Preservation News

The Preservation League of Staten Island

May 1997 - A Newsletter of Historic Preservation on Staten Island

Contents

Mitchell Grubler, Editor, PLSI News


IS THERE AN HISTORIC DISTRICT IN YOUR FUTURE?

Stapleton, St. Austin's Place, Port Richmond, St. George

DOWNZONING-Can it save your neighborhood?

For people interested in downzoning their neighborhoods or who live in or near the proposed historic districts in Stapleton, St. Austin's Place, Port Richmond or St. George the Preservation League presented a program May 10th..

Stapleton House

On the eve of Preservation Week the Preservation League of Staten Island presented a panel of experts addressing issues relating to our north shore communities. George Bramwell who led a significant downzoning effort in his Grymes Hill community related the problems and the great potential for saving a historic neighborhood that this effort entails. Ed Kirkland, a preservation activist from Chelsea talked about how his community took charge of their future by landmarking and downzoning. Charles Sachs, a former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission talked about New York City historic districts on Staten Island and the potential for designating more Staten Island districts. An informal discussion continued after the panel.

A slide show of potential historic districts helped to define the value of historic district designation as a tool for neighborhood control and preservation. The evening will also included the PLSI annual meeting.

The Meeting was held at Christ Church in New Brighton. Christ Church, built in the late English Gothic style on the site of an earlier building used by the parish from 1850 to 1903, was designed by the Philadelphia architect, Issac Purcell and dedicated on May 30, l905. Purcell also planned the adjoining Parish House, opened in 1907. The memorial windows were crafted by seven different makers and placed in the church between 1904 and 1959.


PROPOSED STAPLETON HISTORIC DISTRICTS

The entire area along the waterfront of what is now Stapleton once consisted of widely scattered farms. Development began in 1831 with the opening of the Seamans Retreat on 36 acres of the Cornelius Corson farm. Within a few years the Retreat would see growing up to the west of it the village of Stapleton.

The origins of Stapleton date to 1833 when William J. Staples and Minthorne Tompkins, son of the New York governor and later U.S. Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins who founded Tompkinsville, bought a large parcel of land for development from Cornelius Vanderbilt. By 1836, they had laid out the village streets and building lots.

Harriosn Street House

An 1836 gazetteer revealed that there were "thirty to forty dwellings, a large and magnificent hotel and the Navy Hospital." Examples of early village houses may be found on Van Duzer, Beach, Gordon, Targee and Grove Streets in Stapleton. These were the houses of small merchants, employees of the Seamans Retreat and Mariners Family Asylum, mechanics and laborers. Residences of more affluent merchants and businessmen were also built, such as the Greek Revival style house at 92 Harrison Street and the already-landmarked Italianate villa at 710 Bay Street. This area being proposed for landmarking and being referred to as "Stapleton Nook" also contains several of the oldest buildings left in Stapleton, including 704 Bay Street which may date from as early as the 1830s.

Stapleton became the home of two large breweries in the 19th century: Bechtel's, at the foot of the cliff along Van Duzer Street (opposite Broad Street, where Demyan's Hoffbrau was located), and the Rubsam & Hohrmann Atlantic Brewery (1870-1953), later Piel's, which finally closed in 1963 and occupied the long block front along Canal Street's north side. The amazing enclave of Harrison and Tompkins Streets between Quinn and Brownell Streets contains the handsome masonry house at 53 Harrison that was the home of the brewmaster at the Rubsam & Hohrmann brewery, the ca. 1880 granite block residence at 10 Tompkins and the 1894 First. Presbyterian Church on Brownell Street. Edgewater Hall, built in 1876 and one of the handsomest commercial structures in Stapleton may also be included in the historic district.

Harrison Street House
Mud Lane House

More imposing residences in a variety of styles were built along St. Paul's Avenue by the managerial and professional classes. The proposed Stapleton Heights Historic District would likely include such examples as the ca. 1888 Queen Anne extravaganza at 387 St. Paul's Avenue, St. Paul's Memorial Church and Rectory, its ca. 1870 neighbors at 139 and 231 St. Paul's, the ca 1895 stuccoed Tudor Revival residence at 400 St. Paul's Avenue.

At its February 24th meeting, the Mud Lane Society for the Renaissance of Stapleton took a unanimous vote to work towards New York City historic district designations for sections of Stapleton.

"With the already committed support of our city councilman Jay O'Donovan, we are optimistic that we will be able to achieve this important designation," stated Mud Lane Society president, Cynthia Mailman. Jeff Kolasinski is the chairman of their landmarks committee. The first step in qualifying for a historic district, a letter to the director of research at LPC, has been sent by President Mailman. Next the Mud Lane committee will verify the quality of the photographs that were taken of individual houses in the proposed districts some years ago. These photos could be of significant help in the process.


PRESERVATION WEEK

Since 1971, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has promoted Preservation Week as a means to showcase grassroots preservation activities in communities nationwide. During Preservation Week, observed the second full week in May, events are planned by local organizations to promote historical places for the purpose of instilling national and community pride, promoting heritage tourism and showing the social and economic benefits of historic preservation.

The 1997 Preservation Week theme, "Preservation Begins at Home," celebrates the role of historic preservation in saving and enhancing the buildings where we live. For many people, tours of restored homes offer a first introduction to the very concept of historic preservation. For others, renovating or maintaining their own older home represents the first step towards hands-on involvement in preservation.

"'Preservation Begins at Home' is a call to activism, an opportunity to highlight preservation's role in enhancing the appearance and livability of your own community and lay the foundation for an even greater role in the future," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Implicit in the theme is the notion that our community is an extension of our home and worthy of our best efforts to fight threats that can destroy it or diminish its livability. The landmark buildings and neighborhoods on Staten Island help to define our community's character. If we are to be successful in saving these special places, we must be vigilant in identifying threats to their continued existence and imaginative in developing strategies to keep them alive. We must also take an active, informed role in the discussions and decisions that shape the future of our community.


Civil Penalties for Landmarks Law Violations

Violations of the Landmarks Law degrade the quality of landmarked buildings and districts and diminish the intent of the law. A proposed amendment to the Landmarks Law would, for the first time, institute civil penalties for infractions and hopefully provide the deterrent needed to prevent them.

The existing law provides criminal sanctions for those who alter landmarks without a permit or who perform alterations not in compliance with an issued permit. The existing law provides for penalties that include fines and imprisonment, but in reality, no one has ever been jailed or even threatened with imprisonment. In practice, owners are often compelled to correct illegal alterations when they cannot get a Buildings Department permit because of an outstanding Landmarks violation.

The proposed legislation would provide civil penalties including penalties for "the failure to maintain a landmark in a structurally sound and water tight condition."-something we have been confronted with all too often on Staten Island.

Owners would be sent warning letters when a violation is confirmed. Grace periods would then give owners time to correct violations without being fined. A graduated scale of fines would be levied according to the severity of the violation.

Appeals could be made to the Environmental Control Board or to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

In the meantime, the threat of these new civil penalties has been used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman, Jennifer Raab, to persuade owners to correct violations and restore the integrity of inappropriately altered landmarks. The proposed legislation went to the Corporation Counsel in November of last year for review. It may be introduced in the City Council by Brooklyn Councilman Ken Fischer in the next several weeks.

The Poillon-Seguine-Britton House

How to Rid Your Property of an Unwanted Landmark-and Get Away With It!

By Jonathan Peters

The 300 year old Poillon-Seguine-Britton House has been wiped from its site on Great Kills Harbor. I think that we all need to understand why. I wish that I had not been asked to tell the story of how it happened. It's a story of preservation, good intentions, wanton destruction, lies, misplaced trust, mal-intent and city bureaucracy. It is a tale that did not have to end as it does. This story is not about NEED, this story is about GREED.

The history of the house

First, let me give you an overview of what our community lost. The Poillon-Seguine-Britton House was a 2 1/2 story house constructed of stone and wood in the local vernacular style. Built in the late 17th or early 18th century, the Poillon House survived as a rare colonial farmhouse and one of the oldest buildings in New York City. It was a beautiful house that gave the surrounding community a sense of tradition.

Poillon-Seguine House
Conjectural Sketch by William McMillen

I remember as a child growing up in the community, how my friends and I would walk at night past the brooding old house on the top of the bluff. Its white facade would glow dimly over the high hedges that grew around the property. A great horse chestnut tree grew (and still grows) in the front yard. My friends and I would collect them and have chestnut fights..

The house itself had grown in an organic way to meet the needs of a number of families over three centuries, with additions in 1730, 1845 and 1930.

The Poillon House had been blessed with a number of good owners. Jacques Poillon built the house, with skill and care, from the primordial forests in 1695. The main walls of the oldest section were fieldstone, hand-chinked with mud. The floor beams and roof trusses were massive. Jacques' simple cottage forms the center section of the house. The Seguine family "modernized" the house in the 18th and 19th century with a kitchen wing and a full second story. They dressed up the simple house with a full width verandah, a fancier arched entry and Greek Revival woodwork. Finally, the Britton family added a sun porch on the west side. All these additions gave the house a rambling, country feel. Still, the colonial presence of the house shone through with true clarity. The interior of the house still had hand-hewn beams that told the story of the colonial settlement of Staten Island better than any history book can. You could sense and feel the tradition in this house.

The recent past

Poillon-Seguine House
Picture Ca. 1980 from Collection of Marjorie Johnson

The last owners to live in the house were the Decker family. Marjorie Johnson, a member of the Decker family, requested landmark designation for the property from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The landmark designation was approved August 25, 1981. Mrs. Johnson, having given a significant amount of the value of the property to the people of the City of New York, then sold the property to the first of two commercial owners. Mrs. Johnson could have made significantly more money on the sale of the 3/4 acre property if she had not requested the landmark designation of the house. She cared enough about the Poillon House to give up the extra value of the development rights of the property.

The community was a bit concerned about the sale of the property to commercial owners. The land that the Poillon House sits on is zoned C-3 (allowing housing, community facilities and marine use).

The community already had one restaurant, and another one was in the works. We had hoped that the house would continue to be used for residential purposes. The first owners did some renovations (some of them not conforming to the Landmarks Preservation rules) and opened a health spa in the building. They invited the community in for a tour of the facility. It would be my first and last visit to the Poillon House while it was intact. I remember it clearly. The verandah was impressive and the owners had cleaned out the overgrown yard. The front door, with its arched top paneled door was wonderful. The owners had petitioned the landmarks commission to build an outbuilding to hold a pool. These plans were approved and it looked like the house might get one further addition. Sadly, the owners of the house had financial trouble and were not making much money running the health spa. It closed, and the house was sold to another commercial group.

The Barbar era

The group that bought the Poillon House, Barbar Associates, purchased the house in November 1987 through a series of complex financial transactions. The owners claim to have paid $885,000 for the property. Now, it is important to remember that the current owners purchased the property with the landmark designation in place- with the understanding that they were limited in what they could do with the property.

At this point, the story gets grim. First, the owners had no residential occupants or business venture in the house for over two years. Then we heard that the owners had suggested moving the house to Richmond Town. This idea was turned down by the LPC. Their reasons were quite correct, as they stated the house had a much more important historical context on it's original site than it did on a relocated site. Then we heard that the owners had offered to pay to move the house to Blue Heron Park. It was clear to me that these owners were trying to get rid of the Poillon House. On February 10, 1989, after the owners failed to get permission to move the house, a fire struck. Luckily, the fire occurred during the day, and neighbors called the fire department. The fire fighters arrived and quickly extinguished the flames. While the damage was significant, the majority of the original fabric of the house remained.

Arson!-and the second fire

Then, on April 3, 1989, a second fire took place. This fire took place early on a Monday morning at 2:45 AM. No one was awake to call the fire department until the fire had become a full conflagration. The fire was determined to have been set by arson. Fire Marshal Edward Hibbert stated "Flammable liquid was poured throughout the first floor. There are no if's and's or but's-this is definitely arson." He added "Whoever did this did a good job." The Poillon House was damaged extensively but the center section of the building was the least damaged, as stone and massive timbers burn very slowly. A significant portion of Jacques Poillon's original cottage remained intact. The owners collected $550,000 in insurance money for the fire damage. They spent none of it to restore the Poillon House, but used $480,000 of this money to pay off their mortgage.

At this point, the owners requested to demolish the landmark. The LPC denied this request, and requested a proposal for the rebuilding of the house. At the first public hearing the owners presented a rebuilding plan that restored the bulk of the Poillon House, but wrapped it on two sides with an addition bigger than the original house.

The catering hall proposal

The owners wanted to convert the building into a 800 seat catering hall. They proposed to landscape the grounds with fountains and statues and cut off one corner of the 1735 addition to the house. The plan overwhelmed the house and relegated it to a corner of the new building. The plan was outrageous!

Yet rather than an outright denial, the LPC requested a reworking of the plan. I was amazed that they would even consider it. This house is older than the Dyckman House in Upper Manhattan, a historic house museum. It pre-dates the Van Cortlandt Mansion in The Bronx and Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan. The addition was completely out of scale with the house, did not fit the character of the community and certainly was not appropriate for the historical context of the house. The problem was that the owners wanted a 800-seat bayside catering hall, and the Poillon House was in the way of their plan. Any reworking of the proposal did not allow the vast bulk of the catering hall to fit in with the Poillon House.

This was my first exposure to the historic preservation process. I sat through meetings where the LPC would discuss and require changes in fine details like the width of window mullions and paint colors for owners of landmark properties, yet we would get to the Poillon House discussions, and they would give a fair hearing to this outrageous bastardization of a 17th century farmhouse. The LPC requested that the owner fence the property and also stabilize the house by constructing a temporary roof over the central sections of the house. The owners agreed to these requests, but they did not comply with them. This was the first in a string of broken promises.

Barbar Associates seemed to not be able to understand that the landmarked house had some legal rights. I guess Barbar Associates were used to doing what they wanted with their properties. They had a hard time supplying the detailed items that were needed by LPC to give full consideration to their proposed addition and zoning variance.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the owners needed a zoning variance. A catering hall is not a legal business to operate in the waterfront community of Great Kills. The current C-3 zoning would allow a boat yard, an outboard repair shop, a sail loft or many other types of marine related businesses. A catering hall would require a zoning variance. The owners would also have to provide parking facilities for 200 cars. Anyone that knows the community knows that the owners would have to lease or purchase a lot for parking, and that would have been extremely expensive. The fact that the community was not designed for an 800-seat catering hall did not seem to faze the owners a bit. They just wanted a huge profit from their dubious investment.

So, the process at the LPC dragged on. The owners complained that the process was too slow. The community thought that the proposed project was being given too much consideration. The root cause of the problem was the owners did not appear to want to give a detailed plan of their proposal. The LPC was resistant to approve a proposal that was poorly defined and planned. The Poillon House endured two winters without any protection from the elements. Sections of the main fieldstone wall deteriorated. The owners received repeated citations for failure to fence the property and protect the community.

Finally, in 1992, the owners grew tired or changed their strategy. They withdrew the catering hall plan and requested permission to demolish the building on the basis of economic hardship. This was the fight that I had been waiting for. I am an economist, and I had tried to raise the issues of the owners financial gain in this process since the first Landmarks Commission Public Hearing. I was told repeatedly by the staff of LPC that the owners financial status was not of concern to the Landmarks Commission. The only time it is of concern is if a demolition request is made and the owners want the Commission to remove the landmark status on the basis of economic hardship.

The economic hardship question

I was particularly concerned with the fact that the owners had received a lump sum payment of $550,000 for their fire insurance and had not rebuilt the building. The owners had taken that money and used it to pay off the mortgage. The owners had to show the Landmarks Commission how they could not earn a reasonable return (8 percent on the accessed value of the house) on their investment. Landmarks Preservation requested a number of financial statements that would show the financial hardship of the owners. The owners seemed reluctant to open their corporate books for the Commission. The owners also needed to provide a detailed proposal of their development plans for the property that would increase their return.

I studied their proposal, and as a professional, I saw no evidence of economic hardship. The LPC rules are clear: The owners are entitled to a reasonable return if and only if they are reasonably efficient and prudent in their management of the property. Barbar Associates meets none of these requirements. The owners had paid too much for this property. They never ran any viable business in the facility. They had no clear plans for developing a viable business in the building that was in conformity with the zoning. They did not protect and maintain their property. It is very easy to lose money on a business venture, its a lot harder to make a profit. These owners do not deserve to make a profit because they were poor business people.

The one consistent strategy of these owners was to remove this landmark from the property. I believe they purchased the property on the speculation that they could get the landmark designation lifted. With that objective in mind, this property was a good purchase. They purchased 3/4 of an acre of waterfront commercial land in a growing community for $335,000 (the $885,000 purchase price minus the $550,000 insurance payment). Learning from the debacle

I have a number of suggestions for the New York City LPC and preservation organizations. You must be sensible and vigilant stewards of the properties entrusted to you. As is well known in the preservation community, no local or state preservation ordinance is a substitute for a concerned and dedicated owner. The Landmarks Commission continued to work in good faith with Barbar Associates to develop a viable plan of reconstruction and business development, despite the owners continued resistance to preservation issues and lack of compliance with the LPC requests. I think the old rule "Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me" applies here.

The LPC should have put the brakes on this project much sooner. If they had, the owners might have gotten the message that they were not going to get approval for a catering hall and ridiculous addition. They may have decided to cut their losses and sell the property. As it turned out, the LPC created the aura that anything goes or will be considered. These owners showed only one area of excellence in my mind. They had the ability to play the different agencies and rules of the City of New York to promote their cause: The destruction of the Poillon-Seguine Britton House. You cannot continue to work in good faith with a group that is not interested in fair play.

Demolition!

The most recent act in this Greek Tragedy occurred in April 1996. The owners requested an emergency demolition permit from the New York City Buildings Department on the basis of an unsafe building. They received the permit (without the Landmarks Commission approval) on a Thursday and the bulldozer leveled the building on Friday.

De-designation?- and the questions it raises

Now the request has been made to lift the landmarks designation from the property due to the destruction of the building. The LPC is currently considering this proposal. This request is unique in New York City Landmarks history, as the request to lift a landmark designation has only been approved twice. In both cases, the majority of the building had been destroyed. In both cases, the owners of the property had the landmark designation established after they had purchased the property. Both of these issues are significant. The first, does the destruction of a landmark guarantee the lifting of the designation. I certainly hope not, as you can follow through to the logical conclusion for an owner with a landmark that they do not want: Destroy the building and you are in the clear.

The second issue is significant due to the fact that the designation lowers the value of the property, as the development rights are given to/taken by the community through the preservation statute. In both of the previous cases, the owner that lost the development value was the same owner that had that value returned with the removal of the designation. The Poillon House is different. These owners bought the building after it had been landmarked. They purchased the building at a discounted price because they could not develop the property as they wished. This is the normal situation for any landmark owner. The previous owner, Marjorie Johnson, went to considerable effort to get the house landmarked.

At that time, she surrendered to the landmarks commission the development rights of her property. In exchange, she expected the landmarks commission to protect the house in perpetuity. I think she made a fair deal. Now these owners want the LPC to lift the landmark status and give them a gift of the development right of this property. This, of course, will increase the value of the property immensely. From my perspective, if the Landmarks Commission is going to give the development rights to anyone, they should give them back to Mrs. Johnson. She is the rightful owner of these rights. Is there any plan to compensate Mrs. Johnson or her family? What about the community? The LPC was entrusted to protect a significant cultural landmark. If they lift the designation, what assurances does the community have that they will not be burdened by the over development of this property?

I am also distressed that my conversations with the New York City LPC seemed to indicate that they felt that the removal of the designation was a fait accompli. I found that a distressing and dangerous mind set. The Historic Districts Council of New York City endorsed the removal of the designation. I can not understand why. The Chair of the Landmarks Commission said to me that she thought this was an excellent case to show how the Landmarks Laws of the City of New York should be strengthened with enforcement provisions. I agree, but I do not think we should approve the removal of the designation to provide an excellent example of the problem. Finally, I am most concerned about the dangerous precedent that this case will establish if the LPC lifts the designation. By definition, most landmark properties in the City of New York are not producing the maximum economic return. This case will provide a clear plan of action for any owner that would like to remove the landmark designation on any property that they own. If we don't stand strong and fight to deny this request, then I would prepare yourself for more cases like the

Poillon-Seguine-Britton House.

The game is not over. No ruling has been made to release the owners from the landmark designation on the property. I encourage the local community, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the preservation community to unite to deny this abomination. We must recognize the importance of our cultural heritage and protect it from profiteering. At least, we must send a message that this is not a profitable way to acquire vacant land.


Jonathan Peters is an Assistant Professor of Business at Wagner College in Staten Island. He grew up in the neighborhood of Great Kills Harbor.

This article represents the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent that of the Preservation League of Staten Island.


NOTE: At its January 6th meeting, the Board of Directors of the Preservation League voted, "Due to the rich historical significance of the property on which stood the Poillon-Seguine-Britton house, to oppose the de-designation of the property as a historical landmark and to write to the Landmarks Commission informing them of our opposition." The vote was ten in favor, three opposed and one abstention. A unanimous vote was also taken to support the Landmarks Commission requirement that a Phase II archaeological study be done at the site of the house.

A Personal Comment on the Controversy over the Poillon-Seguine-Britton House

Chan Graham, President PLSI

I was one of the three PLSI board members to vote against the motion to recommend to deny the application for de-designation of landmark status for the Poillon-Seguine-Britton site. I voted against it because there is no technical basis for retaining landmark status on a building that no longer exists. The Landmarks Conservancy had written to the LPC supporting the de-designation with the stipulation that a thorough archaeological investigation be performed on the site as a stipulation to the de-designation. I felt that the de-designation was going to come about-through legal actions at the courts-if not by the LPC and that asking for the archaeological work was one of the only remaining positive actions that could be completed.

I have to also add, however, that I was proud of the PLSI board action when I testified at the LPC hearing on de-designation and presented the reasons why the board voted to deny de-designation. The PLSI board had voted with its heart, without legal constraints.

The proposed civil law penalties for landlords that do not maintain landmarked properties could have made a difference here. All those in New York City who value our architectural heritage should support the proposed changes in the law.

I hope that the law is written in a way that insures that the LPC has the tools to protect important landmarked sites. Jon Peters' article gives a good argument for the reason for legislation. Let's help insure that New York City has no more debacles like that of the Poillon-Seguine-Britton house.


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Last revised 5/11/97
by David Goldfarb