Monday, February 11, 2008

History of Manhattanville Stirs Debate Over Preservation

Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2008 04:44:14 -0800 (PST)
From: "Anne Z. Whitman"
Subject: Fwd: Google Alert - Manhattanville, Old Manhattanville, Historic Preservation in Manhattanville, West Harlem, Harlem, Columbia University Expansion
To: "Jordi Reyes Montblanc"

Google News Alert for: Manhattanville, Old Manhattanville, Historic Preservation in Manhattanville, West Harlem, Harlem, Columbia University Expansion

CU Columbia Spectator - New York,NY,USA
Interest in the historic value of Manhattanville has increased in the face of Columbia’s proposed expansion, which could include the transfer of buildings ...
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History of Manhattanville Stirs Debate Over Preservation
By Alicia Outing

A look back at Manhattanville's past has furnished a plea for preservation, as demolition looms in the near future. But the historic value of the buildings remains a matter of debate.

Its history in New York City dates back to the early 19th century, when the community served an integral role in drawing merchants and residents to a developing upper Manhattan.

In the 1800s, Manhattanville "was sort of at the pulse of the city changing and growing upwards," said self-described "non-academic historian," Eric K. Washington. "It, in conjunction with the village of Harlem, presented an opportunity for tradesmen to establish businesses in different parts of the island than they had been."

Washington has been researching the history of Manhattanville for over 10 years. In 1997, he worked on a landmark designation report for St. Mary's Episcopal Church on West 126th Street for the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. While living in the neighborhood, he became interested in learning more about his own neighborhood.

"The name Manhattanville kept coming up in my research," he said. "I just kind of stayed on the subject."

Washington is a licensed New York City tour guide and gives tours of Manhattanville, showing visitors a unique side of the city. "People are eager to see more than just skyscrapers," he said.Interest in the historic value of Manhattanville has increased in the face of Columbia's proposed expansion, which could include the transfer of buildings for which landmark designation has been proposed to the University via eminent domain.

Like Washington, industrial archaeologist Mary Habstritt has brought to light interesting facts on the history of Manhattanville, including information on the neighborhood's milk industry. Her work prompted a request for landmark evaluation of the former Sheffield Farms-Slawson-Decker Dairy building, known today as Prentice Hall, located at 632 W. 125th Street. Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communications for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, said that the site is currently under review by the Commission's staff. The Commission is also considering landmark status for the Studebaker building at 615 W. 131st Street.

Columbia's Environmental Impact Statement acknowledged that the Manhattanville project area "contains a number of notable, undesignated historic structures." In developing its campus expansion plan, the University will preserve the historic Prentice and Studebaker buildings, the Nash building at 3280 Broadway, and the interior of the West Market Diner.

But the EIS concluded that overall, the neighborhood had been "determined not to be sensitive for archaeological resources" and is "not expected to have any significant adverse impact on architectural resources."

Roger Lang of the New York Landmarks Conservancy worries that Manhattanville's historic importance will not be enough to convince those who have the power to determine the community's future. "Despite the intellectual vigor that Habstritt and her colleagues have brought to this, the issue seems to have been decided," Lang said.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission evaluates all landmark designation requests, which are then voted on and passed to the City Planning Commission and City Council for further votes of approval. According to the Landmarks Law, landmarks must have been built at least 30 years ago and should have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation."

According to Lang, testimony and letters have been presented to key public officials on behalf of Manhattanville's preservation, but the Landmarks Commission has "steadfastly declined to consider designation. It would take a massive upswelling of public opinion to make any demonstrable effect," he said.

"Every landmarked building or historic district in the city is unique in some way," de Bourbon said, explaining the high standards that are used to evaluate landmark designation requests. "It's about the merits of the building." Buildings must demonstrate architectural, historical, and cultural significance in order to be designated landmarks, she said.

Despite the difficult designation process, Washington proposed that at least a couple of areas be landmarked as historic districts. "So I'm hoping, and I feel fairly certain that will be accomplished," he said.

Time is of the essence for those who hope that landmark designation will modify Columbia's vision for Manhattanville. "There was a sense of urgency, to be sure, when Columbia made their plans, which basically calls for a wholesale demolition of the neighborhood," Washington said.

Still, Washington hopes that interest in Manhattanville will help people realize there is more to the community than the region within Columbia's campus footprint.

"Many people only think of Manhattanville as a spot that Columbia wants," he said. "There are a lot of layers, and there's a lot more depth."

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