Preservation Issues

The End of PS31, A Municipal Disgrace

-PS 31

-PS 31

The Landmarks Preservation Commission reluctantly agreed last week that a landmark Bronx school that was damaged, and ultimately abandoned, by the City can be demolished.

At a December 17th hearing, all of the LPC Commissioners expressed regret that it had come to this. Many stated that they could not condone the demolition of this important individual landmark. But in the end, they agreed to issue an advisory report with mixed findings.

The loss of an individual landmark championed by parents, elected officials and preservationists, demonstrates, once again, that LPC lacks enforcement “teeth” over City-owned landmarks. This is a clear case of demolition by neglect.

PS 31, also known as the William Lloyd Garrison School, was built in 1897-99 in the Collegiate Gothic Style by renowned school architect CBJ Snyder. Thanks to its design and elevated site, it is a very prominent landmark known locally as the “Castle on the Concourse.” Until it was emptied of students in the late 1990s, due to a repair campaign gone awry, it was one of the area’s top performing schools.

Like all Snyder schools it is built very solidly but its skeleton of iron and steel is susceptible to damage from water penetration if roofs and parapets are not properly maintained. The initial repairs could have been straight forward. But the School Construction Authority hired a team that was unfamiliar with work on historic properties. Instead of fixing the problem they inadvertently made it worse.

The Conservancy worked with a local residents and elected officials demanding that the school be repaired and reopened. Success seemed at hand when then Schools Chancellor Harold Levy approved a $50 million restoration and expansion of PS 31 in 2000.

That project, which attained all of its approvals, was defunded and never executed. The building has stood vacant since despite several attempts to interest the City, or other entities, in its repair and reuse. At the recent Landmarks hearing, a Department of Buildings engineer said the building was too far gone to bring back. He said an Emergency Declaration was issued on Nov. 8 declaring the building unsafe and an imminent threat.

Representatives of a local community organization, SoBro, presented their own engineer’s inspection report, which determined that the building could be restored. They want to adapt the building to housing and other uses. Despite their willingness to restore the building, demolition could be imminent.

The LPC counsel explained that once the building is demolished, the Commission can then de-designate the landmark site in a separate action. There was no mention of how the prominent site will be redeveloped.