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30th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 30, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

When the old Penn Station was torn down to make way for the new Madison Square Garden forty years ago, New Yorkers were justifiably outraged. A fine, historic public space was lost. Determined that buildings and even neighborhoods of historic architectural significance should not be casually destroyed, the city fathers set up legal protections to preserve our heritage. At the center of this is the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Like many initially good ideas administered by government, our preservation strategy has grown into a powerful bureaucracy,administered by individuals who often seem to want to protect every thing and any thing — and often for the wrong reasons.
In a few days, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission is slated to declare that the private community of Fieldston in Riverdale is a historic district, in effect landmarking all but the most recently built structures there. From that point on, homeowners will need government approval for any change they make to the exterior of their own homes, even if they want to change the color that the front door is painted.

Fieldston is a privileged private community of about 250 homes. Riverdale is the middle class enclave in the northwest Bronx that has managed to avoid the urban decay that besets much of the rest of the borough. But Fieldston, with its multi-million dollar homes and treelined streets, is changing. In recent years, many of its homes have purchased by members of Riverdale’s growing Orthodox Jewish community. Typically, they renovate these 80-year-old homes to allow for larger kitchens and more bedrooms and bathrooms.

You can walk or drive through Fieldston at any time of day or night and rarely see another human being. It is almost as if it is a back lot of a movie studio. The houses could be empty shells.You almost never see children playing, or a barbecue, or residents sunning themselves in their yards.

The arrival of the Orthodox community has begun to change this. It is now common to see families strolling through the community on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. This, I fear, does not sit well with the old guard.

There is an uneasy feeling here that the rush to landmark this nice but historically insignificant collection of homes has more to do with putting a lid on the future growth of the Orthodox community than saving our city’s precious architectural legacy. Certainly Fieldston does not fit the Commission’s own description: “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.”

Fieldston was conceived and many of its houses designed by an architect named Dwight James Baum, a favorite of rich persons who would hire him to design a house that was the exact copy of some other house. Baum, a distant relative of the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” was pleased to comply. Give Baum a picture of a house clipped from a magazine, and he was off to the races. No Frank Lloyd Wright he.

This copy-cat style of architecture reached its pinnacle in Baum’s Ca’ d’Zan, an ersatz Venetian palazzo in Sarasota, Florida built for circus magnate John Ringling. Imagine all of the buildings along Venice’s Grand Canal distilled into one huge structure of poor taste and nauseating excess.This is Baum’s masterpiece.

The Italian author Umberto Eco described the interior as stolen from the posh Danieli Hotel in Venice — except that Baum made it even more ostentatious. So exercised is Mr. Eco over the deliberate excess in Baum’s plagiaristic style that he noted in his 1991 book “Travels in Hyperreality” that “the architect Dwight James Baum deserves (in the sense that Eichmann does) to go down in history.”

Charles Moerdler, who lives in a house designed by Baum, puts it more succinctly: “Baum was a hack.” Mr. Moerdler knows his architecture, having once served as the city’s Buildings Commissioner.

So why the rush to landmark? The answer may be found in the experience of a previous Riverdale landmark, another Baum building, the Italianate villa he designed in the 1920s for construction magnate Anthony Campagna. No one was interested in designating this as a landmark until the building was purchased by the Telshe Yeshiva as a dormitory for its students a decade ago.Then the powers-that-be decided to have this building landmarked at light speed, before the Yeshiva could embark on a planned expansion.

A couple of blocks to the north is the home that President Kennedy lived in as a child, never considered “historic” enough for landmark status. Nobody cared that this structure was sliced and diced, no one ever thought to protect it. Yet I have this nagging feeling that if the black-hatted Yeshiva boys were installed in the Kennedy House instead of the Campagna Mansion, there would have been enormous new interest in the late president’s boyhood home, while the villa would have been ignored.

What makes the designation of Fieldston as a historic district particularly objectionable is the fact that the streets there are private property, and can be closed at will. If you were to drive up, park your car and walk on what will be publicly designated “historic” streets, your car will be towed away in minutes. I suspect that bus tours are similarly banned as Fieldston has prohibited school buses from the adjacent Horace Mann School from passing through its private streets.

It seems to me that if this is truly an important historical area, the Landmarks Preservation Commission must insist that the streets be opened to bus tours and parking permitted so that all New Yorkers can study and enjoy this “landmark” area. Otherwise, this is nothing more than the city misusing the landmarks law to benefit the private, perhaps sinister, interests of a privileged few.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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