Long Island misadventures in historic preservationShare
Exasperation is running high when demolition is broached as a way to deal with an unused historic building. When demolition is actually supported by both public officials and a plurality of citizens, despite the building’s decent condition and exceptional architectural character, you can fairly assume frustrations are approaching absurd levels. Case in point: St. Paul’s School in Garden City, New York.
In 1993, this small Long Island village suburb bought the land on which the school sits from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. In exchange for $7.25 million, the village acquired 48 acres of open land and the school, a stately High Victorian Gothic built between 1877 and 1883.
Ever since, the landmarked school has sat forlorn while multiple proposals have been made, and just as many, rejected. A library, perhaps? Feasible, but nixed by the village board in favor of private uses. An apartment and senior-housing complex? Feasible, but fought against for being a private takeover of what many believe should remain open to the public. A school? Feasible, but finally rejected in favor of the ever-alluring chance to build an entirely new facility.
In the wake of these proposals has arisen the specter of demolition - not as a threat but as an actual option on the table. As The New York Times reported in January, village residents even voted for demolition in 2008, which led to the currently-pending environmental review required prior to the final bow. Why did this happen?
A toxic combination of fatigue from unending debate over the building’s future and ill-fated push-backs against viable, if not optimal, proposals for reuse.
As to the the former, public appetite for protracted preservation battles - as with any other political battle - is limited. In every debate, there comes a time when patience ebbs so low that the desire for ”once and for all” resolutions gradually outweighs the will to wait for widely-supported, well-devised plans of action.
Historic preservation battles are particularly susceptible to “once and for all” decisions made out of weariness; they commonly involve a crumbling or abandoned structure that locals have already spent years passing by on a daily basis, and long-since labeled an eyesore. Eventually, aborted plans pile up in an unseemly heap and folks tend to lower their expectations just to wipe away the stench of inaction - even if that means the public policy decision is ultimately driven by non-policy considerations, and even if the decision made is counter to the decision-makers’ preferences (which are themselves, quite feasible).
As to the latter issue - ill-fated opposition to decent plans because they are not “optimal” - how disheartening! Here, both the village trustees and the Committee to Save St. Paul’s rejected viable plans that would have respected the character and value of St. Paul’s. Village trustees rejected a plan to make St. Paul’s a library and community center because it did not allow for private party involvement. Likewise, St. Paul’s devoted advocates rejected a plan to transform St. Paul’s into apartment housing and/or luxury condominiums because it did not allow for (enough) public use.
In each case, good intentions scuttled the plans - not because the plans were inherently bad (admittedly, neither were perfect, as both sides will point out), but because they were either too private or too public. ”Private” and “public” took precedence over “good” and “viable.”
And no, this is not a situation where mitigating factors are at play; St. Paul’s is not on the verge of collapse and the village, which has to spend $100,000 in annual maintenance expenses, is in excellent financial health (note: demolition costs alone are $6 million and would cover decades of maintenance costs). Given as much, the right thing for the village to do now, is to do nothing. There is no rush. If circumstances change for the worse, in the form of falling roofs, impending bankruptcy, or otherwise, then consider - carefully - whether demolition is the thing to do. But demolition in anticipation of future indecision and future structural failure is baffling from every angle (financially, historically, culturally…).
Luckily, it is not yet too late. The environmental review is still pending and (a few) local residents are still fighting to save St. Paul’s.
Image courtesy of Committee to Save St. Paul’s.