After a decade-and-a-half struggle, advocates for a Morningside Heights historic district feel they are closer than ever to official recognition—but it remains to be seen if the city’s preservation commission will accept their proposal.
The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee has lobbied the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for historic status since 1996 to no avail. A breakthrough occurred in September 2010, when the LPC members said they would begin discussions about designating part of Morningside Heights as historic. But the proposal the commission put forward focused on preserving only Riverside Drive and Claremont Avenue—a fraction of the neighborhood.
“The community balked at it, and asked the commission to come back because they didn’t think it was enough,” Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Professor Andrew Dolkart, who has written a book about the history of Morningside Heights, said.
“We’ve been pushing very hard ever since” to get historic status, Gretchen Borges, vice president of the MHHDC, said. The committee held several meetings with the LPC since then, expressing concern and submitting documentation on the neighborhood. Members are now hoping that the LPC is expanding the original borders and that word will come directly from the commission in the coming weeks.
But Borges and Gregory Dietrich, an advisor to the MHHDC board and a professional preservation consultant, said that it has already taken too long. The LPC has “really dropped the ball on this,” Borges said.
The LPC did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Spectator. [UPDATE: See below for a statement submitted after this article went to print.]
“Meanwhile they’re designating historic car garages,” Dietrich said. “We have one of the most exemplary campuses in the U.S. of Beaux-Arts planning. We have the highest concentration of historic institutions of learning in the country.”
If Morningside Heights were to become a historic district, residents would be prohibited from changing building exteriors without a permit from the LPC. While it is fairly easy to get a permit for minor work, Dolkart said that bigger projects, such as building new buildings, tearing down a building, or “doing something controversial to the façade of the building,” would require a public hearing and a commission vote.
Borges and Dietrich said that the neighborhood needs the historic designation soon to avoid the threat of development projects. Those include what Borges calls “a rather atrocious” apartment building on the corner of Morningside Drive and 110th Street, built on the grounds of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Some view Columbia itself as a threat. Last year, the University tore down a row of three buildings they owned on 115th Street off of Morningside Drive. According to Dietrich and Borges, they were among the oldest residential buildings in the neighborhood.
Now, they said they are worried about the University’s recent acquisition of the former convents on 113th Street off of Riverside Drive. They were designed by a “very distinguished architect, C.P.H. Gilbert … and they have been universally praised,” Dietrich said.
“The question is, what are they going to be doing … if the community is not involved in that discussion?” Dietrich said.
University spokesperson Victoria Benitez said that Columbia “has long been a good steward of the valuable architectural legacy of our campus and community.”
“We have previously stated that we would be interested in the study of an appropriately-defined district in the area,” she said.
“Frankly, there is a lot of good that the University has done,” including restoring some buildings in the community, Dietrich said. “The committee is not really here to slam any institution in particular, but basically to say, ‘We would like to engage you, we want to be part of the discussion,’ and it is just a little curious that a neighborhood such as this … which is really extraordinarily significant, has gotten short shrift over the years.”
Ever since last year’s Riverside-Claremont proposal was presented, there has been debate about the boundaries of the historic district.
Dietrich said that the committee has proposed boundaries that encompass most of the neighborhood, from Riverside to Morningside Parks and from 110th to 125th streets.
This proposal has met with local support at MHHDC outreach events, Borges said.
“We’re trying to engage the community,” she said, adding that there’s never been “a dissenting voice in our events.”
But residents aren’t all in agreement.
“What is historic about it?” Tim Greyts, Morningside Heights resident asked. “Low Library, maybe, but certainly my building isn’t historic.”
“It’s a great idea,” Morningside Heights resident Will Balliett said. “The main person to protect against is Columbia. We like them as a neighbor some of the time, but they’re not careful or sensible most of the time.” He said he was unhappy about the University’s history of tearing down buildings to build dormitories.
The committee has been collecting signatures, holding events in the neighborhood, and working to educate the community, which Dietrich said was very important. He also pushed back against the idea that a historic district would prohibit all future change in the neighborhood.
“Once you’re designated [as historic], your property is not frozen in time,” he said. “The commission does approve changes, and often substantive changes, to historic buildings.”
Within the neighborhood, the LPC has already designated a dozen individual landmarks, and there are eight on the National Register of Historic Places, according to data provided by the MHHDC.
“We’re not a lone voice,” Borges said.
Several public officials have also voiced their support for the proposal, including City Council member Inez Dickens and State Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, who Borges said has been “the main operating energy” for the movement in past years. O’Donnell and his staff “did a lot of work documenting the neighborhood” and advocating for historic district status, she said.
Sense of place
“I’m in favor of more historic landmarks here, but I’m not sure I’m in favor of designating every building in the neighborhood,” Dolkart said. On some of the blocks between Broadway and Riverside, for example, there are some properties that are “among the most banal row houses in New York.”
Dolkart suggested designating the Riverside-Claremont district and select blocks between Broadway and Amsterdam. “There are institutions that are really important that are not landmarked,” he said. “I rank Teachers College as the number one building in New York that is not a landmark.”
“I think that really the approach right now in the committee is to look at the area holistically and let this play out through discussions with the landmarks commission,” Dietrich said.
In order for the LPC to approve the district, it “has to have a sense of place, you have to have a feeling that you’re in a place that’s separate, and have landmarks that are of architectural, historical, or cultural value to the city,” Dolkart said—something he argues that Morningside Heights has.
“There’s a monumentality here,” Dietrich said. “You look at any one of these, whether it’s St. John the Divine, Riverside Church, Low Library … there’s certainly that aspect.”
The neighborhood has a long history. Remnants from the orphanage and insane asylums that dominated the neighborhood in the 1800s remain, including Columbia’s Buell Hall, which was once part of the asylum.
Pointing out the detail on the row house façades on 113th Street, Dietrich said, “I would defy anybody to walk down the street and tell me there’s not a distinct sense of place here.”
After publication, LPC spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon responded with this statement: In direct response to requests from the community, the Commission has resurveyed the buildings in the neighborhood and is now evaluating a larger study area in order to finalize boundaries. Once that review is complete, we will meet again with property owners and other stakeholders.
A previous version of this article misstated Daniel O'Donnell's title. Spectator regrets the error.