The story of how I came to live in Harmony Hall my sophomore year begins with a shipwreck off the coast of Greenland in 1894. The Miranda, a ship full of arctic explorers, strikes an iceberg, and a group of survivors is left drifting southward in a schooner. It is upon this lonely schooner that the explorers first float the idea for an Arctic Club. In 1929, what is now the prestigious Explorers Club, a group of adventurers and expeditioners, moves into new headquarters on West 110th Street. The same building that now houses dozens of undergraduates was advertised as “especially fitted to make a home for men who devote their lives to exploration.” In the basement, where large lockers once stored exploring gear, laundry machines now spin with students’ dirty clothes.
The evolution of my future home did not end there. Six years later, the Explorers Club headquarters was transformed into Hotel Harmony, which made its way into Paul Auster novels as a “crumbling hotel for down-and-out men.” Walk toward Harmony Hall from Broadway today, and you will still see the faded advertisement on the side of the building: “The Hotel Harmony—Where Living Is a Pleasure.” It was not until the late 1960s that the building was bought by Columbia and converted into a dorm.
Thanks to a new preservation advancement, living in Harmony Hall will likely continue to be a pleasure in perpetuity. Harmony joins 114 other buildings that have now become part of the Morningside Heights Historic District, which earned its title in February of this year. Constructed between the late 1890s and the 1920s, the buildings—considered historically valuable—are now protected from demolition or any changes to their exteriors that would threaten the integrity of the architectural style of the neighborhood.
“This neighborhood is changing before our eyes,” Laura Friedman, president of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, says. Friedman, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years, is part of a group of local residents who have devoted over 20 years of activism that has stopped some of those changes and will continue to do so to expand the historic district.
Whenever people like Laura Friedman talk about saving a neighborhood, they point to the “sense of place” in a neighborhood, an official criterion from the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself. This “sense of place” might also be described as the “feel” of the area. Glancing up from your phone while walking to class, you may get an intuitive idea of what the “sense of place” in Morningside Heights is like. But where does this sense come from? What is it we’re preserving, and what does it mean to preserve it? And who is fighting for this preservation?
Walk west down West 115th Street and keep an eye out for a turquoise door on the right. Since 1927, the beige row house with the number 633 has housed the Korean Methodist Church, the first Korean church in New York City. This building and its neighbor at 635, built between 1892 and 1893, were the very first row houses constructed in Morningside Heights. The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, which sat approximately where Columbia’s Morningside campus sits today, had moved away three years prior under pressure from the real estate industry (Buell Hall is the last remaining building from the asylum). Consequently, some speculative investment in row houses began in those years.
It wasn’t until 1904, when the subway came to Morningside Heights, that the flurry of construction began in earnest. Priced out of downtown, middle-class New Yorkers moved uptown to take advantage of a new, denser kind of construction: apartment buildings. As Columbia architecture professor Andrew Dolkart describes in his book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, “The area was rapidly transformed into a middle-class apartment house neighborhood” after the opening of the subway.
These were not the squalid tenements of the Lower East Side. If you live in McBain or Nussbaum, or stop to eat at the new Shake Shack, you can look up at these façades from the late 1900s and early 1910s and appreciate their beautiful Renaissance Revival style. As Dolkart tells me, the neighborhood’s buildings from that period are “of a piece”: constructed shortly after 1904, often with strikingly consistent architectural vocabulary. This coherence produces the enigmatic “sense of place” that preservationists describe.
However palpable this sense may be, getting the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate a historic district can take years of activism and negotiation. In this case, it took over two decades. What kinds of people persist in such an effort?
Almost everybody I spoke to pointed me to the late Carolyn Kent. According to Friedman, Kent spurred the foundation of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee in 1996, of which Friedman was also a co-founder. A fellow preservationist remembers activists’ joint “titanic struggle of good versus evil.”
In the late 1990s, such impassioned activists were often at odds with Columbia University, which owns a large fraction of the buildings in Morningside Heights. At that time, Columbia was trying to advance the controversial construction of what is today Broadway Hall and the School of Social Work. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine also began considering construction on its property in 2004, provoking strong backlash from Kent, Friedman, and others. Friedman says that it felt like these large institutions were “gobbling up large portions for buildings that they felt, with no community consultation, were appropriate for their needs.”
Kent’s strong ideologies made her unwilling to compromise. As Brad Taylor, a long-time Community Board 9 member and activist, recalls, Kent wanted no less than for the entire neighborhood, including its institutions, to be designated a historic district. It was a hard sell, and this demand, along with other factors, caused the proposal to hang in limbo for over a decade. Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant who has advised the Historic District Committee, told me via email that when talks with the Landmarks Preservation Commission were revived in 2009, he counseled a multiphase approach that began with residential buildings.
Where was Columbia in all this, exactly? Turn onto West 115th Street off Amsterdam Avenue, and halfway down the block you will see a fenced-off parking space. Many were outraged when the University tore down three residential brownstones on this site seven years ago, about a year after the movement in favor of the historic designation picked up speed in 2009, claiming they were in a state of disrepair and not protected by landmark status. And in 2016, then-Executive Vice President of Government and Community Affairs Maxine Griffith argued for the exclusion of seven row houses at 604-616 on West 114th Street, claiming they had a “lack of distinguishable architectural features” and were an important location for future student housing. The University’s arguments were evidently not convincing, though, as the row houses are now part of the historic district.
But apart from this short-lived dissent over 114th Street, Columbia seems to have mostly supported the creation of the historic district. New York State Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, who was also one of the founding members of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, says that in the 1990s, Columbia resisted the idea of regulation on its property. But the construction of the Manhattanville campus, he explained, eased the University’s space troubles. This made Columbia more inclined to support preservation in Morningside Heights. “I think it helps the University,” O’Donnell says of the historic neighborhood designation.
Throughout my research, I was unclear about how these preservation efforts would affect affordable housing. After all, the city now has homelessness rates not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In “titanic struggles” for preservation, it is not always clear what the efforts mean for broader trends of inequality.
Indeed, some criticize the Landmarks Preservation Commission for slowing the construction necessary to house people in a growing city like New York. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who supports high-density building, is one of those people. “Restricting new construction in historic districts drives up the price of housing,” he argues. “This, in turn, increasingly makes those districts exclusive enclaves of the well-to-do, educated, and white.”
Similarly, a 2013 report by the Real Estate Board of New York points out that even though a fourth of Manhattan’s buildings are landmarked, only 1.9 percent of new affordable housing created was located on these properties over a 10-year period. The report argues that in neighborhoods with large historic districts, “the issue of affordability and rapid gentrification is further exacerbated.”
I was disconcerted by these claims, but it is important to consider the interests that critics of landmarking may be representing. Dietrich, the preservation consultant, argues as much in a detailed rebuttal to REBNY’s reports of 2013. He points out that REBNY is a “powerful lobbyist” for the real estate industry, and as such the objectivity of its reports “is severely undermined by REBNY’s long-standing agenda to actively oppose both local designation and the retention of affordable housing.”
He demonstrates that while 1.9 percent of the new affordable housing in Manhattan was constructed on landmarked properties, the overall proportion of affordable housing created in New York City was 15 percent. And with the affordable housing stock experiencing a decades-long decline, it is important to also examine the retention, not just the creation, of affordable housing. Finally, Dietrich wrote in an email that developers are always looking to make the greatest possible use of property. This means that “even with the opportunity to create affordable housing, they will seek redevelopment scenarios that maximize profits.”
Perhaps landmark preservation does not have to be pitted against affordable housing. The question looms large in Manhattan, where a huge fraction of property is landmarked, but the average for the five boroughs is in fact only about three percent. Preserving culturally significant structures can help to strengthen the fabric of communities, and it is direly needed in areas like Harlem. Preservation must be contextualized within broader trends of housing that I can’t explore in the scope of this article.
Community members are now preparing to pass the next phase of the Morningside Heights Historic District, which will extend farther northward and eastward. Friedman, who is otherwise a fiery speaker, lets out a sigh when I ask her about the impending fight. She does not know how many years it will take this time. But in the end, long-term residents like her know why they strive to preserve buildings that have housed explorers, people looking for a cheap place to stay, Columbia students, and in the future, maybe an entirely different group of people. Many are planning to grow old in this same neighborhood. As Friedman says, “We know we’re gonna be here.”
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