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The Battle of Carnegie Hill


But the sleep had definitely been rubbed from old Rip's eyes by the mid- to late nineties as well-to-do baby-boomers, flush with their Wall Street winnings and attracted by the neighborhood's private schools and human scale, started to bid up the prices for townhouses. Homes that sold for under $1 million a decade ago now routinely sell in the $3 million-to-$4 million range.

A strong economy also helped the schools, making it easier to persuade wealthy parents to open their wallets, and to upgrade their facilities. And developers, eyeing the neighborhood's cozy restaurants, tony toy shops, and chic children's-clothing boutiques, saw in Carnegie Hill a neighborhood begging for the convenience of condominium living.

"The irony is, the wealth of the first Gilded Age that built the community is being deconstructed by the wealth of the second Gilded Age," claims Van der Valk.

While it's easy to tar the developers as evil, the case against schools such as Spence and the Convent of the Sacred Heart (which also finds itself in the preservationists' crosshairs) is harder to make. They're the reason many families move to the neighborhood in the first place, and they've also proved themselves rather reliable stewards of their property -- not just in flush times but also when the economy goes into a tailspin and former masters of the universe find themselves relocating to the suburbs or the Sun Belt.

In 1999, Spence purchased the landmarked Billy Rose mansion, best known as the Smithers center, a former drug- and alcohol-treatment facility whose celebrity patients included pitcher Dwight Gooden. Spence, whose main building is two blocks away at 22 East 91st Street, planned to extend the roof, build an underground gym, and move its lower school there. One might have thought the community would have welcomed the school's well-scrubbed little girls, but the preservationists balked at the plans.

"We're engaged in a process of working cooperatively with the landmarks commission to arrive at a responsible plan to restore and preserve the landmark while also meeting the academic needs of the school," says Arlene Gibson, Spence's head of school.

"I love the Spence School," says Allen, whose wife took a brief turn student-teaching there in 1997, "but you can't buy a landmark house and go about changing it." In January, Spence was effectively sent back to the drawing board by the landmarks commission and has since scaled back its proposal, lopping off a proposed sixth floor and making other changes.

In another case, Carnegie Hill Neighbors supported a temporary restraining order in State Supreme Court against the city's Board of Standards and Appeals in the hope of overturning the approval the city gave the Convent of the Sacred Heart to enlarge a rear yard addition that connects the Kahn and Burden mansions, at 1 and 7 East 91st Streets, respectively, both of which the school occupies. Preservationists oppose the work on the grounds that it's too high and will reduce the light behind the school.

Perhaps the most intimate battle in which Allen found himself engaged involved the plans of a family named Fisch, who live several doors east of him, to expand their brownstone ten feet into their backyard. The Fisches' neighbors, who include gourmet grocer Eli Zabar, claimed that the construction, which requires burrowing seventeen feet underground, would destroy the peace, tranquillity, and natural beauty of the interconnected gardens that the Allens, Zabars, Fisches, and several other families share.

"We all got together and offered to buy the house at fair market value," explains Allen. "We felt perhaps they just picked the wrong house for what they want."

"He was insulted," says Ross Moskowitz, Michael Fisch's lawyer. "He has lived in Carnegie Hill for twenty-some-odd years. He and his family have been stellar members of the community. They were outraged by the arrogance to assume they would leave the neighborhood."

Carnegie Hill Neighbors' Lo van der Valk found himself stuck between the proverbial rock, or rather common rear façade, and a hard place. "I don't like to side with one group of neighbors over another," he explains cautiously, "but this is a unique space."

On February 27, the landmarks commission awarded the Fisches a partial victory, granting them a two-story-high rear-yard extension rather than the five-story addition they wanted.

But, says a neighborhood activist who considers the internecine warfare on 92nd Street a distraction from Carnegie Hill's serious work, "what worries me is all these neighbors were making a scene in front of Landmarks and squabbling among themselves and queering the pitch for the big carbuncle that's going to go up on the corner." She's referring, of course, to the Citibank "tower."

The beauty of that project, so to speak, is that at least everybody agrees on who the enemy is: the Tamarkin Company, whose proposed seventeen-story building, on one of Madison Avenue's last open spaces, allowing in marvelous morning sunlight, has already been whittled down to eleven stories and counting. The movement to thwart the plan started when Carol McFadden, who sold her townhouse to Woody Allen and moved to the hinterlands of the East Eighties but remains active in the preservation of Carnegie Hill, got wind of the proposed tower while chatting with a neighbor.

"It was just a whisper on a street corner," she recalls. "We hired a lawyer. We put our hands all the way around the block" (a show of solidarity at a protest meeting last February). "We had a wreath that said R.I.P.," to call attention to the "death" of the historic neighborhood, she continued, "and quiet Sunday that it was, the media took an interest in us."

McFadden also scissored her Citibank ATM card for dramatic effect, a move she quietly regrets, since it has forced her to bank at an HSBC ATM at 45 East 89th Street, a huge residential skyscraper built during the seventies that creates a howling wind-tunnel effect, and whose construction Carnegie Hill Neighbors was created to fight.

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