Chelsea’s Oldest Home Becomes Battleground

| 07 Jun 2016 | 10:43

Several dozen Chelsea residents rallied on Saturday to protest a preliminary approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission permitting drastic alterations to Chelsea’s oldest dwelling.

The four-bedroom home, at 404 West 20th St., was built in 1830 and is considered a district treasure because of its Federal style and became a model for nearby Cushman Row, according to the 1970 historic district designation report and a letter to the LPC from Community Board 4. It is also well-known by many Chelsea residents because its previous owners, the Doyles, hosted meetings for various advocacy groups in the community.

After its sale last year, for a reported $6.5 million, its new owner, British banker Ajoy Veer Kapoor, submitted plans to alter the house. According to an April letter from Community Board 4 to the chair of the LPC, carrying out the plan would “demolish the entire house except for its brick street façade.” The exact plans are somewhat vague and neither a representative for Kapoor nor the LPC clarified whether the plans would involve a wrecking ball or simply stabilization and renovation efforts.

In a letter to commission Chairman Meenakshi Srinivasan, Councilman Corey Johnson, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Gail Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, urged the commission to reject the application.

“The proposed alterations to this building and elimination of the alleyway are an insult and contrary to the purpose of historic districts and to the Chelsea Historic District. The owner knew when he bought this landmarked house that it was in the Historic District and one would presume that was much of the charm, besides the house itself,” they wrote last month. “The proposed alterations ... would spoil one of the most historically significant and architecturally distinguished areas in Chelsea and set a bad precedent.”

Some community members also argue that the proposed changes violate LPC code and go against the commission’s mission to preserve landmarked buildings.

Several elected officials and other community leaders came to voice their support on Saturday. Brewer told the crowd, “You need to follow the law to the n-th degree! ... It’s a no brainer. He [Kapoor] gets to do what the law of that particular building is, and that’s it!”

Gottfried also spoke, saying, “The reason this person paid so much for it [the house] is that this community gives it so much value,” he said. “It is profoundly wrong to benefit from the value of the community by trashing that value that your neighbors created. In this case it is also illegal.”

A public relations person representing Kapoor, Michele de Milly, and a friend of the owner, Shawn Felker, said it was incorrect to say that Kapoor’s plans for the house were borne of greed or that he was willfully tearing at the neighborhood’s history for his own benefit.

“They [the owner and his family] have an interest in doing exactly what has been done up and down this block,” de Milly said.

Besides, Felker said, the home’s interior was in shoddy shape.

“The inside is structurally deficient. Everything historic about this house is gone,” he said. “Just because it’s 186 years old doesn’t mean you keep it in perpetuity.”

A tour of the interior of the house showed wooden bracing mandated by the Department of Buildings following an inspection just after Kapoor purchased the home. Staircases are straining and pulling out of the wall and the curved floors indicate the building is tilting. Ceilings, too, are separating from the rest of the structure.

Felker and de Milly declined to provide contact information for the owner.

The planned alterations are also supported by the owners of the two adjacent buildings, Marion Buhagiar, of 402 West 20th St., and Jose Antonio and Debra Guerrero, of 406 West 20th St., who sent letters to the chair of the LPC endorsing the proposed changes.

“For decades my maintenance workers and myself have observed the steady deterioration of the structure of 404 West 20th Street,” Buhagiar wrote. “We very enthusiastically support the plans ... to undertake the major, expensive work needed to stabilize, enlarge and restore this building to be safely occupied by the family.”

Antonio and Guerrero wrote that “[Kapoor] is making a great effort to save a house that is in desperate need of repair.”

Final plans for what the LPC will permit continue to be worked out between Kapoor and the commission.

De Milly said she thought it likely that “much” of the building would “come down.” She said some material would be reused in any reconstruction.