Commentary: Demolition of Marx Brothers Place

The following commentary and call to action was issued by the 93rd Street Beautification Association and is reprinted here in it’s entirety for your information:

Anybody who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the doings of Marx Brothers Place over the last few years knows full well that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has dispatched numerous letters refusing the community’s request to calendar this historic block for a public hearing. The LPC’s lack of interest in landmarking historic Marx Brothers Place is nothing new: It’s legendary.

In fact, it was precisely the LPC’s anemic response to Marx Brothers Place that inspired the broad coalition of advocates to speak out in support of extending the Carnegie Hill Historic District (CHHD) so as to include the incomparable collection of historic structures on East 93rd Street before the entire block is marked with a big red X for the wrecking ball.

Notoriously, historic districts have been repeatedly rejected by the LPC for years &#8211 a commission into whose vortex designation requests (RFEs) disappear like socks in the dryer &#8211 and languished without legal protection from demolition before finally being calendered and properly designated.

The community coalition which robustly supports designating historic Marx Brothers Place &#8211 and includes the 93rd Street Beautification Association- Carnegie Hill Neighbors- Historic Districts Council- New York Landmarks Conservancy- Place Matters (a collaboration of the Municipal Arts Society and Citylore)- Members of the Marx Brothers family- Woody Allen- Bob Weide- Andrew Berman- Bronson Binger- Michael Devonshire- 93rd Street Block Association- Brewery Hill Block Association- Assemblyman Micah Kellner- Assemblyman Jonathan Bing- NYC Council Member Jessica Lappin- NY State Senator Jose Serrano- Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and countless other preservationists, homeowners, residents, artists and historians &#8211 has been battling against the LPC’s lethargy toward historic Marx Brothers Place since day one.

Backed by the uncompromising historic evidence &#8211 research unearthed by a Preservation historian at Columbia University’s acclaimed Graduate School of Architecture & Historic Preservation &#8211 this massive community coalition continues its efforts to try to enlighten and educate the LPC as to the fact that Marx Brothers Place not only meets the criteria for landmarking in NYC, it surpasses it.

Make no mistake: The Marx Brothers Place community coalition stands resolute in its position that this world famous block in Carnegie Hill warrants immediate protection from indiscriminate demolition because of its historic, cultural and architectural significance.

So on Monday, July 19 &#8211 when Community Board 8&#8242-s (CB8&#8242-s) Landmarks Committee voted 7-0 (with one abstention) to send a powerful message to the LPC resolving that this important historic block should be landmarked by the city &#8211 this devoted community coalition had much to celebrate when, after years of advocating, it had successfully moved that much closer to its goal.

And had the 93rd Street Beautification Association’s request to CB8 gone according to normal procedure, the next step in this public process would have been for CB8&#8242-s Landmarks Committee to present to the Full CB8 Board the fact of its overwhelmingly 7-0 vote and the reasons the Committee had decided to so strongly support the request to landmark historic East 93rd Street. But, as many of you know by now, what followed was anything but &#8216-normal procedure’.

NYC Council Member Dan Garodnick had insisted that the 93rd Street Beautification Association first get the blessing of CB8 before he would be willing to wield his influence in asking the LPC to calender Marx Brothers Place for a public hearing. But then instead of celebrating the Association’s 7-0 victory before CB8&#8242-s Landmarks Committee, the Council Member chose instead to turn his back on his constituents and, without so much as a heads-up to the Association, furtively did his level best to undermine the preservation campaign’s progress.

On Wednesday, July 21 &#8211 the same day that the full CB8 Board was scheduled to vote on Marx Brothers Place &#8211 CM Garodnick reportedly contacted a co-chair of CB8&#8242-s Landmarks Committee, Jane Parhsall, to offer her copies of a stale letter he had received from the LPC dated May 26, 2010.

The &#8216-Garodnick letter’ &#8211 as it has come to be known &#8211 was not a revelatory piece of news and its boilerplate language was nothing more than the same old, same old misinformation that the coalition has been disputing for years (it should also be noted that despite repeated requests, CB8 has &#8211 to date &#8211 failed to provide the Association with a copy of the &#8216-Garodnick letter’ which it only allowed the Association to see after CB8 Landmarks Committee co-chair Parshall had already dramatically misrepresented its contents to the entire CB8 audience before the full CB8 Board vote on July 21).

While deliberately overstating the import of yet one more of the LPC’s perennial letters &#8211 brushing off the request to calender Marx Brothers Place for a public hearing &#8211 CM Garodnick and CB8&#8242-s Parshall sorely underestimated the public interest in landmarking this storied block.

Smacking of the sort of dirty, petty politics the public has come to expect from its elected and appointed officials &#8211 who time and time again fail the public while proving unworthy of carrying out the people’s business &#8211 Garodnick and Parshall’s blatant breach of the public trust in the process to which Marx Brothers Place is due smells riper than a rotten fish.

Thanks for your continued interest in historic Marx Brothers Place!

For more information about the 93rd Street Beautification Association or Marx Brothers Place, contact [email protected] or 212.969.8138 or visit the blogs at Save Marx Brothers Place or The Marx Brothers Place Report.

You can also follow Marx Brothers Place on Twitter @93rdStreet, Facebook @ Save Marx Brothers Place, YouTube @ Marx Brothers Place and on MySpace @ Marx Brothers Place.

To make a tax-deductible contribution to the preservation campaign, click here.

West Park Presbyterian Church Designated Landmark

On Tuesday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the West Park Presbyterian Church at 165 West 86th Street on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue as an individual New York City landmark. This move to protect this late 19th-century chapel and church came after decades of activism by concerned neighbors. Originally included in the proposal for the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, the church was left out of the 1990 district designation after opposition from church representatives. Since then, neighbors have had to stave off development proposals and demolition permits, most recently observing workers last year removing pieces of West-Park’s interior (it was reported that church was cleaning up from a burst pipe).

For more information, read Historic District Council’s statement on the building and visit Landmark West’s website.

New Website for New York City Landmarks

There is a new website for New York City landmarks that is worth a look. The site, created by Jeff Heur, provides the Landmark Preservation Commission’s information on thousands of landmark buildings and districts across the five boroughs. The site features a large database of historic photos, official landmark designation reports by city historians, and can show nearby landmarks from your iphone or other location-enabled browser. You can check it out at

NYC Landmarks Commission Rejects Half of a Building

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-3 on Tuesday to designate the B. F. Goodrich Company Building (1780 Broadway) as a landmark and at the same time reject the B. F. Goodrich Company Building at 225 West 57th Street. Although the buildings face adjacent streets, they are on the same lot and were both developed in 1909 by the same architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw, for the B. F. Goodrich Company. They are Shaw’s only extant buildings in New York.

The Historic Districts Council issued the following Preservation Alert after the vote:

At today’s hearing, all nine commissioners present stated their support for the designation of 1780 Broadway, mentioning its architectural design but stressing its historic connection to Automobile Row. Six commissioners stated that 225 West 57th Street was of lesser significance because it did not have Broadway frontage and was “an accessory building” to the larger Goodrich headquarters. The other three commissioners defended the significance of the building and spoke highly of its architectural merit as well as its history of automobile-related uses.

225 West 57th Street, cureently under scaffolding and construction shroudOf particular interest was LPC Chair Robert Tierney’s statement referring to the City Council’s concerns about this designation. After the public hearing on August 11th, Council Members Daniel Garodnick, Melinda Katz, Jessica Lappin and Christine Quinn sent a joint letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission opposing the designation of 225 West 57th Street based on “its drab appearance”, that “the company never occupied the building” and that “the designation of 225 West 57th Street could fatally compromise the footprint of the proposed development on this site”. This unprecedented message reframed deliberations about the significance-based worthiness of the buildings into “the argument for preservation against the economic development rationale… [of] allowing for new development on sites where buildings stand today”. Commissioner Tierney went on to state his belief that since there was a likelihood that the City Council would overturn the designation of 225 West 57th Street, the LPC should make a priority of designating 1780 Broadway which everyone agreed should be preserved.

The buildings’ preservation had been supported by HDC, other preservation groups and the local community boards on the basis of their significance to the development of New York City as the center for the nascent American automobile industry, as well as for the importance of the buildings’ architectural design. 225 West 57th Street specifically was a very early and unusual fusion of traditional and Modern design elements, using motifs and techniques from the Chicago and Viennese Secessionist Schools. These points were supported by research in the LPC’s files.

Representatives of the owner, Extell Development, as well as the American Institute of Architects/New York Chapter testified in favor of the designation of 1780 Broadway but opposed to 225 West 57th Street, stating that the buildings were only significant historically as they related to Automobile Row. Since West 57th Street was not on Automobile Row and the building was not occupied by the B. F. Goodrich Company, it was not worthy of being preserved. Additional owner’s representatives also stated that they might pursue a hardship application if 225 West 57th Street was designated (Extell is proposing to build a 60+-story building on the block including this site and has been assembling lots and air-rights to allow for this development for some time.)

In the end, it would appear that the developers won. Thanks to their lobbying efforts the City Council leadership was apparently convinced that this landmark designation was detrimental to the City. The Council’s opposition to the designation resulted in the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s rejection of the building. This is not how it should work.

HDC is exceptionally disappointed in the LPC’s yielding to political pressure. If the City Council was going to reject the designation of a worthy building, then the Council should have been put in a position of justifying that action. By ceding the designation of 225 West 25th Street, the LPC has set a terrible example for future designations.

HDC is also extraordinarily disturbed by the Council’s actions in this instance. While it is entirely appropriate for CM Daniel Garodnick to weigh in on a designation within his district, doing so before the community board has a chance to review the project is, at best, precipitous. The joint letter from the four council members, with its not-so-veiled threat, was a direct assault on the independence of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the integrity of the Landmarks Law.

HDC has contacted these council members about our concerns over their involvement and we will be taking additional steps to make sure that the Landmarks Preservation Commission and their process remain transparent and independent. We look forward to updating you in the coming months.

Photo: 1780 Broadway, NYC

NYC Landmarks Commission Designates Underground Railroad Site

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has voted to designate the Lamartine Historic District in West Chelsea [pdf]. This short stretch of 12 row houses on West 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues possess a rare connection to the history of New York and American civil liberties. More recently, the Gibbons-Hopper House at 339 West 29th Street has been the site of an attempt by the landlord to build (illegally according to the the Historic Districts Council) a penthouse addition. A grassroots advocacy organization, Friends of the Gibbons UGGR Site and Lamartine Place, convinced the City to act to preserve the block and revoke the building permits.

Here is a description of the property provided by the Historic Districts Council:

Originally constructed between 1846 and 1847, no. 337 West 29th street was acquired in 1851 by James S. Gibbons, a banker and writer, and husband of renowned abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons. It was at No. 337 that Isaac T. Hopper, father of Abigail and a staunch abolitionist widely acknowledged as a father of the Underground Railroad, died in May 1852. The Gibbons family occupied the house for two years before acquiring the house next door at 339 West 29th Street in 1853. In his memoirs, the American lawyer and diplomat Joseph Hodges Choate, who was also a friend of the Gibbons family recollects dining with the Gibbons and a fugitive slave at No. 339 in 1855, citing the residence as a stop on the Underground Railroad. This is the best-documented evidence of a still-extant site serving as a “station” in the Underground Railroad in New York City.

Abigail Gibbons later invited black and white guests to stay at the house during the 1856 Anti Slavery Convention, and she also later met with abolitionist John Brown there. The building was attacked by mobs in 1862 during unrest around the Emancipation Proclamation and again in 1863 during the New York City Civil War Draft Riots, when the Gibbons’ daughters were forced to escape the angry mob by climbing over rooftops to their uncle’s home at 335 West 29th Street.

Photo: Historic Lamartine Place, now West 29th Street. Courtesy HDC.

NYCs Audubon Park Named New Historic District

Yesterday afternoon the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission named Audubon Park, in Washington Heights, Manhattan, the city’s newest historic district. Located between 158th and 155th streets between Riverside Drive and Edward M. Morgan Place, and adjoining the Audubon Terrace Historic District to the southeast, the Audubon Park Historic District consists of 19 grand, architecturally distinctive apartment houses and one Spanish Revival-style duplex house that were constructed between 1905 and 1932 on the former 20-acre estate of the famed wildlife artist John James Audubon.

The apartment houses, which range in height from 5 to 13 stories, were constructed in the tradition of the elegant residential buildings to the south in Morningside
Heights and on the Upper West Side following the extension of the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line to the neighborhood in 1904.

Most of the buildings were given names that recalled the neighborhood’s past, and evoked glamour and prestige, such as the Grinnell, a massive Mission Revival style apartment house at 800 Riverside Drive that was named for the family who once owned most of Audubon’s estate following his death- Hispania Hall at 601 W. 156th St., a reference to the nearby Hispanic Society of America- and the Riviera at 790 Riverside Drive, both of which are designed in the Renaissance Revival style.

“These buildings are not only highly intact, but also retain the vibrant details and character that attracted residents to them a century ago,” said Chairman Tierney. “The curving streets and dramatic vistas formed by the area’s hilly topography continue to define the neighborhood to this day, and create a powerful sense of place.”