Marathoners, police chases, bats. . . and the Croton Aqueduct

I can’t believe it’s been exactly a year since I uploaded this audio! Last spring, my second semester preservation studio developed an interpretive plan for the Croton Waterworks, a complex system of historic infrastructure that winds from rural towns north of New York City down into the heart of Manhattan. Our team of twelve researched and documented hundreds of structures, studied existing legal protections and threats, and worked with the many stakeholders along the aqueduct’s path to design signage and collaborate on a comprehensive plan for conveying the often-ignored system’s history and significance to varied audiences.

The Croton Waterworks’ century-and-a-half and forty-one miles have left a trail of not only structures but also stories. Of the many pleasures I experienced in working on the project, my favorite was the privilege to hear and record longtime Westchester residents as they reminisced and discussed their personal views of the aqueduct’s significance. Remnants of the system’s conclusion in Manhattan are quiet: fragments of the Murray Hill Reservoir lie generally unvisited in the New York Public Library, and it is easy to walk past a Croton gatehouse and, without knowing its significance, perceive it as simply one more handsome structure fading into the crowded city’s built landscape. For residents of Westchester County, where the system originates, the aqueduct has a louder presence. We knew that our interpretation would be incomplete without consulting residents, so I took the train up to Westchester to conduct mini-oral histories in Croton and Ossining, two towns where the Waterworks are integrated into everyday life.

One of my gracious subjects was Captain Scott Craven of the Ossining Police Force, who shared his memories of growing up alongside the aqueduct and explained how the police make use of the Croton structures in unexpected ways. My afternoon ended with a tour of the police station, a chat with the Chief of Police and other officers about their own memories of the Aqueduct, and even an escort back to the train station (which I’m pleased to say has been my only experience in a police car). I left Westchester assured that preservation is not only about buildings; it is also very much about people.

I’ll post more Croton oral history clips in the coming weeks; for now, enjoy the tales of Captain Scott!

Learn more about the Aqueduct and our project, and check out the finished product.

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

Reopening the Close: St. John the Divine unveils latest development proposal

See a version of this article, with images, as it recently appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper.

In the 120 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has gained repute for its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture but also its perpetual state of incompletion. Now, development of the cathedral grounds, called the “close,” is continuing the Cathedral’s association with construction. A deal with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003, which led the City Council to overturn the Cathedral’s landmark designation, allowed St. John’s to lease sites on the north and southeast perimeters of the close to developers. A twenty-story residential building on the Southeast Site, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive, opened in 2008 amid criticism of its size and aesthetic. Plans are progressing to break ground in 2013 on the North Site, along 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, for a controversial second residential tower.

At a recent public forum, the Cathedral unveiled initial massing studies to over 60 community members. Cathedral Dean James Kowalski explained that, despite fundraising and efforts to contain administrative costs, the Cathedral operates at a 10% deficit. With ongoing financial obligations, including repairs to the church building, Kowalski asserted that development was necessary to “preserve the economic future of the Cathedral.”

George Kruse, Vice President of Development for Equity Residential, addressed community concerns about including subsidized housing, involving local businesses and consultants, and facilitating local residents’ access to labor union membership. In particular, he noted that of the 400 units in the planned building, 20% will be reserved for affordable housing. Gary Handel of Handel Architects, LLP, most recently known for the World Trade Center Memorial, presented the firm’s massing studies; further details of the building’s design remain in progress.

Several attendees praised efforts to minimize the building’s bulk and to use the site, which currently houses stonecutting sheds from the 1980s, to integrate the close with the surrounding community. Still, many residents of Morningside Heights expressed such concerns as the building’s potential to increase neighborhood crowding, the environmental impact on traffic, noise, and light, and the visual effects on both the exterior and interior of the church. One attendee informed the Cathedral that the North Site had formerly borne the scattered ashes of AIDS patients from St. Luke’s Hospital across the street. Community members also questioned the Cathedral’s claims of financial hardship, given the wealth of the larger Episcopalian diocese.

Michael Henry Adams spoke on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins, who opposes the construction proposal, and expressed his own conviction that the Cathedral property merits more respect as a world-class landmark. “If we were in Paris, at Notre Dame, would someone propose this?” he said. “The answer, of course, is no… This is not a sustainable proposition, for the Cathedral to keep taking the very thing that makes it so unique and extraordinary and diminishing it.”

After the meeting, Kowalski affirmed that the development plans stem not only from financial hardship but also from a weighing of costs and benefits. “I understand how special this property is, and how people believe that it should be like a park, but you’re talking about almost twelve acres of land, and you’re talking about two perimeter parcels. I actually think this is good stewardship,” he said. “I think you could make a very strong argument that if you didn’t need the money, you should still generate the revenue to fund other missions.”

Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant and adviser to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, was not convinced that the plans respected the Cathedral’s historical legacy and architectural significance. Echoing the requests of a number of attendees, he said, “One of the things I think is really important is that they continue to have meetings with the community. This certainly doesn’t satisfy anybody, just to see massing studies.”

Kowalski could not confirm whether the Cathedral intends to hold additional community forums, as he expects a short timeframe for the design process. “We’re really excited because the rental market is stronger than we thought it was,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see people living in the new building for probably a couple of years. But could it be started in six months or a year? I would hope so.”