Bronx Landmarks Among Winners of Online Grant Contest

By Patrick Wall on May 22, 2012 4:17pm 

The New York Botanical Garden and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, both in The Bronx, were among the winners of an online preservation grant contest.
The New York Botanical Garden and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, both in The Bronx, were among the winners of an online preservation grant contest.
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The New York Botanical Garden

FORDHAM — The New York Botanical Garden and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum used social media to beat out dozens of historic places around the city — including the High Line, the Guggenheim Museum and the Apollo Theater — in an online contest for hundreds of thousands of dollars in preservation funds.

The winners, including two sites in Brooklyn, earned the most votes on Facebook and on the website of Partners in Preservation, a program run by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which gives out millions of dollars in preservation grants to historic sites in a different city each year.

“This shows that when you work to get out the vote, great things can happen," Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said Tuesday.

The Botanical Garden drew 7 percent of the online votes and a $250,000 grant, while the Bartow-Pell Mansion also earned 7 percent of the votes and will get $155,000.

The two other sites, the Brooklyn Public Library and Congregation Beth Elohim, both located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, each won $250,000.

An advisory committee will award another $2.1 million in grants to other historic city sites in June.

The Botanical Gardens, near Fordham University, used Facebook, Twitter, email and old-fashioned phone calls to beg supporters for their votes, said Jody Payne, curator of the site’s rock and native plant gardens.

“I contacted everyone I know in the gardening world,” Payne said.

Shortly after the winners were announced Tuesday morning, Payne had already received nearly 30 emails of congratulation.

The grant will be used to upgrade the 80-year-old pipes and basins of the rock garden, where water cascades from a ridge into a pond and stream, surrounded by thousands of species of plants.

The award will be a “shot in the arm,” said Payne, for the 2.5-acre rock garden, which she described as “a secret oasis in the middle of New York City.”

The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, near Pelham Bay Park in the northeast Bronx, waged an elaborate Internet campaign to rack up their votes.

The small staff at the 19th-century historic estate recruited a social media volunteer who mapped out an online strategy, along with another volunteer who set up a special web address, BeautyintheBronx.org, just for the contest, said executive director Ellen Bruzelius.

“It's like the ‘American Idol’ of historic preservation,” the museum’s special contest page explained, before asking supporters to vote for the museum once a day for a month.

During the campaign, the museum — inside a Grecian-style stone mansion that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once used as a summer office — nearly tripled its Facebook likes and attracted votes from such far-flung places as Sweden, Australia and California.

“It was obviously about preserving historic sites,” said Bruzelius, “but it was also about getting those sites more in the public eye.”

She said the museum will use the grant to renovate the estate’s 1916-era garden, the family cemetery of physician Thomas Pell, who bought the 9-acre parcel of land from the Siwanoy Indians in 1654, and a chestnut tree-lined walkway.

Part of the restoration will involve reinstalling one of the cemetery's original headstones, which was discovered on nearby City Island in 1970, where it was being used as a coffee table, and which now sits in Bruzelius’s office.

“It’s a big project and we’re excited to get into it,” said Bruzelius. “It will keep us busy.”

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