On Staten Island sits an important house in a dreadful state of disrepair. Described by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission as "a distinguished residence," the former home of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead was declared a landmark in 1967.
Alternately known as the Olmsted-Beil House or the Poillon House, this structure is the final remnant of the original 125-acre farm property Olmstead called home from 1848 to 1854. It was here that the idea of Central Park was conceived. This 18th century farmhouse was one of the very first official New York state landmarks, but if conservationists don't raise sufficient funds to make repairs soon, this important piece of history is sure to be demolished.
According to a New York Times article, the estimated cost of stabilizing the abandoned house is around $460,000. One-third of that price would go towards removing flammable material, erecting a security fence, and paying for architectural drawings. This price doesn't include the cost of actual restoration of the landmark house.
In late October, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation proposed the acquisition of an adjacent property that would protect the area around the historic farmhouse from future development while adding public park space to the neighborhood. ”The purchase of this neighboring house is an imperative step toward the goal of renovating and reopening the house.” said Staten Island parks commissioner, Lynda Ricciardone.
According to Untapped Cities magazine, the New York Landmark Conservancy is in a hurry to raise renovation funds by way of a Kickstarter campaign. At the time of this blog, the conservancy group Reclaim Olmstead House Committee has received enough crowdfunding to cover the cost of stabilizing the farmhouse floor and giving the historical house a fresh coat of paint.
The ROHC is endorsed by Cultural Landmarks Foundation president, Charles Birnbaum, Prospect Park admin, Sue Donoghue, historian Kenneth Jackson and documentary filmmaker, Ric Burns.
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Passive House is a voluntary international building method with high standards for energy efficiency reducing its ecological footprint. Developed by Passive House Institute (PHI) in Darmstadt, Germany. It results in an highly energy efficient and exceedingly low energy building that requires little (at times no energy) for space heating and cooling.
Passive house methodology make use of buildingorientation, massing, insulation, heat recovery, passive use of solar energy, insulated window frames, elimination of thermal bridges, and incidental internal heat sources. For the renovation of existing buildings PHI developed a similar if slightly more lenient performance standard.
The resulting performance represents a roughly 90% reduction in heating and cooling energy usage and up to a 75% reduction in primary energy usage from existing building stock – meant to aggressively meet the climate crisis carbon reduction imperative while making a comfortable, healthy and affordable built environment.
Historic landmarks are part of our cultural history and tell us a lot about the past through their characteristics. During the manufacturing boom in 19th century, building materials such as brick, hardwood, terracotta, and brownstone, became cheaper and more readily available. As a result, more and more people could afford to own a brick or stone home.
Today, we admire these historic masonry buildings because their characteristics have become less common over time and as technology evolves. The green movement has inspired owners of historic buildings to become more sustainable when it comes to maintenance.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) requires that historic buildings meet certain aesthetic criteria, while the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) requires that these buildings meet certain sustainable criteria. While LPC is more focused on the potential loss of a building’s character, the IGCC is more concerned with the reality that certain building materials have become less available and therefore unsustainable in today’s environment.
To beat this conflict, preservation architects must pay special attention to a building’s most meaningful characteristics. For example, historic windows are central in defining the character of historic buildings. Instead of replacing in-kind, architects might suggest retrofitting with insulated glass to boost their performance or incorporate weather stripping and storm windows that prevent heat loss and gain all year round.
Regarding energy, visible solar panels reduce the historical value of landmarks significantly. Preservationists prefer these panels be installed on flat roofs where visibility is minimal. Another sustainable solution currently in place is using renewable energy sources like off-site wind power and geothermal heating systems, which can be incorporated into the building system. These energy sources provide the much-needed efficiency and fulfill sustainability requirements that the IGCC, building owners and tenants desire.
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New York City is home to over 36,000 landmarked properties-most of which are located in 141 historic districts and extensions - 1,398 individual landmarks, and 119 interior landmarks. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the largest preservation agency in the nation, is entrusted with safeguarding the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history. Any work proposed work on a landmarked building must be held up to strict LPC standards and regulations before obtaining approval. While these regulations may curb pervasive development, the Landmarks Preservation Commission by no means discourages new development altogether. In fact, the recently approved redevelopment of the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing is a prime example of how historic preservation and new development can happily co-exist.
After over 30 years of neglect and several plans for redevelopment, the RKO Keith’s Theater finally has a chance at new life thanks to Xinyuan Real Estate. In 2016 the Chinese firm purchased the historic theater with the intent to provide high-end residential housing to the underserved market of Flushing, Queens. In May, Xinyuan presented their plan to rehabilitate and preserve the 1928-built theater’s landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby within a new glass 16-floor building with 269 apartments designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
Xinyuan plans to use the landmarked ticket lobby and grand foyer as the building entry, however the original 3,000 seat theater does not hold landmark status and will be razed. Due to the decades of neglect the historic interior has fallen into a state of critical disrepair and just about every inch of the interior will require some form of restorative work.
At the hearing the Landmarks Preservation Committee did voice some concerns about the accessibility of the landmark. While the ticket booth would be a part of the public retail space, as presented, the public would not be permitted into the lobby of the residential building without the invitation of a resident. While security of the residents is a concern, the Commission hesitated to approve blocking off a public landmark, and suggested separating the residential entry with a series of doors.
Despite the Commissioners’ concerns, they decided to unanimously support the project, with one condition: Staff members at the Commission would work with the developers to settle the issue of public access to the grand foyer. The approval of this major project goes to show that landmark status is not an end to the possibilities for redevelopment.