February 25, 2004
Landmark Status, Not Razing, Is Now Likely for S.I. Home
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
The Staten Island home of Henry Hobson Richardson, a 19th-century architect so influential that a style of architecture bears his name, appears to have been spared from impending demolition and is likely instead to be made a New York City landmark.
"This is a building that seems to be crying out to be saved," said Robert B. Tierney, the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, after a hearing yesterday. "Had Wright or Sullivan lived and worked in New York City in the same way, is there any question that we would be taking similar steps?"
The house, at McClean and Lily Pond Avenues, is one of only two surviving buildings in the city attributable to Richardson, who moved to Massachusetts in 1874.
At Trinity Church in Boston, the Glessner House in Chicago and the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh, Richardson's vigorous, rugged interpretation of ancient round-arched architecture was so distinctive - and emulated - that it earned the name Richardsonian Romanesque.
His 136-year-old house in the Arrochar section, is in a fussier Second Empire style. And it has been altered and added to over the years, but its broad mansard roof is still crested with lacy ironwork and punctuated by chimneys and dormer windows.
The landmarks commission has not yet formally designated the house. But the hearing left little doubt about its intentions, despite the objections of the owners, a group of five doctors who have been using the building as offices for decades.
"The building no longer contains many of the features that made the building significant," said Stuart J. Beckerman of Slater & Beckerman, a lawyer for the owners. "Most people, including my client, had no idea that this building had been designed by a famous architect, least of all H. H. Richardson."
The owners were under contract to sell the 32,000-square-foot property to a developer who planned to raze the Richardson house and build 10 homes. A report in The Staten Island Advance on Jan. 4 set off a scramble to save the house.
The charge was led by the City Council minority leader, James S. Oddo, who acknowledged the unlikeliness of his role yesterday. "I was the devil incarnate in the preservation community," he recalled, having arranged for the demolition in 1999 of a landmark building in the Farm Colony-Seaview Hospital Historic District on Staten Island.
Now, Mr. Oddo said, "I realize the importance of preserving such wonderful things from our past." He allowed that he was not an architectural scholar, but that a friend had explained, "Richardson was the A-Rod of architecture in his era."
Mr. Tierney picked up the story, saying: "Councilman Oddo wrote: 'Can we do anything? Is it worth fighting for?' Within days, after intense, expedited review, I went over to City Hall and advised Councilman Oddo that the answer was, emphatically, yes."
Mr. Beckerman asked the commission to limit its regulation - if it imposed any - primarily to the Lily Pond Avenue facade. "The developer has indicated he has no intention of buying any portion of the property that's been designated," he said.
"The building will become completely vacant," Mr. Beckerman said. "We need to find a buyer."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company