Alexandra Parsons Wolfe is director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), a non-profit organization dedicated to understanding, preserving, and celebrating Long Island’s cultural heritage. She shared her perspective on the importance of history for Long Island’s downtowns, as well as emerging trends in the field of historic preservation, in spring 2014.
Which are your favorite historic Main Streets on Long Island?
Alex Wolfe: I don’t have a favorite Main Street. One of the defining characteristics of historic downtowns is that they’re each different. Each brings something distinctive to the visitor’s experience. Each captures different threads of Long Island’s history. For example, Great Neck Plaza is very different from Sag Harbor, but they both have a palpable historic presence and people enjoy them for different reasons. One has a history of railroad development; the other is an old whaling center.
How have our historic downtowns managed to save their older buildings from the wrecking ball?
Wolfe: In many places, the historic fabric survived because it wasn’t perceived as worthwhile for investment during the age of malls and residential subdivisions following World War II. The 1970s was the time of a nascent preservation movement in New York City that spread to Long Island. This was also the time of New York State’s historic inventory surveys, so some of the towns were able to introduce landmark ordinances and zoning overlays to protect historic resources in their downtowns. The Village and Town of Southampton, as well as other East End villages, were among the first to have Landmark and Historic District Boards. In Roslyn, early preservation efforts were driven largely by the charisma of one couple, Roger and Peggy Gerry. More recently, we’ve realized that historic resources contribute to vitality in our downtowns. That happened to Cold Spring Harbor, which had been a sleepy little village, and then people realized that history is marketable. Perhaps the growing appeal of historic downtowns is a reaction to the sprawl of no place—we’re saturated on Jericho Turnpike sprawl. People turn to historic villages because these places give us something different. They have a walkable pattern, which was created of necessity originally, but today these communities have better human connection.
A century or two ago, Long Island’s downtowns provided so many important day-to-day functions close at hand, and many residents lived above stores. Do you think we’ll see a resurgence of this kind of development?
Wolfe: We should! We should be thinking about going back to our downtowns, and we should be aware of the fact that density doesn’t have to mean big blocks of high-rise buildings. But we also need to understand context and realize that not all places on Long Island are right for 6-story buildings. We’ll want to be intelligent in the way that we plan for infill development. Long Island should consider future downtown development in terms of the planned community idiom—that’s our heritage.
What are some of the best examples of adaptive reuse in our region?
Wolfe: SPLIA recently recognized the Topping Rose House, a hotel and restaurant in Bridgehampton, with an award for preservation excellence. The Greek Revival building was originally a house, then became the Bull’s Head Inn, then devolved into a big antiques warehouse, and then sat vacant for many years, moldering away. Bill Campbell is the visionary developer who thought the house and barn could be adaptively reused, and built a whole business plan around the historic buildings. It’s an exciting project that incorporates restoration as well as new design integrated into the historic context. It’s successful because the whole site plan was well thought-out by the architects, Roger Ferris + Partners, working closely with the Town of Southampton.
Do you think the Glenwood Landing Power Plant could have been creatively reused?
Wolfe: Word on the street is that demolition has begun. Local residents who were advocating for reuse of the power plant saw this old industrial building on prime waterfront property as a potential economic engine. They were seeking an inventive reuse. This could have been a really exciting way of reusing our industrial heritage. In Europe there’s the Route of Industrial Heritage [which has turned the multinational history of industry into an engine for tourism and economic development]. In Germany, they’ve turned old industrial sites into sports complexes!
What about the Meadow Brook Bank building in downtown Freeport—Long Island’s own Flatiron Building?
Wolfe: The Meadow Brook Bank building could be a ripe opportunity for rehabilitation tax credits. The building could be reused for housing, and could also be commercial. The railroad is right there, it’s close to Manhattan, and it’s an opportunity for young people. It’s a neighborhood that could really use an infusion of investment. Let’s look at the real New York City Flatiron and see what they did with that! It’s at the center of a new food and design neighborhood, with the Flatiron Building as the focal point.
Do we need to inject more whimsy into how we use our historic buildings? I love the example SPLIA shared on your Facebook page of a historic British estate with a giant slide descending from the building’s terrace.
Wolfe: There’s always room for whimsy! We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. For preservationists, there’s a stigma of being old and inflexible, but that’s not the case. Preservation is a fluid field; it’s really about integrating the past into the present. The value in preservation is that we leave the original, primary source material—the real authentic thing—for the next generation to engage with on their own terms. It’s not about me telling you what it is; it’s not a didactic “this is what you need to know about this place.” It’s about keeping historic resources around so that someone else can understand and interpret them, forming their own impressions and having their own experiences. The whole notion of whimsy is emerging in how we interpret historic buildings and sites. Think of the High Line, which takes former railroad tracks elevated above ground in New York City and turns the space into a playground, a promenade. There are sliding chaise lounges on tracks—inspired by the original train tracks. Sylvester Manor, [Shelter Island’s 1652 homestead, which today functions as an organic farm, historic plantation, and arts and education center] is a very smart adaptive reuse project, so tied to its history that its present uses are almost a continuation of the past. Today there are young farmers living there, upstairs in the house, rooming with the ghosts! It’s so dense with its own history that you arrive and you’re dumbstruck. The entirety of the experience completely knocks you out—the house, landscape, farming, songs, drawings. And it’s not interpreted for you.
Are preservationists in our region seeking to tell a more complete history—expanding the conception of Long Island history beyond Gold Coast mansions and places where George Washington slept?
Wolfe: It’s remarkable how extensive the threads of history are here on Long Island: we have examples ranging from early colonial settlement to mid-20th-century modernism. On Long Island, we have representations of everything that has happened in American history! The Quakers on Long Island have an incredible association with the Underground Railroad: the Quakers in Jericho were among the first to take a stand against slavery. The Town of Riverhead has a Polish Town—settlements of Polish immigrants who worked on local farms. Families extended into different houses, from 1920s bungalows to 1950s tract houses. Long Island’s African-American heritage is emerging in many places. The Pyrrhus Concer House has stimulated a big conversation in the Town of Southampton. Concer was a slave who became a whaler and traveled to Japan; recently, the homeowners threatened to tear down his house, and there was a subsequent upheaval. The John Coltrane Home in Dix Hills is just an ordinary house, but a lot happened there [while living in the home, Coltrane composed “A Love Supreme”]. The Coltrane Home raises questions about historic resources and how we define them. Are they valuable because of their association with important figures? Based on their design and architectural merit? Or both?
How do these ideas tie in with SPLIA’s new initiatives?
Wolfe: SPLIA is working to engage a larger audience across the region. We’re planning new initiatives to find out more about how people identify with historic landscapes and their environments. Similar to Place Matters, we’ll be exploring how people understand, relate to, and use historic buildings. There are preservationists’ criteria for significance, but what do regular people think? For example, think of Long Island’s roadside architecture—should we ignore or celebrate it?
Interview has been condensed and edited.