By Mike McPhate
Veronika Conant held back tears as she pled with city officials at a recent meeting to halt the demolition of a row of graceful, century-old townhouses in her neighborhood.
As Conant and her neighbors see it, the buildings represent the city’s last outpost of low-slung, historic housing in midtown Manhattan. A developer plans to replace the Beaux-Arts townhouses at 31, 33, 35, and 37 West 56th Street, rare survivors of the French design, with a high-rise apartment building.
The answer to Conant’s plea came Sept. 12, when the city’s Department of Buildings approved a permit to raze the structures. “We really tried,” said Conant, head of the West 54 – 55 Block Association, located between Fifth and Sixth avenues. “You can’t imagine how much we have done.”
Besides the loss of heritage, residents say they are galled by the prospect of a massive new building in a neighborhood whose low-rise character has been retained since city planners declared it a preservation sub-district in 1982.
Calls seeking comment from the listed owner of the townhouses, the Stillman Organization, were not returned. The company’s recent projects have included two luxury condo towers—the Metropolitan on the Upper East Side, and another that’s being built with Donald Trump in Fort Lauderdale.
The Stillman Organization’s plan could destroy what Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, calls an “exceptional example” of the Beaux-Arts style that “survived in an exceptionally good state of preservation.”
Activists hoping to halt the destruction began writing letters to the Landmark’s Preservation Commission, which can prevent work on buildings and blocks by designating them landmarks, as early as February. Several politicians joined the call including Councilmember Dan Garodnick and Borough President Scott Stringer.
But by the time the commission sent agents to the property on June 21 it was too late to halt construction, said Elisabeth de Bourbon, spokesperson for the commission. Scaffolding was already erected and permits granted to tear into the facades. “When you strip the ornamentation off the building what do you have?” said de Bourbon, noting that the commission doesn’t have the authority to reverse such permits.
Since then workers have dismantled the facades, ripped up oak floorboards, stripped copper plumping, and removed each of the roofs, including the copper mansard of number 37. The wrecking ball may not be far off.
Residents contend that, even now, it isn’t too late to save the townhouses. Professor Dolkart blamed the failure to do so on the grind of bureaucracy. “There are lots of things people want preserved throughout the city,” he said. “These fell through the cracks.”
“Sometimes it takes forever,” said Peg Breen, president of the non-profit New York Landmarks Conservancy, noting that Crown Heights was only considered for designation as a historic district after activists began campaigning 30 years ago. “Sometimes the focus is on one area or another area. Who knows?”
Some residents, however, blame politicians. They say the Landmarks Preservation Commission has become pro-development with the oversight of Mayor Bloomberg, who appointed its head Robert Tierney. Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, a neighborhood resident since the 1960’s, recalled a phone conversation she had with Tierney in July. His response to her appeals to save the townhouses, she said, was devasating.
“He said, ‘Are you against development?’” said Schwartz, who is a prominent arts consultant. Tierney denied making the remark through a spokesperson.
“It’s unconscionable,” Schwartz added. “The landmarks commission has lost sight of why they were formed.”
The neighborhood’s architectural charm and proximity to the theater district, say residents, has drawn scores of artists and luminaries like Herbert Lehman, Jonas Salk, Billy Rose, Elaine Stritch, and Paloma Picaso to make it their home. The loss of the neighborhood’s character might eventually bring that chapter to a close, they say.
Charles Steinberg, an artist and resident for 40 years, said the fight for the townhouses has highlighted one occupation though that is woefully under-represented in the neighborhood. “Lawyers,” he said.