by Elaine Marranzano –
Without warning and over the objections of neighbors, bulldozers finally arrived on August 22 to crush the historic little house at 43 Willard Ave. in Pocantico Hills.
“I share a driveway and a garage with this house! No one from the town or the owners cared to get in touch with me,” wrote Scott Graves on Facebook. “Maybe I’d want to close my windows; maybe I’d want to park my car somewhere else.”
The demolition neighbors tried for months to prevent was over in a day. New owners, Irina and Ross Zeltser, exercised their right to demolish what some called “an irreplaceable part of Rockefeller history.” Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. around 1930 to house workers on the Kykuit estate, the house at 43 Willard was one of six designed by celebrated architect and urban planner Grosvenor Atterbury. Atterbury designed Stone Barns, parts of Kykuit and numerous other Rockefeller projects.
On the “Preserve Pocantico” Facebook page, people called the demolition “sad,” “shocking” and “an atrocity.” Marianne Hagan wrote, “The new owners will get their new house, but it will surely be a Phyrric victory.”
The six houses were recently determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but that would not have prevented the home’s demolition. A shocking number of buildings on the National Register get torn down. It is just a list of historic places worthy of preservation and nothing more.
According to the National Park Service, a historic preservation easement is a particularly useful and flexible tool which might have saved the house. It is a legal agreement that enables a property owner to establish certain preservation restrictions while retaining possession and use of the property. Once recorded, the easement restrictions become part of the property’s chain of title and “run with the land” in perpetuity, thus binding not only the owner who grants the easement but all future owners as well.
But it is local landmark laws which offer, by far, the most legal protection for historic properties, according to the Park Service, because most land use decisions are made at the 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.
“This issue has raised awareness of the need to try to develop a plan to preserve Pocantico’s historic properties, but it’s a long process,” said Deborah Wilens, president of the Pocantico Hills Residents Association.
According to the Mount Pleasant’s town supervisor’s office, the Zeltsers have filed building plans for a new house, which they describe as a Dutch Colonial, but a building permit has not yet been issued.