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How a New York Landmark is Made

Host Intro: Over the past fifty years more than 35,000 building have been landmarked in New York City, from the brownstones in Fort Greene to the Empire State Building. But it’s not cheap keeping these old dogs up and running. And being named a landmark can actually make that job even harder. Stephan Bisaha has more.

BISAHA 1: The West Park Presbyterian Church on the upper west side is stunning. The whole building looks like it was carved from a single, sunbaked slab of red clay. But when you get a little bit closer, it starts to show its 127 year age. Reverend Dr. Robert Brashear is the pastor of the church. He reaches up and with ease chips off a piece of the wall.  The piece crumbles apart and rains down on us like dust.


See how soft that is?


Oh yeah. It feels like a layer of sand coming off.


See how soft that is?


Oh yeah. It feels like a layer of sand coming off. (:09)

BISAHA 4: The church’s ornate facade has been worn down over the years. And that’s not the only thing spoiling the view.  


So this scaffolding here. This is to stop falling pieces?


Well exactly. There’s occasionally been chunks as big as 20 pounds fall. (:09)

BISAHA 6: The scaffolding went up over a decade ago when Brashear first noticed an alarming  layer of red mud coating the sidewalk. An investigation revealed that 40 percent of the stones in the church’s walls were compromised. The brick underneath was still structurally sound, so there was no worry of collapse, but it did cause a serious conversation about the building’s future.


the members of this church who were always more committed to mission than to buildings really wanted to tear down the whole church and erect affordable housing here with a small part for the church. (:11)

BISAHA 7: On the other side, members of the community were pushing to landmark the church.

This was the last thing it wanted and the reason is simple – being a landmark isn’t cheap. The West Park Presbyterian Church had already avoided being part of a new historic district in the late ‘80s, but news of the plan to tear down the old building restarted the discussion.


As word of that began to get out to the community, there was a great uproar. (:05)

BISAHA 8: The community rejected the affordable housing idea and after years of back and forth, the church was named a landmark in 2010. The Immaculate Conception Church in the Bronx is currently fighting to avoid a similar fate, though it declined to comment for this story. There’s a long history of New York City churches fighting against being landmarked and again, it almost always comes down to money.


It’s hard enough for them to keep the lights on and keep the heat on. (:04)

BISAHA 9: Paimaan Lodhi is the vice president of urban planning at the Real Estate Board of New York.


To place landmarking controls on them – that adds cost. (:03)

BISAHA 10:. Any landmarked building in New York City must get approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission for any changes to the building’s exterior. And that means sticking as close to the buildings original look as possible. The original material doesn’t have to be used for renovations, but even with substitutes getting that old school look can often means paying a lot more.


The fact of the matter is that yes, using historic materials is more expensive than going to Home Depot and buying cheap white vinyl windows or brown vinyl windows. ((The color does not make that much difference)). (:12)

BISAHA 11: Simeon Bankoff is executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group. He says while those vinyl replacement windows may be cheaper, remember…you get what you pay for.


Typically vinyl replacement windows last five years which means you put them in, five years later you have to get new windows. ((They are called maintenance free which means they cannot be repaired. As opposed to you’re actually spending money and getting windows that can be repaired and therefore have a twenty or thirty year lifespan. (:15)))

BISAHA 12: But for some owners, landmarks can be a passion project… if they have the money.


They go to Upstate New York and find big pieces of marble in parking lots or people’s backyards and buy it from them, cut it and then add it onto the building as if it was the original stone. So you have to get creative sometimes. (:13)

BISAHA 13: Blaire Walsh is with the landmarks conservancy, an advocacy group that provides grants and low interest loans to landmarked buildings looking to be renovated. We’re in Fort Greene’s historic district, where she’s helped restore many brownstones. But even Walsh, a huge proponent of landmarks, admits landmarks can quickly turn into a money pit. It’s impossible to know what old buildings are hiding  …until you start tearing into them.


Like you open up a wall and find it’s full of termites. That can be a big problem. (:05)

BISAHA 14: A big problem that can lead to big costs. LIke one brownstone where Walsh and her renovation team discovered hard to replace support steel in the windows was rusting away.  


We scrambled to get new permits because it was a structural issue. We had no idea that those were in there. Someone just randomly decided in the 60’s it was a good idea. (:09)

BISAHA 15: Between bringing in an engineer, new construction materials and extra labor, the project ended up costing the brownstone’s owner an extra thirteen thousand dollars. But buildings are often not landmarked  for the property owner. Instead they’re preserved for the community Again, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the historic districts council.


I believe as someone who lives in New York City and believes that the architecture of the city informs the sense of a city is there are many churches which even if one is not parishioner become part of the streetscape in such a way that its loss would be felt by the community. (:18)

BISAHA 17: When a building is landmarked, the emphasis is  on the exterior. But the West Park Presbyterian Church has spent a half million dollars renovating its interior to keep the building running. It patched walls and added a new boiler. Reverend Robert Brashear says the last thing it wants to do is sell the building because it can’t afford cosmetic changes.


Go up to 96th and Amsterdam for example and see the old beautiful bank that’s a giant drugstore now. You can keep the exterior walls up, preserve them, and have something in here that’s completely foreign to whatever happened here before. (:14)


There is funding for landmarks from state and federal programs and the landmarks conservancy has grants for religious sites like churches and mosques. But the landmarks conservancy says that would only cover part of the millions the West Park Presbyterian Church needs.


There’s somethings that’s been very special here that deserves to continue and should not be taken away simply because we don’t have the money to preserve the outside. (:08)

BISAHA 19: Which means until it can afford renovations approved by the landmarks preservation commission, the stone walls of this New York City landmark will continue to crumble onto the steel beams below.

Stephan Bisaha, Columbia Radio News


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