In a city of progress, history sometimes has to fight to stay relevant. That goes double for the incredible historic buildings that make New York New York, many of which aren’t still standing out of sheer luck. A good number of them owe their continued existence to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, also known as the LPC, which designates historic landmarks and upholds the laws of preservation. Consider that the commission was formed in 1965 after the lamentable destruction of the original Penn Station, a beaux-arts masterpiece.
Since then the LPC has been responsible for designating individual landmarks and landmarked neighborhoods in all five boroughs, usually with the help of the communities themselves pushing for preservation. Buildings must be at least 30 years old and deemed historically invaluable to the city to become a landmark. A lengthy procedure including research, community outreach and public hearings precede any designation. There are now 109 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions.
But not all landmarked neighborhoods are equal. We’ve scoured the city for 15 of the most exciting New York City landmarked neighborhoods — some designated many years ago and others considered recent landmark achievements. These districts aren’t all brownstone blocks and stuffy co-op buildings; also protected from the wrecking ball are suburban, free-standing homes in Brooklyn, an abandoned small pox hospital in Staten Island and the historic cast iron warehouses of SoHo.
Landmarked in 1965
The Brooklyn Heights Historic District, designated in 1965, was the first-ever neighborhood landmarked in New York City. Throughout the 50s, the residents of Brooklyn Heights rallied against mega-developer Robert Moses after he proposed a plan to run the Brooklyn Queens Expressway through the neighborhood, which would necessitate demolishing the area’s historic brownstones. After nine years of legal and legislative wrangling, the newly formed LPC designated the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. It includes more than 600 structures built before the 1860s including blocks of brownstones, Queen Anne- and Federal-style homes, and churches. The district also includes the yellow beauty at 70 Willow Street where Truman Capote lived while writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This neighborhood is arguably the most historic and bucolic in all of Brooklyn.
Landmarked in 2011
The predominantly African-American neighborhood, located in southeast Queens, has been home to such big names as Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. When Addisleigh Park was developed between 1910 and 1930, however, it was as a whites-only community and restrictive covenants prohibited home sales to blacks. After two lawsuits and a Supreme Court case, blacks were able to buy houses in the neighborhood and the area flourished as a creative hub. Besides the architecture, the LPC also designated this neighborhood because, according to the designation report, it “illuminates African-Americans’ struggle for and achievement of the basic civil right of home ownership.” The district includes 426 buildings, including many Tudor, Colonial and Mediterranean Revival free-standing homes. The homes, with steeply pitched gables, wooden porches, and spacious, landscaped lawns, make the neighborhood feel more like a suburban enclave than New York City.
Greenwich Village Historic District
Landmarked in 1969 and 2010
Jane Jacobs, the mother of the NYC preservation movement, helped encourage the 1969 designation, which is the largest in all of New York and includes more than 50 northern and western blocks in the area up to 14th Street. She notably fought against Robert Moses after he proposed to run a Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park. The historic designation legally prevented any similar development plan. Given its breadth, the chances are high that no matter where you walk in Greenwich Village, you will be looking at landmarked buildings. The district includes residential, social, cultural, religious, educational and charitable structures connected to the late-19th and early-20th century immigrant life, as well as the counter-culture movement of the mid-20th century (see the White Horse Tavern).
SoHo Cast Iron Historic District
Landmarked in 1973 and 2010
This district marks the survival of the largest concentration of full and partial cast-iron façades anywhere in the world and encompasses buildings that were crucial to the commercial development of New York. The earliest buildings in the neighborhood went up in the early 1800s when it was still residential; today more than 30 Federal-period buildings remain. In the second half of the 19th century, commercial warehouses replaced most of the residential structures and they’re what now dominate the area. Most of the warehouses that incorporate full fronts of cast iron went up in the 1870s. An extension in 2010 included more warehouses on the “fringes” of the neighborhood, east of Crosby Street and west of West Broadway.
East Village/Lower East Side
Landmarked in 2012
The 2012 East Village/Lower East Side designation marked a recent landmark achievement after a two-year effort to protect the neighborhood. The district includes row houses and tenements in the Greek Revival style, as well as buildings constructed for the German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are also several cultural institutions included in the district like the theaters on East 4th Street between Second Avenue and Bowery, such as La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and the New York Theater Workshop. You might consider contemplating the neighborhood’s rich history at McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest Irish tavern in New York City, which is also included in the district.
Upper West Side-Central Park West Historic District
Landmarked in 1973
This district, designated in 1973, roughly bounds the blocks along Central Park West from West 62nd Street to 96th Street and includes the Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue commercial strips, the famous and grand Dakota Building (built between 1880 and 1884) in which Yoko Ono and Roberta Flack live, and the American Museum of Natural History (constructed between 1874 and 1877). In all, it includes more than 2,000 buildings, mostly the stately dwellings that line the side streets off of Central Park. These residential side-street builds went up primarily from 1910 to 1929 and include a mixture of late 19th and early 20th century architectural styles. The most dominant style is Neo-Renaissance, with Art Deco, Second Empire and Beaux-Arts architecture also prevalent.
Grand Concourse Historic District
Landmarked in 2011
Who knew the Bronx had a four-mile stretch modeled after the Champs-Elysee? That’s exactly what Louis Aloys Risse had in mind when he designed the Grand Concourse, the major thoroughfare of the Bronx. Constructed in 1894 and open for traffic in 1909, it consisted of different roadways separated by tree-lined dividers. The Grand Concourse Historic District, designated in 2011, includes 78 buildings along a one-mile stretch of the thoroughfare — from 153rd Street to 167th Street. One half of the district features a variety of apartment buildings, including Tudor-revivalist and Colonial styles, dating from the 1920s. The other half of the district includes the buildings the Grand Concourse is really known for, an incomparable concentration of Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings of the 30s and 40s. It’s the finest collection of Art Deco buildings in the entire city.
Park Slope District
Landmarked in 1973 and 2012
The Park Slope Historic District, designated in 1973 and expanded in 2012, is Brooklyn’s largest historic district. It also could be considered Brooklyn’s most archetypal historic district, with its blocks upon blocks of brownstones and peaceful, tree-lined streets. The district includes more than 2,000 buildings, mostly residential, built between 1862 and 1920, and the homes represent a variety of popular architectural styles of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, with many in the Neo-Grec style. For a quick tour, check out the most impressive buildings on the residential side streets off of Prospect Park West, from President Street to Third Street. The first designation covered many of the buildings in Park Slope North and the extension included 40 blocks in the southeast corner of the neighborhood. Park Slope residents are currently working to landmark more of the Center Slope, in the area between Union and Ninth streets around Fifth and Seventh avenues.
Landmarked in 1996
Until recently, most New Yorkers knew little to nothing about Governors Island, a 172-acre island in Upper New York Bay. The island has served as a fortification during the Revolutionary War, a United States Army post, a United States Coast Guard installation and, since 2003, a city park reached only by boat. Thanks to that history, the island is home to a surprisingly large number of historical monuments, including fortifications from the Revolutionary War, former barracks and administrative and residential buildings dating from the earliest days of the country. The area was recognized as a National Historic Landmark back in 1985 and the LPC designated 90 of the island’s 175 acres in 1996. After the Coast Guard transferred a large portion of the island to the city in 2003, it became open to the public. Now free ferries leave from Brooklyn and Manhattan throughout the summer, making the island a popular destination and a quick escape from the city. When cruising the area (best traveled by bike, which you can rent on the island), do not miss the early 19th century Georgian-style Governor’s House, the 19th-century block house and the commanding general’s quarters, and two of the city’s first forts, Fort Jay and Castle Williams.
Metropolitan Museum Historic District
Landmarked in 1977
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the most iconic buildings in all of New York City, and the city designated it an individual landmark in 1967. Soon after, in 1977, the city designated the surrounding neighborhood along Fifth Avenue from 78th Street to 86th Street. This district includes rows of Italianate brownstones built in the late 1860s, Beaux-Arts and neo-Renaissance style mansion erected in the 1890s and mid-20th century apartment buildings. The cosmopolitan, elegant mansions along Fifth Avenue best evoke the atmosphere of the Upper East Side, while on 79th Street you’ll find what the Friends of the Upper East Side calls “inarguably the finest collection of turn-of-the-century town houses in New York.” The district also showcases work by the great New York architectural firms Carrere & Hastings, the architects of the main branch of the New York Public Library, and Warren & Wetmore, architects of Grand Central Terminal.
FIVE SPECIAL DISTRICTS
District with Suburban Lawns: Ditmas Park
Landmarked in 1981
Hop on the Q train to Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, and you will enter a suburban enclave unlike any other neighborhood in New York. The Ditmas Park Historic District, designated in 1981, is home to a collection of Colonial Revival, bungalow and Queen Anne-style single-family homes. The colorful, architecturally distinct houses have lawns, porches, driveways, backyards and garages. (Yes, these things exist in New York City!) Facades generally feature suburban-friendly materials of clapboards, shingles or a combination of both. When developers were planning and building the neighborhood between 1902 and 1914, the construction was governed by certain restrictions — the buildings had to be one-family residencies, they had to maintain a distinctly suburban quality, and there was a set of landscaping standards. This character is still apparent in the charming, very un-New York City neighborhood today.
Most Private District: Pomander Walk
Landmarked in 1982
Pomander Walk is one historic districts that only a lucky few can enjoy. That’s because Pomander Walk, designated in 1982, is a gated “village” tucked away on the Upper West Side. Developer Thomas J. Healy began building the Tudor-esque complex in 1921 as a cooperative apartment complex, and the architectural firm of King and Campbell was instructed to design a neighborhood that mimicked the scenery used in the Broadway performance of Lewis Parker’s Pomander Walk. The result is a whimsical, distinctive neighborhood that is now surrounded by much taller apartment complexes. Although each of the 27 buildings originally had one apartment on each floor, some recent owners have reconfigured the structures as single-family homes.
Most Haunted District: New York City Farm Colony – Seaview Hospital
Landmarked in 1985
An abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium in the middle of Staten Island? No, it’s not the setting to Hollywood’s latest horror film, it’s a New York City historic district. The Seaview Hospital complex is located on the site of the former Richmond County Poor Farm. Built on Staten Island in 1902, the farm colony revolved around the idea of sheltering and feeding the poor in exchange for labor. The hospital complex went up in the surrounding area between 1913 and 1938. It was once the nation’s largest and most costly tuberculosis treatment facility. The historic district, designated in 1985, includes buildings from both the farm colony and the hospital complex. Existing buildings from the colony include gambrel-roofed fieldstone buildings. Thirty-seven of the hospital buildings still stand, including a dining hall, an isolation hospital, children’s hospital, staff houses and administrative buildings. The buildings, which were designed to maximize fresh air and sunlight for patients, were designed in the Spanish Mission, Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival styles.
Fastest Growing District: Stuyvesant Heights Historic District
Landmarked in 1971, expanded in 2013
The residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant have pushed for greater landmarking throughout the neighborhood since the LPC designated the first collection of buildings in 1971. Bed-Stuy features homes by some of Brooklyn’s most famous architects, including Montrose Morris, Magnus Dahlander and Amzi Hill. They designed elegant 19th-century brownstones, wood-frame houses and Gothic-style faux chateaus. In April of 2013 the LPC voted to triple the size of the district, including 800 more buildings. Residents continue to push for more preservation in the neighborhood. The LPC is currently considering landmarking the Bedford Historic District, which would add approximately 13 more blocks.
District with Riverside Mansions: Riverdale Historic District
Landmarked in 1990
What is now known as the Riverdale Historic District, in the northwest portion of the Bronx, was originally a 100-acre parcel primed for suburban development by a wealthy businessman. Back in 1852, the land was divided into seven different estates. Five of the original estate homes still stand today, and were included in a historic district in 1990. The sprawling, elegant houses that make up this upper-class enclave feature dramatic terraces sloping up from the Hudson River. Properties include villas built in the 1850s, stable and carriage houses and more suburban homes of the later 20th century. The historic mansions, impressive from the street, look just as impressive from the river — the homes and the terraces create picturesque sights up and down the hill.