Preservation Issues

After Large Public Response, Parks OK’s a Conditions Survey at Olmsted House

November 2017
Frederick Law Olmsted House and Grounds Update

A Conservancy-sponsored inspection of the Olmsted House on Staten Island found the landmark building in a neglected state, needing immediate attention. But it is structurally sound and capable of being restored and opened to the public.

INSPECTION PHOTOS

Architect Michael Devonshire, along with Conservancy Technical Director Alex Herrera, performed an exterior and interior inspection of the historic stone and frame home of Frederick Law Olmsted on November 20. Devonshire’s report will prioritize what needs to be done and provide cost estimates that will allow the Parks Department to ask for City capital funding for stabilization and future restoration. The house and grounds, though off-limits to the public, have been an official City Park since 2006.

The good news is that there do not appear to be active roof leaks and that no standing water was found in the cellar even though there have been recent strong rainstorms. The bad news is that the house is moldering away along with its contents. It is filled with books, magazines, lumber and other flammable items that pose a threat to the preservation of the house. These items, which belong to the family that sold the house to the city in 2006, need to be removed as soon as possible. Some of the house’s contents, such as a collection of fossils, books, and glass negatives, are of historical interest. For their protection and that of the house, they must be put in storage off site.

The cellar’s dirt floor brings in moisture to the entire house. Floor beams under the parlor and dining rooms show evidence of rot due to the excess moisture. Pressure-treated wooden posts installed about 16 years ago with a Landmarks Conservancy emergency grant, are still in good condition and provide good support to the beams. But the underlying issues of moisture and rot need to be addressed.

There is damage in the kitchen wing and adjacent areas on the second floor from a fire that occurred several years ago. Most of the damage is due to firefighter’s efforts to open up the walls after the fire was extinguished. This was done to check for any hint of fire spread.
The wide plank pine floors and most of the wood trim and doors appear original and in good condition. Plaster walls and ceilings are damaged in areas. Overall, the interiors are in a very neglected state.

A first draft of Devonshire’s report should be ready in December. Officials from the Parks Department were also at the site. The Department had cleared overgrowth away from the building prior to the inspection. But the rest of the grounds, which include plantings by Olmsted, need attention.

The Conservancy will continue to press for this important site to be restored and opened to the public.

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October 2017

Architect Michael Devonshire of Jan Hird Pokorny Associates has been selected to prepare a report on The Olmsted House on Staten Island. Mr. Devonshire will inspect the property both on the exterior and the interior and will prepare a detailed conditions report that will identify areas of deterioration or concern and formulate a list of priority repairs to address these conditions. The report will also include cost estimates for each work item. The Parks Department can then use the report to apply for the capital funds needed to get the work done. As of this writing, the Conservancy and the Parks Department are seeking to schedule the inspection date.

PHOTOS OF THE HOUSE

After acquiring the house and grounds in 2006, the Parks Department announced that it intended to use the house and the surrounding land for educational purposes. But the Conservancy found that the landmark house and grounds are severely neglected. After the Conservancy sounded the alarm and the Parks Commissioner was inundated with mail, the Parks Department agreed to let the Conservancy fund an updated survey.

The house has an interesting history that stretches back three hundred years. Parts of the first story date to the 1690’s. The stone half of the house was completed by 1730. The wooden upper stories were added circa 1830. In 1847, the property was purchased by the young Frederick Law Olmsted and it was there, on a former wheat farm, that he first experimented with his ideas about landscape design and the use of exotic plantings. The grounds still feature several trees that were planted by Olmsted.

The Conservancy and the Parks Department want to make sure that the house is properly sealed and maintained while it awaits its future restoration. The Conservancy intends to work with the Department to ensure that this City Park is re-opened to the public.
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You Made a Difference!

Our great thanks to all of you who emailed the City Parks Commissioner expressing your concern for the deteriorated state of the Olmsted House and grounds in Staten Island. You made a difference.

After receiving a volume of emails, the Department has accepted the Conservancy’s offer to pay for a conditions survey of the house. The survey will give the Department specifics, and allow them to request City capital funding for restoration. The grounds, where trees planted by Olmsted still stand, are severely overgrown despite being an official City park: The Olmsted-Beil House Park. This is where Frederick Law Olmsted put finishing touches on his plan for Central Park. The “father of American landscape architecture” worked with Calvert Vaux on Central and Prospect Parks, as well as preliminary plans for Morningside and Riverside Parks. The conditions survey will be a first step in what will likely be a lengthy process of bringing back the house and grounds. We will keep you informed and ask for your help again with securing City capital funding.
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UPDATE: August 30, 2017

Progress is continuing on our efforts to save the landmarked Olmsted House and grounds on Staten Island. We are pleased to report that the Parks Department has selected an architect for an existing conditions report that the Conservancy will fund. Additionally, the office of State Senator Andrew Lanza has informed us that it has secured State Capital Funds to purchase the adjacent house and site, which was part of the original Olmsted farm. This was confirmed by the Parks Department who stated that the purchase is on track. The adjacent property will help provide better access to the site and will help in its interpretation.

Our campaign has received national attention thanks to the National Cultural Landscape Foundation and National Association for Olmsted Parks. The National Cultural Landscape Foundation has sent alerts to 30,000 members nationwide that have resulted in many messages to the Parks Department. The Foundation has now listed the site, known as Tosomock Farms, as a “Landslide” which is the term they use for endangered landscapes. That listing is meant to draw attention to the site and to encourage community based stewardship decisions (The Cultural Landscape Foundation website).

The National Association for Olmsted Parks also supports our efforts, (read the letter).

Frederick Law Olmsted is the father of American landscape architecture and was the designer of Central Park, Prospect Park and dozens of other public and private landscapes throughout the country. Tosomock Farm was his early laboratory where he experimented with various landscape designs and where he first planted a variety of exotic trees and plants. The House and Grounds have been a City park since 2006. As we reported earlier, the historic house is currently in need of restoration and the grounds are severely overgrown.

Thanks again to the many of you who responded to our alerts and contacted the Parks Department to help save this significant cultural and architectural landmark. We will keep you posted as the story unfolds.

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July 31, 2017

The former Staten Island home of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, is in a severely neglected state despite being an individual City landmark and City park. Visitors intrepid enough to visit the overgrown location are met with an unwelcoming sign: “Historical Site: No Trespassing.” It deserves to be saved.

After buying the house and grounds, the Parks Department announced that it intended to use the house for educational purposes and the surrounding land as a public park. At that time, the Conservancy gave a $20,000 grant and technical oversight to help stabilize the farmhouse. In a letter to Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver last week, we offered to pay for an updated structures report.

Lynda Ricciardone, Borough Commissioner for Staten Island, responded to the letter. She did not mention our offer of a grant. Instead, she said capital funding is needed and that the Parks Department is seeking to purchase an adjacent property to improve access. She also noted that a “friends group” would be helpful. The Parks Department enumerated these same steps in 2006. Aside from stabilizing the house after a fire, the Department has not moved forward. Nothing has happened except for the continuing deterioration of the house and grounds.

The Conservancy is sounding the alarm on this endangered landmark. Click here to contact the Parks Department to voice your support for saving this important piece of American landscape architectural history.

CONTACT THE PARKS DEPARTMENT

Olmsted-Beil House Park in Eltingville is part of “Tomosock Farm,” where Olmsted put the finishing touches on the plan that won the competition for the design of Central Park. Olmsted designed Central and Prospect Parks with Calvert Vaux, as well as preliminary plans for Morningside and Riverside Parks.

Olmsted’s father purchased the original 125 acres of farmland for his son in December 1847. Olmsted cultivated fruit trees and planted other magnificent species of trees, many of which remain on the property today. The first story of the farm house dates to the 1690s, with later additions completed in the 1730s. The upper wood frame stories were added by 1830. On a recent visit, Conservancy staff noted that the building is sealed but its porch has fallen off.

After Olmsted sold the property in 1866, the house had several owners, including the naturalist Carlton Beil, who purchased the property in 1961. The house survives thanks in large part to the Beil family who transferred ownership of the house to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 2006.

More photos here.