Gutting New York Landmarks to Preserve Them

Demolishing historic buildings, except for the facade, is a growing trend in New York City

By Josh Barbanel

The intricate limestone bow fronts of three 19th century townhouses on West 86th Street in Manhattan have been carefully restored, but everything else, including all interior walls and floors, are long gone.

Developers Joseph Cohen and Jody Kriss of East River Partners LLC tore out the interiors last year, supporting the facade and side walls with a temporary lattice­like steel structure.

In their place, a six-story condominium has been constructed at 272 West 86th St. with seven modern family-sized apartments, some with townhouse­busting living rooms 30 or 40 feet wide. The work cost about $30 million.

Two of the new condos have 30-foot wide backyards. Prices range from $4.795 million for a three-bedroom, while a duplex penthouse extending above the original roof line with 180 linear feet of terraces is listed at $9.95 million.

This is part of a growing trend in adapting historic properties, in this case a row of 1895 houses designed by C.P.H. Gilbert, a prominent designer of New York mansions and houses in Manhattan and Brooklyn late-19th and early-20th centuries.

To the anguish of many preservationists, the city’s landmark law doesn’t extend to private interiors of individual properties or buildings within historic districts, creating a blank slate for developers beyond the facade.

The commission often has allowed rooftop expansions and extension into rear yards, where the additions aren’t easily visible from the streets.

“My favorite thing about this project is that we literally preserved nothing but three walls of the original buildings,” Mr. Kriss said. “The entire building is brand new except the three walls.”

“Facade-ism” is what Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, calls it.

“You can see this all over the Upper East Side,” he said. “It has become the biggest issue in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, where early houses are being completely destroyed with interiors gutted, roof lines expanded and rear yards removed.”

The issue is coming up more often because so many New York City properties have been designated as landmarks
or included in historic districts designated by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In a study, the Real Estate Board of New York found that as of 2013, 28% of Manhattan properties had landmarks protection, including at least 70% of properties in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side.

Messrs. Kriss and Cohen specialize in adapting and restoring historic buildings. They recently won an award from the Victorian Society New York for the adaptive reuse of a synagogue at 415 East 6th St. in the East Village, in which two apartments were added on top of the existing synagogue.

At the townhouses on West 86th Street, Mr. Kriss and Mr. Cohen stepped in after another developer tried and failed to demolish them and create a larger apartment building on the site.

There were holdout tenants, however, and before a deal could be completed the first developer was foreclosed on. Then,
in 2012, the buildings were included in an extension to the Riverside-West End Historic District.

Because the buildings could no longer be demolished, East River Partners acquired them in 2013 for $14.3 million, less than half the face value of the debt on the property at the time of the foreclosure.

The lower value of the building after landmarking put pressure on two holdout tenants to settle for less money than they might have otherwise.

“Under the circumstances there was a limitation of what they could to do the building,” said David Rozenholc, a lawyer who represented the tenants. “If they could have built a 40 story building the number would have been completely different.”

The West 86th Street townhouses each had been divided into 10 apartments and were in poor condition inside and out, Mr. Kriss said. The developers created a plan, approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to excavate downward 11 feet to create a lower level with windows in the rear, add a set-back story on top and extend the building to the rear.

Working with architect Barry Rice, they repaired the cornice, patched the limestone, including decorative medallions
and wreaths, and replaced scores of cracked balusters along balconies that were cast to match the originals.

The new condos on 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue are across from the low-rise Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, and are flooded with light.

“It is like owning a townhouse with a full-time doorman and a 30 by 30 foot garden,” Mr. Kriss said.

Some preservationists were pleased with the outcome.

“I couldn’t believe how beautiful it looked,” said Melissa
El stein, a founder of the West Sos Neighborhood Association, which pushed to include the houses in the historic district. “It really shines now.”

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