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Hellgate Hill Landmark Rift Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

By Amy Zimmer | April 14, 2011 4:24pm | Updated on April 15, 2011 6:38am
The area of Hell Gate Hill that is planning to apply for landmark status.
The area of Hell Gate Hill that is planning to apply for landmark status.
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courtesy of Carnegie Hill Neighbors

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — A battle over a landmark district proposal has pitted neighbor against neighbor on the elegant brownstone block known as Hellgate Hill.

The tiny area, which spans the north side of East 94th and the south side of 95th Street, between Lexington and Third avenues, is one of the largest remaining late 19th century row house developments covering nearly a whole city block.

Half of the block’s property owners want to keep it that way. So does the Carnegie Hill Neighbors preservation group, which submitted a proposal to Community Board 8 this week to kickoff the long process of seeking historic status for these brownstones.

But the other half of Hellgate Hill's 32 property owners have been fighting the proposal, preferring to avoid the headache of regulations that homeowners face when they want to alter their houses on landmarked blocks.

Proposed Hellgate Hill Historic District outlined in blue; Carnegie Hill Historic District in red.
Proposed Hellgate Hill Historic District outlined in blue; Carnegie Hill Historic District in red.
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courtesy of Carnegie Hill Neighbors

They also dispute the architectural significance of their area.

"We feel that the case for landmarking in this instance is borderline and remains highly controversial for many," East 94th Street resident Suzanne Jenkins read from a statement on behalf of the 16 opposing property owners at a Wednesday night board meeting.

She said there had been major non-historical changes made to the houses over time, "including the removal of stoops, a modernized front staircase, addition fifth floors and the modernization of one of the facades that looks nothing like the original."

The plans may have even caused rifts within families. Jenkins noted that they didn't include households where one spouse was in favor of landmarking and the other was opposed.

Some board members were sympathetic, noting that making alterations in historic districts can be onerous — as evidenced by an application they had just received where someone had to get an architect and seek approval for installing an air conditioner.

But the board ultimately voted in favor of the proposal.

"This is our heritage. This is what makes New York City so special," Carnegie Hill Neighbors President Lo Van der Valk told board members. "Terrible things can happen if you do not designate."

Residents in favor of the landmarking noted the loss of several brownstones demolished for a building nearby on East 93rd Street and feared that fate could be theirs, too.

When Carnegie Hill was designated an historic district in 1974, and when that historic district was expanded in 1998, Hellgate was excluded — even though its brownstones are older than some of those in the historic district.

"On the merits, our block is beautiful, historic and distinctive — as least as much as the historic district in Carnegie Hill," East 95th Street resident Carl Lowenson told board members. "It would just be a sad day if some brownstones got sold to a developer who put up a big building in the middle of our oasis."

Van der Valk believes it was "an arbitrary decision" to exclude anything east of Lexington Avenue during the Carnegie Hill landmark process and he plans to reach out to opposing neighbors before he submits a request to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to evaluate the proposal within a month.

It may prove difficult. The Carnegie Hill Neighbors had initially submitted the proposal to the community board in the summer, but then withdrew it in the face of opposition, hoping to win over more people before resubmitting the proposal — which didn’t pan out.

"We will want to continue to communicate and work with the opposing neighbors in the hope that more of them will support the landmarks designation," Van der Valk told DNAinfo.

The area was named after George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery, established in 1866 on East 92nd and 93rd streets between Second and Third avenues, which grew to become the fourth largest brewery in the country in 1895. (It was sold in 1935.) The brewery was named after Hell Gate, the dangerous strait where the East River meets the Harlem River.

The block was developed in 1878 by Michael Duffy, an alderman in the Tammany Hall era of graft who was indicted for bribery in 1886 but got off for being an informant.