With Friends like these, the neighborhood’s history is protected
By Ashley Welch
When walking around the Upper East Side, one may notice a variety of buildings with distinct architectural features. Rows of brownstones, opulent mansions, brick townhouses and apartments are just a sampling of what the neighborhood has to offer. Many of these buildings are part of historic districts, areas that have been designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission because they have a special historical character that creates a “sense of place.” Some buildings are also individual landmarks.
It is the belief of many in the neighborhood and around the city that buildings like these should be preserved.
Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, a not-for-profit membership organization dedicated to preserving the architectural legacy of the Upper East Side, works to do just that. This year, the group is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
FRIENDS works to protect the six historic districts and 126 individual landmarked buildings on the Upper East Side and is a prominent voice in discussions over preservation policies in New York City.
“Studying these buildings is such a tangible way to understand history firsthand,” said Tara Kelly, executive director of FRIENDS. “You can actually see the interplay of time passing through buildings in these small neighborhoods.”
When the organization formed in 1982, it was relatively small, according to Anne Millard, one of the founding members and the current president, with about 40 members.
“As with many things in New York City, it began as a small neighborhood group and just continues to grow and grow,” she said.
Over the years, the organization has accomplished much of what it has set out to do, including testifying at the designation of every new Upper East Side landmark in the last 30 years. Back when it was founded, FRIENDS created a monitoring program with over 120 volunteers to watch over the protected buildings in the Carnegie Hill, Metropolitan Museum and Upper East Side Historic Districts. They also created a photographic inventory of every property in the Upper East Side Historic District, amounting to over 2,000 slides.
In addition, the group established a successful education program for both children and adults, produced preservation manuals, maps and guides and received countless awards, including the Doris C. Freedman Award from Mayor David Dinkins in 1991. Other efforts have included an online web exhibit, a roster of free community education events, a walking tour and the listing of the district in the National Register in 2006.
Perhaps its biggest achievement came in 2010, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission officially extended the Upper East Side Historic District to include 74 buildings along Lexington Avenue and the adjacent side streets between East 63rd and East 75th streets.
This was the culmination of 10 years of work, which had begun with members walking around the neighborhood and surveying the buildings to see where the district could be expanded. After extensive research on all of the buildings had been done, members of FRIENDS began discussions with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and hosted countless public meetings to garner support. On March 23, 2010, the extension was granted.
“It was one of our biggest initiatives and we consider it one of FRIENDS’ greatest successes,” Kelly said.
The group’s next large project is to explore the history of the immigrant experience on the Upper East Side. Members recently launched a historic resource survey of Yorkville, covering the area between 59th and 96th streets from Lexington Avenue to the East River. Though much less opulent than the mansions and apartment buildings in other sections of the Upper East Side, Kelly said the remnants of German, Czech, Hungarian and Irish immigrant families in the form of tenement, factory, school and church buildings are just as worthy of preservation.
“Our goal is to find what is left of the distinct architectural features in the neighborhood and use it to tell the stories and heritage of the immigrants in Yorkville,” she said.
For Franny Eberhart, chairperson of the preservation committee at Friends, this project is especially important because it brings light to the architectural history of the neighborhood that may otherwise be overlooked.
“It tells the rest of the story,” she said. “These buildings are different than the lavish mansions and homes of the rich. It tells the story of the other folks who lived on the Upper East Side.”
Today, FRIENDS consists of 400 paid members and a mailing list of over 3,000 people. Many of the members live on the Upper East Side, though not all.
“We have supporters all over the city,” Kelly said. “Some used to live here and moved. Others have never lived here but feel an affinity for the area and have a great interest in preserving it.”
Kelly noted that just because the group’s main goal is protecting the buildings that are already there, it does not mean that it is against the construction of new buildings.
“A common belief is that we are anti-development, and that’s not true at all,” Kelly said. “There are plenty of spaces for new buildings. What we do is look at if something significant happened in that area and decide if it should be preserved. We look back, but we also look ahead to see what people in the future may think will be worth preserving.”
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