Preserving history


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Colonial Dames of New York seek landmark approval for East 71st Street headquarters


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  • National Society of Colonial Dames’ headquarters on East 71st Street shortly after it was built in 1931. Photo: Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971) / Museum of the City of New York. 88.1.1.1861




  • The dining room at the Colonial Dames Museum House on East 71st Street. Photo: New York Landmarks Preservation Commission




Amid the skyscrapers and megatowers on the Upper East Side, a remnant of American architectural history is affirming its Colonial roots.

The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, an institution devoted to preserving relics of America’s past since 1891, has begun the process of attaining landmark status for its New York Museum House Headquarters on 215 East 71st Street.

If approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the designation would essentially preclude alterations and new construction without the commission’s approval. But even without landmark status, the Society’s colonial revival structure stands apart from the scaffolds and skyscrapers in Lenox Hill. The building, completed in 1930, was a product of the wave of appreciation for America’s colonial roots that characterized the end of the 19th century. Wanting to “create a popular interest in our Colonial history” the Dames of America commissioned architect Richard Henry Dana Jr. to design a colonial-style house replete with historically significant artifacts.

“The building holds more than eight decades of Society of Colonial Dames history and, therefore, New York City history,” Tom Miller, an author and historian specializing in the vintage architecture of Manhattan, said by email. “Its elegant architecture and interior appointments and furnishings reflect the exclusivity of the members at the time as well as their intense focus on preserving and understanding American history.”

The Landmarks Commission defines a building with landmark status as one that possesses “special historical, cultural, or aesthetic value to the City of New York, state or nation.” In a first step toward designation, the commission voted on December 12 to calendar, or schedule, both the exterior and interior of the Headquarters Museum House “for consideration as an individual landmark and interior landmark,” a commission spokeswoman, Zodet Negrón, said.

Although the Society requested the landmarks evaluation in September, Negrón said, the Society now wishes to slow the process because of what a Society official described as a transitional period at the institution. “Right now, the organization has thrown the brakes on its landmarking at the moment,” Billy Higgins, a member of the professional staff at Museum House, said. He declined to provide further detail. Higgins, though, said he believes landmark status is still the end goal.

The calendaring, though, will remain on the books since a property cannot be withdrawn from the landmarking process once it is underway. “The process has begun,” Negrón said. “Now that it’s calendared, it’s just about setting a date for the public hearing.” After calendaring, the LPC determines a property’s status through a public hearing that is followed by a commission vote.

“Ultimately, this decision lies with the commission,” Negrón said. “We strive to work with the owners and to get their consent but their approval is not necessary.”

Miller, whose book “Seeking New York: The Stories Behind the Historic Architecture of Manhattan One Building at a Time” tells the backstories of about 50 buildings in Manhattan, pointed out that the building is unique in the way it has been preserved. In its almost 90-year history, the Museum House, between Second and Third Avenues, has never been remodeled, altered or restored, he said. Rather, it is the product of delicate preservation. “That alone makes it a property of distinctive architectural importance,” remarked Miller.

The recent wave of construction on the Upper East Side, partly a byproduct of the introduction of the Second Avenue subway line, provoked a response from those bent on preserving the quaint quality of life in the area. “The rampant rise of mega-towers not only threatens historic structures; it can destroy the fabric of entire neighborhoods,” Miller said.

Still, Negrón cast doubt on any definitive relationship between gentrification and preservation. “There are no studies that show a direct link between gentrification, or avoiding it, and landmark designations, although we have heard from some communities that when they advocate for designation of their neighborhoods, they do so hoping to preserve their neighborhood from the forces of gentrification,” she said.

Organizations like Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, who seek to curb larger developments, have led and contributed to efforts to check development in the area. In May, the Friends group, along with the Municipal Art Society, held an advocacy workshop titled “Attack of the Killer Megatowers.”

“Friends of the Upper East Side supports increasing landmark designation for important sites in our neighborhood,” said Rachel Levy, Friends’ executive director.

The Friends group submitted a request for landmarks evaluation of the Museum House in 2016 as part of a larger request to evaluate buildings in Yorkville. Although Levy said the Friends group were not party to the Dames’ recent request, they are supportive.

“We haven’t been directly involved in this,” said Levy. “We heard that it was in the pipeline and we were excited about that.”





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