemplified by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli outside Rome.

We note that Edith Wharton discussed that celebrated garden in Italian Villas and their Gardens, published in New York in 1904 and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.  She wrote, “…it is the omnipresent rush of water that gives the d’Este gardens their peculiar character. From the [river] Anio, drawn up the hillside at incalculable cost and labour, a thousand rills gush downward, terrace by terrace…flashing in spray from the horns of sea gods and the jaws of mythical monsters…every niche in the retaining walls has its water- pouring nymph or gushing urn…The gardens of the Villa d’Este were probably begun by Pirro Ligorio, and, as Herr Gurlitt thinks, continued later by Giacomo della Porto.  It will doubtless never be known how much Ligorio owed to the taste of Orazio Livieri, the famous hydraulic engineer, who raised the Anio to the hilltop  and organized its distribution through the grounds. But it is apparent that the whole composition was planned about the central fact of the rushing Anio…”

In Rockefeller Center, Carol Krinsky refers to a second article by Winston Weisman (whose scholarship she calls foundational), “Who Designed Rockefeller Center?” The more one looks, the less obvious the answer becomes. So many prominent architects were involved, both sequentially and simultaneously, eventually on an equal footing as “associates,” but working under several very involved Rockefeller family members and advisors, and their eminence grise John R. Todd, on a project, obviously, of enormous complexity, and over a long period of time.  The resulting archives are immense, and reducing them to a narrative, a Herculean task. It is no reproach, then, that neither Professor Krinsky, nor the Landmarks Preservation Commission, nor later, Daniel Okrent, zeroed in on the role of a certain landscape architect now identified by Mr. Gotkin, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

When he died in 1957, Alfred Geiffert was well known. A landscape architect who was president of the Municipal Art Society in 1937, he was active in civic life, leading initiatives frequently noticed in the New York Times, a member of the Century Association, elected to the National Academy of Design, and professionally, designer to the Rockefellers and the Mellons in both private and public projects.  His prominently placed obituary was headlined, “ALFRED GEIFFERT, GARDEN DESIGNER; Landscape Architect Dies; Worked on Rockefeller Center, National Gallery,” (August 27, 1957).  A few decades later, he seems to have been forgotten. Nevertheless it is now documented that he worked with Raymond Hood at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, creating a very successful water garden for American Radiator, and that Hood brought him into Associated Architects to advise on Rockefeller Center’s now much admired public spaces.

The sunken plaza terraces designed by Associated Architects are not, in the words of William Whyte, “Just a nice place to sit,” and they should not become that. They are integral to a very sophisticated garden design that is retrospective, with precedents going back to 16th century Italy, while maintaining a 20th century style and character that influenced the design of other subsequent landmarks.  Those terraces should be retained at their original height with their polished granite walls and fountain niches. The character of Rockefeller Center would be vitiated without them.

We are indebted to Mr. Gotkin for his new information and  his analysis of significant historic features of the garden which had escaped us earlier.

[Gurlitt? In the typographically sophisticated first edition of Italian Villas and their Gardens, Edith Wharton scarcely used footnotes. The “List of books mentioned” at the end includes “Cornelius Gurlitt, Geschichte des Barockstiles in Italien, 1887.”  A different Cornelius Gurlitt, his grandson, was the subject of the New York Times report, “Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an Uproar,” November 4, 2013.]

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.

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.  A Staten Island Grand Jury subsequently found the evidence insufficient for prosecution, but the Department of Investigation stood by its initial report.  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.

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 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.

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.