Preservation Issues

Conservancy’s Technical Director in Midst of Fight to Save Historic Brownstones

329 & 331 MacDonough Street. Photo by NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Initial steps were taken today to stabilize two historic Brooklyn brownstones at 329 & 331 MacDonough Street. The Conservancy has worked to prevent the demolition of these circa 1870 houses designed by prolific Brooklyn architect Amzi Hill. They are part of a row in the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, which was designated in 1971. MacDonough Street is one of the most architecturally distinguished streets in the borough.

Today’s work involved pouring concrete into the cellar of number 329 which will stabilize the bearing walls and allow further shoring to occur once the concrete sets.

Improper excavation work in the cellar of 329 lead to a partial collapse of the cellar party wall in the early morning hours of January 21, 2010. The Gas Company was called, and after shutting off the gas, alerted the Department of Buildings (DOB) about the partial collapse in the cellar. DOB inspected the two houses that share the party wall and immediately ordered all occupants of both to vacate. They then ordered an immediate demolition of both houses, citing the danger of “imminent catastrophic collapse.” The owner of 329, an attorney, sought and obtained a temporary restraining order, which bought some time.

The Conservancy enlisted the services of an engineer from Robert Silman Associates. Technical director Alex Herrera accompanied the engineer on a site visit on Saturday morning, January 22. Inspecting the interior of the house, Herrera and engineer Pat Arnett did not notice any discernible settlement or sinking of the floors or walls of 329.

The partial collapse of the cellar wall was a very serious breech of the house’s structure as it opened up a gap in the bearing wall. But somehow the structural loads in the bearing wall found their way around the gap. The Conservancy contacted expert shoring contractor Richard Mugler who visited the site on Tuesday, along with DOB staff and prepared a shoring plan to present the court. The following Wednesday, at Brooklyn Supreme Court, an extension of the restraining order was granted. The judge ordered the engineers to come up with a plan to save the houses.

As of Thursday, January 28, the parties were discussing how to begin the shoring process. The DOB wanted concrete to be poured into the cellar to stabilize the foundations of the house but does not want any workmen in the house when the pour is underway. Those details were being ironed out and it is our hope that concrete will be poured no later than Friday, January 29. Once the concrete is poured and sets up, the actual shoring process can commence. The fact that neither house has moved or shown any evidence of displacement is a positive sign that indicates that they can be saved.

On Friday, concrete trucks pulled up in front of the houses and contractors arranged an elaborate piping system that permitted concrete to be poured into the illegally excavated trenches in the cellar of 329. As of noon today, we received word from the LPC that the pour was completed successfully with no structural movement in the houses. Once the concrete sets (six to twelve hours) the houses will in effect have concrete footings, which will provide solid support for the load bearing party wall.

Now, a shoring plan needs to be submitted and approved by DOB to allow a shoring contractor to enter the houses and stabilize the floors prior to the permanent repair of the collapsed portion of the party wall. Those plans will be submitted early next week prior to the next court appearance scheduled for Tuesday at 2:30 in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

If it had not been for the sympathetic ear of the court, the political pressure of the neighborhood and the assistance of the Conservancy, these fine houses would have been demolished a week ago; four families would have been displaced; and the lovely intact row of landmark brownstones would have been irrevocably diminished.