Sunset’s former Dr. Maurice T. Lewis House landmarked

It’s here to stay!

A hearing determining the fate of Sunset Park’s only mansion, the former Dr. Maurice T. Lewis House, was held by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on Tuesday, March 6 and much to the delight of Sunset Park residents, the building at 405 55th Street was landmarked even as it faced demolition to make way for a 21,000-square-foot, seven-story, 24-unit apartment building.

According to the LPC, the three-story Lewis House, built in 1907 for the president of the nearby Bay Ridge Savings Bank on Fifth Avenue, is one of the neighborhood’s largest single-family homes.

“The Lewis House is a valuable part of the history and character of this neighborhood as attested by the Sunset Park community, who showed overwhelming support for its designation during the public hearing,” said LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan.

Dozens of Sunset Park residents, elected officials, representatives of the Historic District Council (HDC), business leaders and others were in attendance as the commission members voted.

“It was fabulous,” Lynn Tondrick of the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee (SPLC) said. “We had about 30 people from the community come. Some of them were retired, but a lot of them took off from work to come and talk about why the building was important to them and the community. It was truly heartwarming and astounding.”

Tondrick added that the statements made by attendees were personal, sincere and respectful.

“Everyone had a different take on it and their own story to tell,” she said. “It was a microcosm of Sunset Park and what is important to us as a community. It was really great. It brought tears to my eyes. There was a teacher who talked about what it would mean to the kids and how these buildings tell a story. When we show that we value our community, we demonstrate respect for our environment around us and that teaches kids to have respect for themselves and their environment. That’s how we model that.”

Another speaker who was an architect talked about the sense of calm and quiet that the building brings to him, she went on. “He lives on 55th Street and living with a lot of chaos, there is an elegance and calmness that comes to him from having that building from the block which was really nice,” she said.

Other people, she said, spoke of their first encounter with the building after emigrating.

“People talked about coming from other countries to Sunset Park and how much it meant for them to have these buildings be a part of their lives, especially this building that serves as an anchor for that area,” she explained. “It’s right on Fourth Avenue. Everyone knows it by name. It’s not just about how it looks but how it makes you feel connected to the neighborhood and give you a sense of place.”

Executive Director of HDC Simeon Bankoff said he was delighted by the decision.

“We’re positively thrilled by the swift action of the Landmarks Commission,” he told this paper. “This is a very decisive statement by the agency about  the importance of preservation in this neighborhood – which is doubly welcome considering the immense development pressure which Sunset Park is under. From the landmark former police precinct building on 43rd Street which is about to partially demolished for a school to the Lutheran Zion Church on 63rd Street which is going to demolished for housing, the historic buildings of Sunset Park are unprotected and under siege. That the Landmarks Commission took this strong stance and saved this important building from certain destruction is to be applauded. Now we hope the agency acts swiftly on the rest of the proposed historic district.”

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca spoke at the hearing.

Calling the structure, “a jewel worthy of preservation,” Menchaca said, “What we accomplished today is a testament of the power of community organizing. Our neighborhood will continue to fight against insensitive redevelopment. I invite all developers to join us in our mission to preserving our historic buildings.”

Assemblymember Felix Ortiz also supported designation, noting, “This Renaissance-Revival-style building housed my Assembly district office for many years and should be preserved. It’s one of Sunset Park’s best structures.”

Other Sunset Parkers also celebrated the decision.

“I’m thrilled with the success of the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee in spearheading the effort to save this important part of our local history,” said Tony Giordano, founder of Sunset Park. “Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call to the city to move on the pending application for a Historic District in Sunset. That achievement will be a turning point for Sunset Park.”

“I was floored by the great stories and sentiments shared today,” said Joanna Slater. “(I’m) a proud Sunset Parker right now.”

The reaction was joyous for all that attended, said Tondrick.

“We all erupted in a cheer. We were clapping with unrestrained joy,” Tondrick said. “We didn’t know what to expect other than going in, telling our story and making our case. That’s all we could do, but it was a wonderful thing. It’s nice to have some things go your way.”

She also hopes this is just the beginning.

“The other thing we spoke about was the need to create a historic district in Sunset Park which is clearly needed in the neighborhood,” she said.

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