2017-09-08 / Front Page

Preservationists slam village concept of saving St. Paul's façade

BY RIKKI N. MASSAND

The decision by the Garden City Board of Trustees to place St. Paul’s as a front-and-center ‘primary task and project’ on the 2017- 2018 Village Priorities List created a buzz in preservation circles and through social media across the country. This summer Mayor Brian Daughney explained that the village hosted a few intrigued architecture firms that could bid on it, with concept plans calling for new synthetic turf fields and an athletics and recreation facility sitting behind the existing front façade. However a lineup of historic preservation professionals working outside the village but with extensive knowledge of St. Paul’s School connected on a more sensitive adaptive re-use of the structure, which dates to 1880s.

As September begins three professionals from various walks of preservation concur; St. Paul’s could be transformed into a new housing development for adults, seniors and/or “empty-nesters,” who would not contribute students to the Garden City Public Schools population could find an ideal dwelling placed within much of the existing building’s components. They say the cost-effectiveness of any reuses and their implications for the Village of Garden City’s tax roll, if housing is considered, should be taken as top priority along with preservation.

John Jay College professor, historian and preservationist Jeffrey Kroessler grew up in Garden City and he now lives in a New York City historic district of Sunnyside, Queens. It was 16 months ago that he attended a hearing on an application for 104 Sixth Street in front of the village’s Architectural Design Review Board (ADRB) in an effort to stand united with the Garden City Historical Society and save the original structure, one of the dozens listed on the National Register of Historic Places, like St. Paul’s is.

Professor Kroessler spoke with The Garden City News on August 31 as he finds the plans the Village Board has indicated for St. Paul’s ‘simply appalling.’

“What is in the water in Garden City? Those people don’t think they have to listen to anyone who may actually know something more than they do and have information he (Mayor Daughney) doesn’t already have and doesn’t want to hear,” he said. Kroessler believes there would be no shortage of bidders to go along with the Board of Trustees stated intention. “There are a lot of architects out there who would jump at the chance to do that project. The idea that the front façade can be saved without the rest of it is just nonsense – and far more, much more expensive than retrofitting St. Paul’s building on the inside,” the professor said.

According to The Garden City Historical Society, which hosted a tour inside St. Paul’s in late 201, the school opened in 1883 as a military academy for boys, owned and operated by Cathedral of the Incarnation. It contained laboratories, classrooms, libraries, several dining halls, kitchens, a large reception parlor, permanent workspaces for staff “and a beautiful gothic chapel with seating for 400.” Mary Mahoney, president of The Garden City Historical Society, writes “this chapel with a Tiffany window, remains remarkably intact to this day. St. Paul’s School remains a stately and beautiful reminder of the history of our unique Village and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Last week the City University of New York (CUNY) professor suggested an idea that surfaced about ten years ago, with “55-plus housing” viable option. Suburbs including Long Island’s North Shore have included such condominiums in the municipal master plans and redevelopment. The Town of Oyster Bay, for example, has senior housing divisions in Syosset and Woodbury, prominently and centrally placed off Jericho Turnpike.

“Renovating that building and turning it into a form of senior housing or condominiums works – that’s housing for active adults without children, if the village is worried about school enrollment. There are a lot of people in Garden City who would love to have well-appointed apartments in a historic building so they can stay in Garden City when they don’t need a five-bedroom house anymore,” Kroessler explains.

He suggests the St. Paul’s building can accommodate around 100 units and not one of them would add students to the school base, but the re-use would put the building and property back onto the municipal tax roll.

“Trying to do something else boggles the imagination. How many soccer fields does the village need? There are plenty of them and turf-covered soccer fields is not what makes Garden City great. They feel grass is not good enough because grass would be expensive to maintain. Is turf even better for the children than playing on grass? The number of things wrong with the proposal as St. Paul’s being another space for fields is just shameful,” Kroessler said. In his speech to the ADRB on May 17, 2016, Kroessler addressed the state of his hometown:

“In my adulthood, I have come to realize unfortunately that Garden City is just embarrassed by its history. You would rather not have it, you would be happier if you just did not have to deal with the history of the place and you could just have ordinary houses like ordinary people. I’m sorry but Garden City, founded by Alexander Turney Stewart in 1869 is not any ordinary place. The historians from Bob MacKay (former SPLIA director and Long Island history author) to the poor, pathetic Garden City Historical Society sitting over here quivering are irrelevant. And it bothers me greatly,” Kroessler said.

Preservation Director Sarah Kautz of SPLIA, short for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, was first to recommend a community charrette in early fall, as reported in the August 25 edition of The Garden City News. In late August, SPLIA social media posts on the new Board of Trustees plan for St. Paul’s brought on comments from Garden City natives scattered all over the country. From Phoenix, Arizona, Roger Brevoort wrote the following reaction on SPLIA’s Facebook page:

“I am a Garden City native with a 40-year career in historic preservation, stemming in part from the foolish demolition of the Garden City Hotel. I was just back in town this summer for the 45th reunion of my Garden City High School class. Nothing has changed since I toured and photographed the interior and exterior five years ago. Over 100 graduates were at the reunion, many discussing the fate of St. Paul’s, and all would stand behind a preservation plan for the building. But a facade is not preservation, and no credible preservation firm would even entertain that concept. Please reconsider this absurd suggestion… I am sharing this to initiate a national rebuttal from friends, alumnae, and national colleagues in the preservation field. St. Paul’s is too valuable of an historic and architectural resource to waste.” Brevoort addressed the comment to Mayor Daughney and the Board of Trustees.

State Preservation League Watchdogs

Following SPLIA’s motivations and another related SPLIA post on “facadism” and the example of the Toronto Stock Exchange building brought up August 22, the Preservation League of New York State is joining the social media blasts over the fate of St. Paul’s. In an email to the News last week, Kautz said the Preservation League serves as the nonprofit advocate for historic preservation throughout New York State. “Like SPLIA, the League has been following St. Paul’s for many years. The building appeared on the League’s “Seven to Save” list in 2003” she wrote.

Erin M. Tobin, the organization’s director of preservation, spoke with the News on Friday September 1 from her office in Albany and detailed statewide attention of St. Paul’s, calling it an “icon of the community.”

“Since St. Paul’s appeared on the 2003 “Seven to Save” it has received focused attention from the Preservation League for the last 14 years. The current Garden City Board of Trustees’ proposal came to our attention through SPLIA. We have been very active in working with the Garden City community through a local advocacy group and the Garden City Historical Society,” she said.

In 2009 the Preservation League of New York State hosted a workshop in the village. Tobin says that event featured a panel discussion about the future of St. Paul’s School, organized in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, SPLIA and the Garden City Historical Society.

“At the time one proposal had been turned down and we were hoping that the village would encourage development to occur within the historic building. We were and we remain eager ready to work with the community on how they can find an appropriate new use for the building,” Tobin said.

When asked about the current plans for an athletics facility and building three to five turf fields where the structure (behind its front façade) stands, Tobin and the Preservation League would happily participate in any ways possible, and the starting point would be to review any engineering report for the project that becomes available. She says the League can investigate the specifications on “how that facility would happen, how the façade would be stabilized and what the costs would be.”

“The plan strikes me as an extremely expensive proposal. Given the support that would be needed to maintain the façade I would question how many fields they can actually get out of that area. It would be a shame to lose such an important building, a building that isn’t only significant in Garden City but it has statewide significance, which is why we listed on the ‘Seven to Save’ in 2003. It is really a national landmark. To lose that in addition Garden City will be losing the tax revenue that could be created if there was a viable new use for the building,” Tobin says.

Jason Crowley is an alumnus of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, earning a master’s degree in historic preservation in 2013. Like Kroessler, he attended the ADRB hearing on 104 Sixth Street in May 2016 when he was working as a director for SPLIA.

From his new offices in Charleston, with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Crowley spoke with The Garden City News over the phone on September 1 and said he developed a personal interest in Long Island history and the St. Paul’s landmark after visiting Garden City last year.

“In my personal opinion the community deserves to have a major role in the future of the site. Some type of design charrette would begin exploring all the possibilities of what can be done and that’s something the Garden City community has been asking for over decades now. The village has never really presented an opportunity for the public to weigh in. It has been that they’ve presented residents with ideas they want and left them to react to it as opposed to the community taking a proactive role,” Crowley says.

In his view the Historical Society has tried to express reasonable alternatives “to destroying the most iconic building in the village.”

“Tearing down everything but the façade would be a total loss of not only one of the greatest buildings in Garden City but on Long Island. This is a one-of-a-kind architectural example of Second Empire in Gothic Revival – this is the identity of Garden City. They tore down the Garden City Hotel which was the icon that was the identity and now they are left with sort of a joke of a building and the same thing will happen when St. Paul’s is lost. Garden City will never be able to recover from another loss like this,” Crowley said.

He was in the room to hear about the demolition and new house plan for one of the original Apostle houses to be torn down last year, with the ADRB approving the new home design. That struck Crowley as “unconscionable” and he says it would be “terrible stewardship from the Village of Garden City of both its identity and cultural resources” if the Priorities List plans for St. Paul’s and a new recreation center are approved.

Crowley also looked back at his Garden City experience with the Sixth Street hearing and the Historical Society’s resolve to keep pushing for a local landmarks law, although that hasn’t taken shape to date. “This is exactly the reason why the community needs something like that law because there are opportunities to adaptively re-use this building. There’s plenty of buildings in much worse shape in New York City that have been successfully adaptively re-used. Facadism is not a reasonable alternative in my opinion,” he said.

The state Preservation League recognizes historic landmarks and neighborhoods of Garden City and says the village could lose not only its main historic marker, but a “tremendous opportunity” for the community. Tobin considers a chance at senior and ‘55 and over’ adult condominium housing to be “a great idea.” Over the summer she visited Garden City and observed that for the majority of residents here, life resembles “a very car-focused suburb” of Long Island and not a walkable or transit-oriented community.

“Many historic schools have been turned into just that sort of housing for seniors and empty-nesters. That is a model currently being used all over the country. It’s a wonderful solution plus any developer of could use the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit and they would receive a 20% Federal Tax Credit on work that they would do. There’s definitely the financial incentive as well for that. It is such an opportunity for both the Village of Garden City and for business development,” Tobin said.

Jason Crowley agrees, saying a mix of senior and luxury condos can be viable. “This could be an ideal tax credit project because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If the developer came in and created income-producing adaptive re-use, apartments, senior condos or a mix of offices and apartments they can work with the state certification office,” he advised.

Tobin says the plans for condominiums or similar multi-unit housing can give the St. Paul’s location a shot to transform into “a more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly place to be.” That concept would entirely fall into line with walking paths and open greenspace concepts that the Cathedral of the Incarnation and its consultant, Beyer, Blinder, Belle (BBB for short) Architects and Planners of New York City, presented at the Central Property Owners’ Association meeting on March 21for its campus (between Fourth and Sixth Streets and along Cathedral Avenue. At the time in describing the icon and St. Paul’s closest architectural contemporary, partner Elizabeth Leber of BBB stated the objective: “We want to make sure that the campus is an open and welcoming environment. We do not want roadways to dominate the landscape, the landscape would be best celebrated by people walking through it. Sixth Street is a bit of a barrier,” Leber said.

In a September 20, 2009 Letter to the Editor in The Garden City News, resident Jim Cunningham wrote that he believed three options existed for St. Paul’s: tear the building down; restoring the building using taxpayer funds and use it for public purposes, or restoring the building with private funds in exchange for its use as private luxury condos. If condos were the choice, he questioned how much control the Village of Garden City can or should have over the development and future use of the property and what criteria a developer must meet for restoration of the building.

Can the Village Take a Step Back?

Just over one year ago, in the August 19, 2016 edition of The Garden City News, a response to a letter from resident Anthony DiFalco provided by Village Administrator Ralph Suozzi, noted that St. Paul’s wouldn’t be demolished.

“August 19, 2016 Editor’s Note: the Village responded to Mr. DiFalco as follows: “I am responding to your email on behalf of the Mayor (Nicholas Episcopia). I can assure you that there are no such plans to demolish this structure. This is merely a rumor that arises from time to time but there is no validity to it,” Suozzi said, as printed with DiFalco’s letter in the newspaper.

This August Garden City took a turn in the national spotlight, more specifically the National Guard’s spotlight with the Centennial Celebration of the Rainbow Division (the 42nd Infantry) held on August 12 at the Division Monument in the east section of the village, with a crowd of 400 on hand. At the event Mayor Daughney praised efforts to restore the monument and recognize the markers of history, encouraging local residents to take time to see the memorial and look up the Rainbow Division’s start in Garden City a century ago.

The Historical Society noticed the village’s commitment and participation in the August 12 event and restoration process leading up to it, including a $10,000 allocation from the Board of Trustees (restoration costs, split evenly with the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation). On September 5, The Historical Society provided a little known anecdote for The Garden City News:

“After the World Series in 1917, the pennant winning teams, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants, came to St. Paul’s to play an exhibition baseball game to entertain the soldiers of the Rainbow Division, which was encamped in Garden City. The monument dedicated to the Rainbow Division was just recently restored and re-dedicated at its site on Clinton Road.”

Albert Intreglia was president of the Garden City Historical Society from 2011 to 2015. He spoke with The Garden City News over the telephone on September 1 after following the St. Paul’s discussions in summer and reading the August 25, 2017 front page article in the News with thoughts from Sarah Kautz of SPLIA, who he knows as a respected preservationist. Intreglia says her perspective comes “with considerable authority to speak on the historic preservation issues.”

He knows other professionals and interested parties are bringing up ideas for St. Paul’s edifice. Intreglia believes an immediate timeframe would be premature for a dedicated plan to be adopted by the Board of Trustees without more input from residents.

“People from within the community and outside of our community are once again considering a lot of good options that might make sense that would benefit the community of Garden City. It’s an exciting time. There are many talented and creative people within the village. All the ideas need to be considered and vetted, and I think ultimately the residents of this wonderful town will come up with a solution that makes sense and is cost-effective. Collaborating with some of the very smart people within our village including the Board of Trustees, I am pretty optimistic that we can come up with a plan that makes the most sense and above all will be cost-effective, and that will preserve this unique and magnificent structure that sits on prime property in the middle of the Village of Garden City,” Intreglia told the News last week.

Intreglia sees the “vetting” process superseding the Board’s stated immediate plans to hire an architecture firm, as contract approval was supposed to have taken place by July’s meeting.

He notes an “ambitious” outlook with the Board of Trustees Priorities’ List, published June 1 and looking six months beyond the hire of an architect firm, as it indicated “relocation of the Garden City Recreation Department into new facility and adoption of a complete plan, including operational plan and architect renderings, and any changes to Cluett Hall and Fieldhouse by February 1, 2018 and to approve capital plan or lease terms for third party by March 1, 2018.”

“This is a process that cannot be rushed and should not be. I am really pleased that once again we are considering a myriad of options for the adaptive re-use of the St. Paul’s building. Certainly we need to proceed with the consideration for the taxpayers of this village – this must be a cost-effective plan and only then I think we will really get buy-in from all the folks in town,” Intreglia said.

Erin Tobin wholeheartedly agreed that the beginning of 2018 would be a rushed deadline to adopt a plan, and other views need to be explored soon.

“In putting plans together so quickly I hope the panel selecting the architect (the Board of Trustees) are people with preservation experience and that some voice there can communicate on maintaining the façade and I really question whether that is feasible. Typically any façade left would need (a ballast system) to maintain the original structures at least one or two rooms deep into the building, because you need a structure and you can’t just have a wall with the whole height of the building,” she told the News.

Tobin says a choice from an aesthetic point of view to maintain the façade (visible from Stewart Avenue) translates into an engineering and physics conundrum: “What if in the course of demolition the façade would come down? I just really don’t think the façade remaining is either a feasible solution and it’s certainly not a preservation solution,” she said on September 1.

Calling For an Open Forum

Out of the potential St. Paul’s plans on the table already and over the past decades, Intreglia knows that some visions have been more viable and presented “more comprehensively than others.” He tells the News that it may not be as important to weigh an existing or a new idea as it is to allow the communication within the community to spread, and reach the Village Board’s level soon.

“In my opinion we have very talented, very smart and very creative people within our community and serving on the Board of Trustees. Those individuals will come together, work efficiently and hopefully collaboratively toward a solution that makes the most sense. This is a period of ‘starting from scratch’ and a step back to consider all the alternatives out there. I can’t speak for protocol the Board of Trustees have in place but certainly they’re aware of graciously serving the Garden City community, putting in so many volunteer hours of hard work. Certainly the Board wants to be sure the community at large will have a significant say in how we move forward. I think the Board is aware of that and Mayor Daughney is certainly leading that charge,” he explains.

In early 2016 he was honored by the Garden City Historical Society (GCHS) and Mayor Nicholas Episcopia, as Society President Mahoney recognized his efforts “on behalf of the preservation of St. Paul’s School and for his support of the Committee to Save St. Paul’s in its efforts to find a solution to the stalled fate of that historic building.” Intreglia is also commended for strengthening the commitments by the Board of Trustees and the Historical Society’s 109 Eleventh Street headquarters and A.T. Stewart Exchange Shop. Six months ago, just before the most recent renewal of the land use license agreement GCHS has with Garden City for its headquarters (village property) it was Intreglia thanking the Board during public comments. At the Board’s February 21 meeting, he talked about the Eleventh Street house and the Society’s fundraising, plus engaging a preservation architectural firm. Intreglia said for the historic house, using a preservation architect “is a prerequisite if we apply for local, state or national grant monies.”

According to Mary Mahoney, St. Paul’s School is the top priority for preserving Garden City’s historic Stewartera architecture and character. Like Intreglia and the suggestion of SPLIA’s Sarah Kautz and her predecessor, Jason Crowley, scheduling a community roundtable or forum would be the first step to any solution.

“It is time residents of our Village come together to find the best adaptive reuse of this structure,” Mahoney said. On September 5 she shared the sentiments of the Society with the News via email:

“The Garden City Historical Society is clearly committed to preservation. Our mission is to preserve the historic character and ambiance of the Village of Garden City and to foster an understanding and appreciation of the village’s past on the part of its residents. Included in this objective is to preserve the physical structures within the vil- lage that are of key historical interest. There is no question that this magnificent building must be saved. That is a given. We must come together as a community to consider reuse that serves all members of the Community not just one target group. Adaptive reuse should offer benefits to all age groups and those of varying interests. Picture this, a place where the arts, music, sports and intellectual stimulation all come together to form a center that can be used for the greater good of all Village residents. Indeed, working together, we can create a “Centerpiece” within our Village that can display not only our history, but our future,” Mahoney wrote.

Professor Kroessler connected political perspectives on St. Paul’s and the professional end of building and municipal land use. He tells the News conservative, Republican-leaning individuals living in the village are in favor of historic preservation and conservation. Kroessler says that starts with former Senator James Buckley of the Conservative Party, who served from 1971 to 1977, and lost the election in 1976 to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

“What kind of Conservative values are existing that say ‘let’s trash our past’ which is what this is doing. And for the professional perspective, the village does not need specifically a preservation architect but you need a housing architect – someone who can look at the building and see how it can be adapted for residential use. The talk of community centers or libraries isn’t realistic. The condo or senior housing development puts the building back on the tax roll. The only way the building would pay is if it occupied by people who are paying to keep the building going and that’s got to be residential. The space is primed for active adult residences, not people who need care in a nursing home, but residents who have an empty nest and want to stay in Garden City. That is who the village should be thinking about and they are doing nothing in that regard, so they are betraying their citizens in this all along,” Kroessler said.

Jason Crowley believes that if a pressing need exists for more turf athletic fields to rent to various sports organizations in Garden City, the village doesn’t need to look far for a solution. He points out proximity to Hofstra University and Adelphi University and questions why there won’t be discussions with local colleges on facility use agreements.

“Garden City can set up to use their athletic fields when the college teams and recreation are not using them. That makes sense to me, and in the future there can be opportunities with significant underutilized parking areas near the mall (Roosevelt Field). Tearing down the most iconic building in the village for athletic fields when it’s already surrounded by athletic fields just seems like an asinine idea,” he said.

Meanwhile, Erin Tobin detailed the Preservation League of New York State’s active social media alert system, connected to their website, preservenys.org. “We use Instagram and Facebook and if there was some sort of a public event in Garden City about St. Paul’s, we’d spread word about that. On the local side we provide technical assistance and services to local advocates,” she said.

If plans involving turf fields and a recreation center or any combination thereof means the demolition of several parts of St. Paul’s, Tobin reminds the village about the expense and time that will be spent on asbestos abatement.

“I am sure the residents of Garden City would want all of the lead and asbestos abated. Especially with recreational facilities planned and if that gets into the air or ground at St. Paul’s, particularly where vulnerable children are playing, that could mean a real problem for the community. Environmentally they (the village) are going to deal with asbestos and lead there, no matter what. Certainly there are questions about turf fields. I have seen the beautiful grass fields at St. Paul’s and they are well-maintained. I have kids who play soccer so I understand fields, but I would question this location for outdoor fields,” she said.

Three to five new turf fields were stated in the St. Paul’s “primary task and project” on the Board Priorities List. Tobin contends that recreation as a community investment won’t have to be in conflict with preserving St. Paul’s and engaging in a building-centric adaptive re-use like condominiums.

“I value recreational fields and spaces for sports and recreation, but with looking the quantity of playing fields that already surround St. Paul’s School, it just stunning to me that Garden City would take this extraordinary resource it has – this asset, and such a historically and architecturally significant building – and the village would let such a resource go instead of capitalizing on it for the benefit of everybody in the community,” she said.

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