Life in a Landmark Caring for Historic Residential Buildings

James Gulliver Hancock, an Australian illustrator who now lives in Brooklyn, is attempting to draw all the buildings in New York—all of them. From brownstones on Bank Street to the palatial condo buildings of Park Avenue, from the Flatiron building to Grace Church, Hancock is sketching them all. His website, www.allthebuild ingsinnewyork.com offers a guide through the city via storefronts you might recognize, iconic addresses of the five boroughs—maybe even the building you call home.

“This project stems from an interest in obsession and recording of places,” Hancock says. “New York holds a special place in everyone’s heart…this blog records an attempt to make the city personal by passing a pen over every structure, hopefully making up for the time not spent in New York.”

Land of Landmarks

It’s impossible not to love Hancock’s project—the buildings and structures of the city lure so many of us. From ambitious young college graduates who equate the city’s high rises with success and fortune, to the tourists who come to snap pictures of the Empire State building (both at the top and on the street level) – New York is an architectural wonder. And, ask any native or transplant: the city is proud of its impressive edifices. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)—the largest municipal preservation agency in the nation—reports that there are more than 31,000 landmark properties in New York City, “most of which are located in 109 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions in all five boroughs.” In those notable buildings people work, live and—perhaps more importantly—have unique concerns when it comes to maintenance and restoration projects.

How does a building attain the lofty status of 'landmark,' and when you live within the walls of history, what happens when you want to say, knock a big hole in one of those walls to install a bay window?

Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman Heather McCracken explains that a lot goes into the designation of landmark property. “In order to be eligible for landmark status, a building must have special historical, cultural, or aesthetic significance to the city of New York, state or nation, and represent an important part of the city's heritage…a site or area must meet certain eligibility criteria to be designated by the Commission as an individual landmark, interior landmark, scenic landmark, or historic district.”

As the LPC evaluation explains, to become an individual landmark, a building must be: At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation."

To become an interior landmark, an interior space must be: At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation;" Customarily open or accessible to the public, or to which the public is customarily invited, such as a theater, a courthouse, or office building.

To become a scenic landmark, an outdoor site must be:

• At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation;"

• Any landscape feature or aggregate of landscape features;

• To become a historic district, the proposed collection of buildings must:

• Represent at least one period or style of architecture typical of one or more eras in the city's history;

• Have a distinct "sense of place;"

• Have a coherent streetscape.

Once a building, site, or district’s eligibility has been established, the formal designation process begins, culminating in a vote by the commissioners. And, as you can imagine, these Commissioners know their stuff. The LPC “is comprised of a panel of eleven commissioners who are appointed by the Mayor and supported by a staff of approximately sixty-seven preservationists, researchers, architects, historians, attorneys, archaeologists and administrative employees.” Lina Gottesman, president of Altus Metal, Marble & Wood in Long Island City explains that outside of New York City, “Most cities also have Landmark Conservancy Associations that determine city structures recognized as historically significant to that city.”

Within New York City, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is the authority and has “primary/design jurisdiction over landmarked buildings and work must conform to all city building codes and zoning laws as well,” says McCracken. “At the state and national level, the State and National Registers are separate from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, although many of New York City's individual landmarks and historic districts are also listed on these registers. The National Register of Historic Places is a list of buildings and sites of local, state, or national importance. This program is administered by the National Park Service through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.”

“The oldest buildings in any given area will have the most landmark structures” says Gottesman, “the older the site the more significance it brings to that area.” And, because the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission criteria consistently requires that a building or landmark must be at least thirty years old to be considered, that means the brand new cluster of condos down the block (as groundbreaking and cool as they might be) won’t be making the list any time soon.

As McCracken explains, “Manhattan and Brooklyn have the highest concentration of landmarked buildings—roughly 13,000 each—and the Commission has sought to extend protection to more buildings outside of Manhattan. Between 2002 and 2012, the Commission designated twenty-two districts outside of Manhattan. There are approximately 34,000 landmarked buildings in the city, including over 1,300 individual landmarks, 110 historic districts with twenty extensions, ten scenic landmarks, and 117 interior landmarks.”

If you happen to manage or live in one of these proud landmarks and you want to do some exterior work or need to perform maintenance, the process is a little more complicated and delicate, though far from impossible.

McCracken explains the process by saying, “With the exception of work types identified by the Commission as routine maintenance, an owner must apply to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a permit to perform work on their landmark property, regardless of the age of the building.

Further, applications are generally filed by architects/engineers /contractors, expediters, or owners, but anyone can apply (for example, a store tenant) as long as the owner signs the application form. LPC has rules that allow for certain work to be approved by our staff upon receipt of an application and appropriate supporting documentation (such as historic photographs, measured drawings, or material samples); approximately 95% of applications to the Commission meet the rules and are reviewed by staff. The remaining five percent, because they don’t meet the established rules, require a public hearing. The applicant presents the proposal at a hearing, public testimony is taken, and our Commissioners determine the appropriateness of the work based on their collective expertise, staff comments, and the public testimony.”

If you are curious about the rules, they are detailed in an easy-to-read application guide on the Landmarks Preservation Commission website nyc.gov/html/lpc.

After the rules have been followed and public hearings completed if necessary, the maintenance and work process still needs to be handled with the utmost care. As Gottesman points out, “Working on a historic building is very different than on new structures. The work on old structures requires slow removal of any sections or debris, as you never know what is under the supporting sections of the building. Restoration of various surfaces (metal, stone, wood) requires extremely careful removal of coating to preserve the original patina under years of debris. This process tends to take longer than new work thus is usually more costly.”

And, while the LPC does not have a say in the contractor used for landmark restoration/repair jobs, nor is there a certification for contractors from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, websites like the New York Landmarks Conservancy have a restoration directory that a company must qualify for in order to be included. According to Gottesman, the New York Landmarks Conservancy evaluates three historic jobs completed by the company in order for consideration in the directory. Altus Metal, Marble & Wood was approved for the directory in 1998 and is listed alongside masonry contractors, organ restoration, stonework artisans and architectural salvage companies.

Whether you are simply admiring the monoliths of Midtown or considering a paint job on your structure in SoHo, find out about the prominence and significance it might have to the architectural landscape of the city. If you are connected to a building that is a landmark you can enter its doors with pride and if your building is a young 25, consider an application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission as part of your five-year-plan.     

Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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