On Park Avenue, A Preservation Declaration of ‘No Style’

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1010-Park-Avenue-1920s_NYPL-300x287On Tuesday, April 29th, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to designate the Park Avenue Historic District as the city’s 111th historic district.

I am thrilled about this designation and is especially thankful for the LPC’s swift action on this item. However, the commissioners’ deliberate decision to specify the Park Avenue Christian Center’s rectory and parish house as “no style” is confusing. When you think of a place with “no style”, Park Avenue is not what usually comes to mind.

Park Avenue Christian Church and its rectory and parish house were designed by Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson and built in 1909-1911 as an integrated complex. Although altered and enlarged in the 1960s by Merrill & Holmgren, the rectory and parish house retain its character as part of this historic church complex. Not only do the Gothic Revival elements and use of fieldstone relate to the church, but the massing also gives the church breathing room. All four sides of the church can be viewed, and its elegant spire soars into the sky.

The idea of “no style” buildings developed from the 1980 Upper East Side Historic District designation. A determination as “no style” in the designation report allows a building within a historic district to be demolished with a staff-level permit, meaning there is no input by the commissioners or the public. The Park Avenue Christian Center’s rectory and parish house happens to be the location of a tower proposed by Extell Development. Longtime landmark aficionados may remember Extell’s strenuous objections to landmark designation at the B.F. Goodrich Building at 225 West 57thStreet, soon to be the tallest residential tower in America. In that instance, the LPC was bullied into rejecting a portion of the Goodrich building, which subsequently allowed Extell to demolish it without any LPC review. In the case of the Park Avenue Christian Center parish house, the “no style” designation accomplishes the same feat, although the LPC will weigh in on whatever is built in its place.

Given this crucial difference, why didn’t the commissioners decide to err on the side of caution and grant themselves the opportunity to opine on the preservation of the building rather than essentially give pre-approval for its demolition? Why not allow for a public hearing and open conversation before calling in the wrecking ball? Proposals for major alterations to and even demolitions of buildings throughout the city’s historic districts are regularly considered in this manner. The answer seems to lie in the power a developer can still wield in the post-Bloomberg era.

In briefly discussing the building on Tuesday, several commissioners seemed to be looking for a compromise, stating their hopes that perhaps the “fragment” of the parish house that still exhibited the original building’s Gothic Revival style could be preserved or simply noted as not being “no style”; the idea being that the “fragment” might then inform any potential development on the site. The likelihood of such a tortured taxonomic note being included in the final designation report is slim and vaguely perverse. As a recent New York Times opinion piece stated bluntly: “let’s not mistake this gesture for actual preservation. It’s more like taxidermy.”

This whole situation brings to mind another recent editorial in the Times, occasioned by the popular outrage at the loss of the Rizzoli bookstore on West 57th Street. “Commissioners,” the Times said, “are appointed by the mayor and, under Michael Bloomberg, were perceived as overly deferential to developers.” While that is a simplistic and reductive assessment of the Bloomberg administration’s complex and record-breaking preservation achievements, the recent decision on the rectory and parish house certainly does not place the commissioners in the best possible light.

We are now well into a new city administration, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to announce his nominees for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. We urge him to instruct his appointees to continue this commission’s strong record of response to community-driven preservation campaigns but also to remember their own independence when negotiating with powerful real estate interests. The essential job of the Landmarks Preservation Commission is the preservation of our city’s history. That must be the commissioners’ guiding light in all decisions – it is not an aspirational standard, it is a necessary one.

Photo: The Park Avenue Christian Church and Parish House in the 1920s (photo courtesy New York Public Library).

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