Row Houses and Their Alterations Over the Years

by Fred A. Bernstein

Professor Andrew Dolkart [Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University]
Professor Andrew Dolkart
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University

In 1975, Andrew Dolkart, a graduate student in the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, found himself mystified by a decision by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission had designated a cluster of houses on East 61st and 62nd streets, between Second and Third avenues, as a historic district, but the row house designs, which dated to the 1860s and 1870s, had been significantly altered over the years.

Now, after decades of researching the history of the buildings for his new book, The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908–1929, Dolkart has come to see the alterations themselves as an integral part of the city’s architectural history—the era when the single, staid row house style was replaced by a multitude of inventive designs, reflecting influences from around the world. According to Dolkart, now director of the Historic Preservation Program and the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation, the alterations, though unmentioned in the landmarks designation, “are what give special character to the area.”

Dolkart’s interest in the city’s architecture developed over time, first through his interest in art history and American painting and then from reading stories by Ada Louise Huxtable, a former architecture critic for The New York Times. “She really inspired me to look at the city where I grew up,” he said.

The more he read, the more he wanted to know. “It was something that really began to consume me,” he added.

Dolkart’s books, including the award-winning Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development and Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street, have become required reading in preservation circles, and his Manhattan walking tours draw enthusiastic crowds.

The Row House Reborn tells the story of early-20th-century renovations in neighborhoods around the city. It focuses on architects, such as Josephine Wright Chapman, who helped newly affluent (and newly adventurous) New Yorkers transform their dowdy brownstones into attention-getting houses. Chapman redid one such building—at 224 E. 61st St.—by stripping the original stoop and doorway and creating a new ground-floor entrance. It was “dominated by a large, wooden medieval-inspired door adorned with an ‘old-fashioned bronze knocker,’ ” Dolkart writes, and “capped by a ‘quaint lantern.’ ” Chapman added window boxes to bring more color and texture to the façade.

Row houses featured in "The Row House Reborn"
Row houses featured in The Row House
Reborn. Clockwise from top: Aymar
Embury Jr. and Ruth Dean House, 230
E. 62nd St.; Isabella Greenway House,
130-132 E. 92nd St.; Richard and Sally Beckwith House, 224 E. 61st St.

But in the 1990s, when new owners wanted to return the house to its “original” state, the city approved the renovation. “Nobody asked, ‘Do we have something important here? Did somebody significant do this alteration?’” Dolkart says. The contributions from Chapman, one of the first women to practice architecture in New York, were overlooked.

That’s just one example among hundreds. Invariably, when owners want to restore houses to their original 19th-century condition, officials are quick to approve the changes. After all, those original façades were considered “historically accurate,” while subsequent renovations were dismissed as unimportant. But Dolkart’s book—which has been widely praised by preservationists and critics alike—could change that. Known in the preservation community for his academic rigor, Dolkart says he also worked to make his book “completely accessible,” because his goal is to have real-world impact.

Seri Worden, executive director of the preservation group Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, said one of her organization’s missions is to educate homeowners about the period covered in The Row House Reborn. “If someone wants to put a stoop back on one of the buildings, we try to let them know that they may have something of importance, and you couldn’t make the case better than with this book,” says Worden, who calls it an important resource for both homeowners and preservation professionals.

Indeed, if Dolkart has his way, future landmark districts would go beyond “saving” individual buildings and also reflect the constant evolution of neighborhoods and streets over time. “People have said [the book] opened their eyes to something they had never noticed before,” Dolkart says. “I hope that happens.”

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