About a month ago I put a post where I discussed how overzealous historical preservationists were halting necessary incremental development, and in the long run guaranteeing that the buildings will have to be completely razed if cities are ever to regain a modicum of economic rationality. I mentioned the case of a building in Chelsea whose top story was added illegally (or so the city claims – the details are murky) and will now be torn down, and I was surprised to see that the NYT devoted a whole article to it in yesterday’s.
What’s interesting to me is all the hyperbolic statements that preservationists are making, especially considering that the building’s supposed significance (it was home to an abolitionist who helped slaves escape) has little to nothing to do with its architecture:
“It’s just come to this desperate situation,” said Fern Luskin, an architectural historian who lives on the block and has taken up the cause of protecting the historic integrity of the building, a Greek Revival house at 339 West 29th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. “It’s like taking a serrated knife and lopping off our history,” she said of the addition. “It will permanently disfigure the evidence of what happened there.”
Of course, except for the cornice at the top, there’s no “lopping off” going on here – it was an addition, for Christ’s sake!
And this I guess is why it’s so urgent to preserve the roof, which no one but the maintenance man will ever even see:
The Gibbonses, abolitionists before the Civil War, used the house as a meeting place, where they helped escaping slaves en route to Canada. “They were like the Schindler of their day, taking such a chance, harboring slaves that were running for their lives,” said Ms. Luskin, referring to Oskar Schindler, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
In a letter cited by the landmarks commission in its designation report, Joseph Choate, a friend of the Gibbonses, wrote that he had dined with them along with William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, and a black man “on his way to freedom.” The Hopper Gibbons house was attacked and burned during the Draft Riots of 1863. Two of the Gibbonses’ daughters escaped the mob by climbing over adjacent roofs to a waiting carriage on Ninth Avenue, descending through the house at 355 West 29th Street, where Abigail Gibbons’s sister and her family lived.
But of course, like always, this is obviously more about aesthetics than the actual history:
Ms. Luskin, who with Julie Finch is a chairwoman of the Friends of the Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District, said that on an aesthetic level the building’s alterations disrupt the street’s uniform cornice line.
…except, as you can clearly see with the NYT’s nifty little Flash app, there was no uniform cornice line to begin with!!! How the fact checker missed that one is beyond me – before I even read the article I noticed the uneven cornice line.
As usual, outside of attempting to contact the developer (who obviously isn’t going to speak on the record during ongoing litigation), the Times makes no attempt to seek out contrary opinions. If they had asked me (ya hear that, Robin Pogrebin?), I would say that by ensuring the neighborhood is preserved without additions, they are driving out, through artificially inflated prices, precisely the kinds of low-income (dare I say, black??) tenants that the Gibbonses would have championed.