by Elaine Marranzano –
Just a few weeks ago, Scott Graves and his family of five downsized from a big, five-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn to a historic house in Pocantico Hills that’s half the size. Homes in the hamlet rarely come on the market, so in becoming the owner of the house, Graves pulled off a bit of a coup.
“I told the owner I was just a regular guy. I would have to get a mortgage and couldn’t engage in a bidding war,” said Graves. What sealed the deal, he said, was the family’s appreciation of history.
The previous owner, Jeanne Kostich, literally wrote the book on the history of Pocantico Hills. Kostich’s daughter told Graves they were the kind of family her mother would want living in the house.
“We are going to love and respect the history of this house and learn to live with less,” he said.
His experience stands in stark contrast to that of Irina and Ross Zeltser, new owners of the house next door to Graves at 43 Willard Ave. The twin houses share a driveway and a garage space. The Zeltsers won a bidding war, eventually paying $770,000, nearly $70,000 above asking, for the house. Now they want to demolish it and build a new one, much to the horror of their neighbors.
“They said they loved the whole feel and character of the area, so the thought that they would tear down the house was a shock,” said Deborah Wilens, president of the Pocantico Hills Residents Association.
Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. around 1930 to house workers on the Kykuit estate, the Graves and Zeltser properties are two of six designed by celebrated architect and urban planner Grosvenor Atterbury. Atterbury designed Stone Barns, parts of Kykuit and numerous other Rockefeller projects. The six houses were recently determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It is not going to happen fast enough to save this house,” lamented Wilens. “What we’re hoping is that they’ll find it in their hearts to reconsider — perhaps by putting an addition on it instead of demolishing the whole thing.”
The Zeltsers say there was no mention of the home’s “historic” status in the listing.
“The sellers, who, we understand had multiple offers, including offers from their neighbors, neither mentioned their intentions to preserve the house nor took care to write them into the house deed. Had this information been disclosed, our decision process to buy this house might have been different,” wrote Irina Zeltser in an email.
The Zeltsers bought the property from the estate of Arthur K. McCormack Sr., who died at the home in 2016 at age 92. He and his wife, Regina, who died in 2013, raised five children there.
The neighbors have started a campaign called Preserve Pocantico and Save #43 to try to prevent the demolition of the house, but little stands in the way. Even listing on the National Register is not enough.
“That and $1.50 will buy you a cup of coffee,” said historic preservationist Mark Fry. “What is needed are preservation laws at a local level.”
The hamlet of Pocantico Hills is a part of the Town of Mount Pleasant, which has no historic preservation laws. The town does have a protected enclave of Frank Lloyd Wright houses called Usonia whose homeowner’s association tightly controls what happens to those houses. No such association exists for the six houses in Pocantico, yet these “irreplaceable pieces of Rockefeller history” have survived intact with minor alterations. They surround a common village green, and by all accounts, the neighbors have shared a sense of community and respect for their particular circumstances.
“The six of us in these very special homes are united in a special way, and we are so lucky,” said Graves.
But when the location is more desirable than the house, well-funded buyers often decide the house is coming down. Welcome to the era of the “tear-down.” One real estate agent said number 43 was so dated that “even the dust was dated.” The Zelters say they bought their house “as is with numerous environmental and structural issues.”
Meanwhile, Graves is pleased as punch with the condition of his home.
“These houses were built like bunkers,” he said. “We can’t even get a nail in the wall to hang a picture because they were made of brick which stays cool even on the hottest day. I walked into this house and said, ‘This is historical brilliance.’”
Number 43 still has its original slate and copper roof and solid beechwood and brass interior, according to the “Preserve Pocantico” Facebook page.
The Zeltsers are “planning a Dutch Colonial house that would recapture the aesthetic of the existing house,” but building plans have not been filed with the town nor has a building permit been issued. At the time this article was filed, the Mount Pleasant Building Department said it only needed a “shut-off” letter from Con Edison before issuing a demolition permit.
But the residents are still hoping for an intervention.
“Look, I haven’t met them, but if they want to live here, they must be amazing people,” said Graves. “Maybe they haven’t been here enough to understand the significance. When you start drinking the water around here and breathing this air, you start to feel the power of it.”