Two sides faced off before the village board of appeals Feb. 4 to decide the fate of an application to demolish a 3,391-square-foot house at 11 Dolma Road.
The L-shaped brick French farmhouse on Dolma Road was designed by architect Julius Gregory, a leading architect of suburban homes in the metropolitan New York area throughout the 1920s and built by Walter Collet, a leading Scarsdale builder who was known for founding the Collet Construction Corp.
The Committee for Historic Preservation (CHP) voted 5-2 to deny the applicant’s petition to demolish in September. CHP reviews demolition applications and determines whether properties meet the qualifications for preservation, rather than demolition, as set out in the village code. In October, the committee released an eight-page memorandum to support its decision based on the village code.
In order to demolish a house, an applicant must prove the building is not associated with events that made a significant contribution to broad patterns of village, regional, state or national history; that the building is not associated with the life of a person or persons of historical significance; that the building is not the work of a master; that the building doesn’t embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction that possess high artistic value; or that the building has not yielded or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory or history.
The CHP asserted that Gregory was a “master” architect, based on his renown architectural work, publications, accolades and proliferation in the architectural history of Scarsdale. The committee also noted that the house satisfied the requirement of embodying the distinctive characteristic of a type, period or method of construction that possesses high artistic value.
In late October, Lawrence Graham, Kristen Motel and Andrew Shriever, attorneys with Cuddy and Feder who represent the applicants petitioning to demolish the house, challenged the CHP decision, calling the committee’s findings on the historical significance of the house “speculative at best” and saying Gregory being a master was “not supported by substantial evidence.”
During the virtual meeting on Feb. 4, Shriever argued that there was “nothing particularly unique” about 11 Dolma Road and that most of what the CHP cited in support of its position applied to many houses in the area. There was nothing in the record, he said, that showed the house was a location for any historical event or that that a historically important person had lived there.
On whether Gregory was a master, Shriever said there had to be evidence that the house was a piece of mastery by the master architect and that Gregory wasn’t known for designing the type of large house, as seen at 11 Dolma Road.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was a master … but if Frank Lloyd Wright designs an outhouse, is that outhouse the work of a master?” he said. “Why does your code say work of a master as opposed to just designed by a master? It’s the work. Work of a master; another way of saying that is a masterpiece.”
Shriever said the distinction between a master and the work they create being considered a masterpiece was important because otherwise every single house designed by a so-called master architect couldn’t come down, which he called “a very serious deprivation of property rights.”
Jim Staudt, a lawyer representing the CHP, referenced the committee’s decision, which said that Gregory didn’t “simply copy historic architecture, but adapted traditional designs to contemporary life and materials available.”
He also defended CHP’s point that just because a great architect may have been known for one style rather than another doesn’t disqualify that architect from being a master.
“The CHP decision clearly articulates how the committee applied the statutory criteria and why it made a decision for preservation based on the Scarsdale law,” he said. “The committee conducted a fair, thorough process and issued a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision supported by evidence in the record.”
Both sides also used expert opinions to bolster their arguments.
Dr. Emily Cooperman, a senior architectural historian with PS&S, a New Jersey-based architecture and engineering firm, had previously argued for the applicant’s right to demolish the house, because multiple alterations had been made to it, which compromised its design. She also argued that although Gregory was recognized and prolific, he was not considered a master architect and the house didn’t possess details necessary to elevate its artistic value.
Cooperman said that a flag that Gregory wasn’t considered a master was that he had been declined a fellowship at the American Institute of Architects. Gregory also didn’t publish any monographs and none of his projects were listed on the national register.
Cooperman also said there was an important distinction between specialization and recognition, as Gregory was well known as a specialist in residential projects, but that specialization wasn’t the same as mastery.
“That threshold just of recognition was by and large … for smaller houses throughout his whole career and particularly houses that he himself described as cottages,” she said.
Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation who created a survey report in 2012 on the village’s architectural history, argued in favor of the CHP’s decision to preserve the house. Dolkart said 11 Dolma Road was a “superb example” of houses that represent the village’s suburbanization history. He also said the house met the standard for high artistic value.
“This doesn’t mean that every house built in Scarsdale would meet this criteria, but it’s the base criteria on which you then build to see [if this] is an excellent example of a house that represents this broad pattern of development,” he said.
Dolkart declared Gregory a master architect, and was not only defined as a master of small houses. He said Gregory was well respected throughout the 1920s, received many individual commissions, and was an adviser to multiple house design journals.
“The quality of Gregory’s work is evident in houses of varied scales, including modest sized cottages and large mansions, such as 11 Dolma,” he said. “It is simply incorrect to pigeonhole him as a designer only significant for his small houses. Gregory was a versatile architect, not only in the scale of the buildings he designed, but in the styles chosen for them.”
Dolkart also said that although the house had alterations, the building still had “integrity” with “relatively minor” alterations to the front of the house. Though there was a “more serious” addition on the back of the house, Dolkart said that preservation doesn’t freeze a house and said he had written national register nominations for many such properties.
“Preservationists today applaud the understanding of how buildings have grown and changed over time,” he said. “The issue is, have these changes been done in a sensitive manner?”
The board of trustees must render a decision on the appeal by March 1. Mayor Marc Samwick told the Inquirer that he expects a resolution to be on the Feb. 23 meeting agenda.