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Beth Israel Hosp. planning Dvorak House demolition.


Beth Israel Hosp. planning Dvorak House demolition

Following last week's New York City Council ruling overturning the landmarks designation of the Dvorak House on East 17th Street, Beth Israel Medical Center officials say demolition should begin within a month or two, making way for construction of a six-story AIDS Hospice in its place.

The decision by the City Council, which voted 21-14 in favor of overturning the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation of the Antonin Dvorak House at 327 East 17th Street, marks the first time that the Council has used its oversight power granted under the new City Charter. In the past, such designations were modified or overturned by the Board of Estimate.

Samuel "Sandy" Lindenbaum, counsel to Rosenman & Colin and attorney for Beth Israel, said the decision shows that the City Council will weigh all issues before determining if a building warrants landmark designation. He encouraged owners whose property faces landmark status to "vigorously argue" before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and, if necessary, before the City Council.

The decision ends a long and impassioned effort by many community and cultural leaders who sought to preserve the building as-is, in honor of Czechoslovakian composer Antonin Dvorak, who lived in the house from 1892 to 1895. Dvorak wrote the "New World Symphony," while living there.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted in February to designate the four story row house a landmark because of its cultural and historical significance. The building itself is not in the original condition from when Dvorak lived in it.

Beth Israel however, claimed that preserving the house would cost an additional $1 million on top of the $5 million it planned to spend, and put its plan to create a 29-bed AIDS hospice in jeopardy. Dr. Robert Newman, president of Beth Israel, testified at a City Council Subcommittee on Landmarks recently that failure to overturn the landmark designation may force them to lose a $1 million grant from the Robert Maplethorpe Foundation and delay housing for AIDS patients for years.

Beth Israel contended that the house has been altered dramatically since Dvorak moved out and that it holds no historical significance from an architectural point of view.

Council members who voted to overturn the designation, agreed that building an AIDS hospice was more important that preserving the building.

Demolition Plan Will Proceed

Peter Kelly, vice president of Operations for Beth Israel, said he hoped to secure the necessary permits within the next month or so, assemble the financing for the estimated $5 million construction costs and then proceed with construction. He could not give a more accurate timetable for construction, pending further building permit approvals.

The hospital said it needed to rebuild the structure to make it handicapped accessible, able to handle the number of AIDS patients they sought to accommodate, and to make provisions for an elevator. The Landmarks Commission had requested that Beth Israel work with the present space, but the hospital said it was not possible.

Kelly applauded the Council for making a difficult decision, but he claimed the AIDS crisis needed to take precedent.

"I am resistant to calling this a victory because it was more a decision to provide what is needed during this desperate AIDS crisis," Kelly said. "This was a difficult, yet wise decision on the part of the Council. We wanted to present a better understanding of what the issue was. This is not an indication of Beth Israel's insensitivity of the history and culture of Dvorak. We recognize this and we will honor our commitment to find ways of recognizing his contributions."

Kelly said a bronze plaque on the front of the building presented by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1941, will be preserved and incorporated onto the front of the new structure.

Assemblyman Steven Sanders applauded the council for overturning the landmark designation, saying, "Certainly I understand the point of view of those persons who wish to preserve the past. However, in this case the needs of the living should have, and do outweigh the desire to hold on to a small piece of antiquity. Beth Israel is paying the greatest tribute to the memory of Antonin Dvorak by giving people the gift of life and dignity in the very place that Mr. Dvorak gave the gift of music."

Critics Lament Landmark Loss

Jack Taylor, a leading preservationist in the Gramercy, Stuyvesant Park neighborhood, called the Beth Israel Hospice plan a "red herring" and an attempt to create a real estate assemblage for a future mega development.

Taylor said the rejection of landmark status for the Dvorak House is "a blow to the cultural prestige of New York."

"This property could play a real part in the cultural heritage of this city, but we are abolishing this landmark for reasons that are not valid, and because the council has been misled."

Councilwoman Miriam Friedlander who voted against overturning landmark status, said she was very disappointed with the council vote.

"I felt we were dealing with more than the Dvorak landmark, but with our ability to save historical things that are so important to us," Friedlander said. "I hope this does not encourage others to come forward with financial and economic difficulties as reasons for destroying landmarks. While I commend Beth Israel on the AIDS hospice, I think we could have done both."
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Author:Maisel, Todd
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jul 3, 1991
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