Making a ‘Federal’ Case for Expanding the Chelsea Historic District | chelseanow.com

Making a ‘Federal’ Case for Expanding the Chelsea Historic District

Three W. 19th St. houses (345, 347, and 349) are estimated to be over 200 years old — but from the outside, that history isn’t tangible. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

BY REBECCA FIORE | With its liberty secured, America’s founders turned their attention to the literal task of building a new country. As an ode to the democracies of Greece and Rome, conscious efforts were made to incorporate classic characteristics of ancient architecture into the burgeoning landscape. Thus, the Federal style, which ranged from 1780 to 1830, appeared across the United States. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has protected a number of these still-standing homes across the city — but not all of them.

On W. 19th St., between Eighth and Ninth Aves., three buildings in a row that once shared Federal style characteristics are unrecognizable as construction continues to demolish the facades of 347 and 349, and the foundation of 347 (the facade of 345 has already been altered).

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and a board member of Save Chelsea, estimates these buildings were constructed in the early 1830s.

“In New York, the oldest [Federal style buildings] are from 1790,” Berman said. “I can’t see this being later than the mid-1830s, which makes them amongst the oldest structures in Chelsea. There are very, very few Federal style houses in Chelsea.”

Most of the older homes in Chelsea are Greek Revival style, which came directly after the Federal period.

“They are closing on over 200 years old,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), said of Chelsea’s Federal style structures. “They are lovely reminders and survivors of earlier times in New York — places that people happily lived in. Our wallets are as big as our eyes because people are destroying them for swimming pools in the basement and giant kitchens in the back.”

Federal style homes have simple, flat facades, with ornamentation along the doorways. The brickwork of these buildings were laid using a Flemish bond, where the bricks are alternated stretcher (long side) and header (short side) in every row. Usually the bricks were painted red or grey, and the mortar lines were highlighted in white.

Additionally, Federal style homes are modest, symmetrical, usually two rooms deep, and two to three stories high, with a steeply pitched roof. According to Douglas Elliman Real Estate’s website, 349 W. 19th St. just sold for $4,588,000.

“Someone spent $4.5 million to buy it, but probably not to preserve it,” Bankoff said.

The facade of 345 W. 19th St. has already been changed from its original Federal style Flemish bond brickwork to a decidedly modern look. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

“It’s really tragic and unnecessary,” Berman lamented. “It speaks to the fact that not nearly enough of Chelsea has the Landmark protections that it deserves. It’s also unfortunately a reflection of some owners, who are developers, who don’t realize what a precious and irreplaceable commodity these houses are. To destroy a nearly 200-year-old facade for a cheap-looking modern replacement is the height of foolishness.”

Unfortunately, these buildings fall just outside the Chelsea Historic District’s boundary. The original district, which spanned from 10th Ave. to between Ninth and Eighth Aves. from W. 22nd St. to W. 20th St., was designated on Sept. 15, 1970. A extension was designated on Feb. 3, 1981, which included the other side of W. 22nd St., and parts of W. 23rd St. from 10th Ave. down to Eighth Ave.

“At the time, the LPC was being very cautious,” Bankoff noted. “It was 47 years ago. They were doing things differently. For reasons I am unaware of, it didn’t fall into what they were considering. [These buildings] survived until the ridiculous pressures of the Manhattan real estate decided to sink its teeth into it.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman said he believes the reason why these buildings weren’t previously protected may have had something to do with increased market value of the neighborhood.

“I think there may have been some local opposition… I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some real estate interest or someone who didn’t want their building landmarked because it creates a limitation on what they can do with their property,” Hoylman said. “But the greater good is to save the character of Chelsea.”

Zodet Negron, director of communications at LPC, said that the commission runs on surveys and through Request for Evaluation (RFE) forms from the public.

“The LPC has not identified these buildings as potential landmarks or received any requests to evaluate them,” Negron said.

Save Chelsea was given a small grant from HDC to survey unprotected properties in the neighborhood, Bankoff noted.

“I know that Save Chelsea is looking for proposing and advocating for the extension of the district,” Berman said. “Ideally, this is something that city’s LPC should be doing on their own. They should be doing this, but clearly that hasn’t happened. It really falls on the shoulders of community groups.”

HDC board member John Jurayj agreed with Berman that since the LPC is somewhat dependent on locals self-reporting, through RFEs, only certain neighborhoods would benefit from protections.

“It falls on who can scream the most, usually those who are the most privileged because they have time and energy to advocate,” he said.

Negron said the LPC would consider district expansion. “If someone submits a Request for Evaluation,” she noted, “LPC will evaluate it and see if it merits further consideration.”

Jurayj said he believes the LPC is more reactive rather than proactive in protecting buildings.

“Why should it take a community to call attention to this block or other things?” he wondered. “[LPC] won’t move on anything without a RFE. [LPC] forces it to be something that is community driven. You want community support, but the fact that the community has to pay to do the work seems crazy, when they are the experts. Everyone else is not getting paid and they are.”

Jesse Bodine, district manager of Community Board 4 (CB4), said they are working with the Department of Buildings (DOB) and Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office after concerned neighbors expressed safety concerns.

“The neighbors of the building contacted us,” Bodine said. “Unfortunately, it is not in the Historic District, so it doesn’t have to go through LPC. We were contacted after all the very serious damage had been done to the party wall [on 347 W. 19th St.]. We met on site with residents and the DOB. We are having the DOB monitor the site.”

The DOB issued a Stop Work Order on Nov. 28 for 347 to “stop all work immediately, make site safe.” On Sept. 10, the DOB issued a partial vacate to 349, due to “structural stability,” according to its website.

“These buildings are significant not because someone famous lived in or designed them — they are significant because when you see the old brick buildings you are visually transported into the era when people weren’t worried about Wi-Fi,” Bankoff said. “The tangible presence of human effort from 200 years ago imparts a certain feeling. Its removal is detrimental. You lose that feeling and sense of history.”