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1st December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 1, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, “An historic district is an area of the city designated by the Landmarks Commission that represents at least one period or style of architecture typical of one or more areas in the city’s history.” Some in the Fieldston community in Riverdale in the northwest Bronx are trying to obtain this designation for their community, a petition the commission will hear on Tuesday. If they are successful, it will demonstrate just how far we have strayed in the attempt to protect true landmarks, such as the old Penn Station, from extinction. 

Fieldston is a picturesque private community of about 250 homes built in the 1920s. Even the streets are private property, which, presently, are open to the public. This is good because Fieldston is in the center of the bustling Riverdale community, and two important thoroughfares run through it. However, despite the importance to public safety of vehicular access, the streets are closed once a year to maintain the future right to close them, perhaps even gate them, permanently. 
    Once you drive into Fieldston,you are slowed by dozens of speed bumps. Stopping is another matter.The Fieldston Property Owners Association has banned parking on all the streets. So forget about pulling over and getting out of your car to walk around. When you get back, you car will most likely be gone. So aggressive is the towing program that on graduation day at the Horace Mann, Riverdale Country, or Fieldston schools, situated on opposite edges of the community, the cars of hapless parents are routinely towed away as they watch their children receiving their diplomas. 

    Each year the Van Cortlandt Track and Field Club holds the “Riverdale Ramble,”a 10 kilometer race that draws runners from throughout the metropolitan area. This widely supported event proceeded year after year without incident. However, three years ago, the Fieldston property owners banned the runners. The slight inconvenience was too much for the Fieldston “bad neighbors” who now ask for “protection.” 

    This restrictiveness is totally at odds with the spirit of the city’s landmark law that asserts that the commission is charged with “promoting the use of landmarks for the education, pleasure,and welfare of the people of the city.” That cannot exist in the context of what is virtually a gated community. 

    The Landmarks Preservation Commission was launched to ensure that truly important buildings and historically significant areas are preserved. Implied in this is that preservation adds value for the general public benefit. Even were Fieldston accessible to the public, I don’t think that it would rise to the level of landmark or historic status. 

    Don’t get me wrong. Fieldston is a beautiful area,but more for the many large old trees that line the streets than for the houses themselves. No historic event took place there, nor is the style of architecture representative of a period or area in the city. It can even be argued that Fieldston contains a mishmash of random styles. It simply is a nice, attractive area. 

    You may hear proponents invoke the architect of a quarter of Fieldston’s homes, Dwight James Baum, as a reason for landmarking. It might seem that Baum was important; research shows that he is not. Baum was a favorite of rich dilettantes in the 1920s. He was the one you turned to with a clipping of some house you liked, for him to copy. There is no “Baum style.” His most famous building, the Cà d’Zan,in Sarasota,Fla.,home of circus magnate John Ringling, is a structure of notable excess and poor taste. In other words, Baum was a hack. 

    The proposal to landmark the community, regrettably advanced by Councilman Oliver Koppell, can’t even be described as being highly popular among Fieldston residents. A vote of the property owners association was split down the middle, with proponents of the historic district edging out opponents, who understand that landmarking could halt routine additions and improvements to their homes without special — and often costly — permission. 

    According to the commission, “Every designated structure, whether it is an individual landmark or a building in a historic district, is protected under the landmarks law and subject to the same review procedures.If you want to perform minor work or make alterations to your building, you must obtain the commission’s approval before you begin the work.” 

    There are a few exceptions to this, but suffice it to say that if Mr. Koppell wishes to add a much-needed bathroom on the first floor of his Fieldston home, he will have to apply to the commission. So why is this plan being proposed? 

    Some think that it will enhance property values, but this is hardly a matter of wider public concern, since most properties in Fieldston are worth well over $1 million.Fieldston homeowners seem to be doing well enough without any special government protections. 

    More ominously, some feel that restricting alterations to Fieldston homes is directed at stemming the further expansion of the Orthodox Jewish community.Many of the 80-year-old homes have small kitchens, few bathrooms, and inadequate garages, so the typically large Orthodox families often renovate them. Whatever the reasons behind the proposal, I question the insinuation of government involvement to protect not the public interest, but the parochial concerns of what is a closed and private community. It is inappropriate for government to step in and protect every “nice” area unless there is some overriding community benefit. In this case, there is none. It is up to those in Fieldston to set their own rules to protect themselves from each other.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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