By Helen Klein
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Less than a year after the building was designated a landmark, the Angel Guardian Home’s guardian angel is nowhere to be seen.
Talmud Torah Imrei Emes bought the campus’s main building, 6301 12th Ave., in December, 2020, from developer Scott Barone, who purchased the entire lot in 2018 for $37.5 million from the Sisters of Mercy, in conjunction with the Basics Group. The yeshiva is currently retrofitting the structure as a school, and local activists say many of the unique details that led to the structure’s landmarking appear to have been damaged or destroyed.
Among the details that activists lament are several crosses that seem to have been hacked off or concealed, as well as missing copper gutters, broken stained glass windows and missing brick. They also say windows have been left open, even prior to the storms that battered the city last month, and there are no permits posted.
“I was horrified,” local preservationist Kelly Carroll said. “The building was built in 1899. It became a landmark in 2020, and it’s in worse condition since becoming a landmark. That all has to do with who owns the building. You see how well the building was cared for when Sisters of Mercy owned it.” In the last year, she added, the home has “seen its saddest days since it was built.”
On a brief visit, Carroll identified perhaps a dozen issues. “That’s what I saw in 20 minutes,” she stressed. “Imagine if I spent an hour. They did get permits to do some stuff. A ton of stuff they did without getting permits.”
“They’re pretty much proceeding with construction as if it’s not a landmark,” added local activist Frank Grassi. “In less than a year, they have completely destroyed what’s there.”
Carroll singled out the crude way in which the crucifixes appeared to have been removed from the building, which is the first designated landmark in Dyker Heights. “What’s happened here can only be described as vandalism,” she contended. “This vandalism is categorically destruction; architectural features have been removed or obscured and not in a nice way. Clearly, they don’t care.”
Carroll — who alerted the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to what she saw – said that when formerly religious buildings in New York City change use, “There is a respectful and dignified process to remove religious iconography. The destruction precludes any chance of the stonework being stored off site or being put in a museum in the future.
“What’s the point of having a landmark designation if that kind of behavior can occur?” Carroll added.
Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10, concurred. “There is a procedure in making alterations when a building is landmarked,” she said. “We are disappointed that the property owners made some very significant changes to the façade without following the process.”
Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association and a member of the Guardians of the Guardian, a grassroots group that sprung up to protect the campus when news emerged that it was for sale, also expressed frustration.
“The community is really upset,” she said. “It seems like there’s no regard at all for the fact that it’s landmarked. We fought hard to get it landmarked. We want to make sure the LPC monitors it. At this point, we are appealing to LPC to have some oversight here and make sure the building is cared for the way any landmarked building should be cared for.”
While acknowledging that the process to change a landmarked structure is time-consuming, Carroll added, “They have to follow the rules just like everybody else. They’re not being a good neighbor from a community perspective, and it doesn’t bode well for community’s faith in what landmark status is supposed to mean.”
A statement submitted on behalf of the yeshiva contended that much of the damage was either accidental or outside its control.
It said that because “the buildings were not occupied for some time, they were deteriorating quickly.” Contending that “neighborhood youths used to make their way into the building, throw stones at the windows and just destroy this priceless iconography and/or details,” the statement asserted, “We were very concerned about that, but apparently, we had to go through the lengthy process of planning, designing and approval in order to start any work.
“We’re not looking for shortcuts,” it continued. “We want to do it right, but that requires some patience. We are committed to preserving the exterior to the fullest extent possible in tandem with certain code requirements and accessibility regulations, as well as the necessary school functions.”
According to the statement, the cross that previously rose over the main entrance “was not hacked or removed by anyone.” The yeshiva, it said, had been “warned by some professionals that seemingly, over time, the cross has been completely disconnected from its base and was supported by its weight only. Not long after that, probably due to severe winter rains and winds, what we feared actually happened. The other crosses have been carefully maintained but were covered temporarily due to religious concerns. We will be working closely with the commission on how to handle this symbolic iconography appropriately.”
As for the other issues raised by the preservationists, they resulted from the “property being passed over from hand to hand without properly tending to its maintenance during that period of time,” according to the statement, which also noted the yeshiva community was “surprised” that windows had been left open and that the storm had occurred over the weekend when the site was unattended, and also said that permits were posted by the main entrance.
“We are committed to restore this beautiful building to its prior glory, as soon as we are permitted to do so,” the statement concluded, adding, “We are open to discussion and dialogue with neighborhood activists.”
LPC “is looking into [the] complaints, has been in contact with the owner’s representatives, and will take enforcement action if we determine that any work that is under our jurisdiction has taken place without permits,” according to an agency spokesperson.
The Angel Guardian home was designed by prominent ecclesiastical architect George Streeton in the Renaissance Revival/Beaux Arts style. Over the years, the building was used as an orphanage and a home for unwed mothers. In addition, the convent building on 63rd Street was utilized as a senior center.
The entire property comprises the square block bounded by 12th and 13th avenues and 63rd and 64th streets. Property on the 13th Avenue side was sold to the city for a new school, while the Basics Group redeveloped the unbuilt portion of the site for housing. Barone initially kept the main building to develop as assisted living, but that project fell through.