Friday, Mar 31st

Committee Denies Application to Raze Milstein Family Home at 76 Birchall Drive

76BirchallDriveLawyers for the Milstein family made a third attempt to gain approval to raze a family home at 76 Birchall Drive at a meeting of the Committee for Historic Preservation on September 20, 2022.

Based on convincing evidence that the house was the work of master architect Simon B. Zelnik, the committee reluctantly turned down the application to demolish it. Though the vote was three in favor of the demolition and two against it the code requires four votes in favor and that night, two of the committee members were not present.

The proceedings were further complicated by a last minute change from a virtual meeting to a hybrid meeting that was not noted on the Village website. Consequently the committee was present at Village Hall, along with the applicants. But neighbors, who had formed a group to save the house, were not advised that the meeting would be held in person.

The original mid-century modern house was built in 1950 and sits on three acres with a circular driveway lined with Japanese maples. The home was designed by architect Simon B. Zelnik who also designed two other homes in Scarsdale, which have both been destroyed, along with the Joyce Theater, the Riverdale Temple and the Chemical Bank Building in NY.

One of the criteria for the preservation of a home is a finding that it is the work of a master, so much of the discussion centered on Zelnik’s credentials. At the prior meeting, Chair Adam Lindenbaum asked the neighbors to bring evidence that Zelnik could indeed be defined as a master, which they did with the help of Bryan Zelnik, an architect and grandson of Simon B. Zelnik.

Exhibits presented to the committee shows that Simon B. Zelnik was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architect in 1967, when he was awarded a certificate, a medal and a ceremonial dinner plate. This honor is awarded to only 3% of AIA members. His submission included the homes he built in Scarsdale.

Representatives for the Milstein’s retained architectural historian Emily Cooperman from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to present evidence that the home did not warrant preservation.

She sought to prove that Zelnik was not a master, as he lacked “greatness,” and to show that renovations to the house and the roofline altered Zelnik’s design. After outlining changes and additions she argued, “It is not the form that Simon Zelnik built.”

The Milstein’s case was bolstered by Andrew Dolkart, the Village’s expert who reviewed the home and found, “76 Birchall is a rare example of a mid-century Modern house in Scarsdale and it has some very handsome features, notably the massing and stonework of the front elevation. I think that an argument could be made for the house and the grounds for rarity, but, in general it does not appear to meet the criteria for preservation. Simon Zelnik was not a master architect. The house was commissioned by a significant individual, but he does not seem to have lived in the house for very long. The house has had some significant alterations that compromise the integrity of the design, notably at the rear.”

Another expert brought in by the Milstein’s was Barry Silberstang who reviewed the alterations made to the house, primarily to the rear, to demonstrate that the house was no longer what it was. Discussing the changes, he said, “To a layman it may not matter. To an architect it is huge. It is mediocre.”

He disparaged Zelnik and his credentials, saying “I went to Cooper Union and I never heard of him. It is not a significant house any longer. …Get old enough you will receive honorariums.” He conceded that he was not an AIA fellow.

Neighbor David Greenberger of 65 Birchall was a late arrival to the meeting. He said, “I was moved that Zelnik was profiled in the Architectural Forum. I think Bryan Zelnik gave a persuasive argument …..The residents of Birchall Drive and Mr. Zelnik have given you much evidence. His submission to the AIA was based on the houses he built in Scarsdale.”

Gayle Hellman of 62 Birchall Drive said, “You asked team Birchall to come through with the evidence – and we did. About the additions, from what I see in Scarsdale, changes are allowed to homes that are considered historic. According to the way Emily Cooperman defined a master previously, Zelnik is a master. He is a fellow of the AIA and did enter competitions in NYC.”

Later at the meeting, Hellman pointed out an inconsistency in Cooperman’s testimony. Hellman noted that Cooperman had previously said architect Julius Gregory was not a master because he was not a fellow of the AIA and did not have articles in professional publication, but argued now that Zelnik was not a master though he held those credentials.

Calling in on Zoom, Bryan Zelnik countered, “I find it upsetting how you disparaged by grandfather. IM Pei and Philip Johnson were both fellow in the same class of the AIA. When he designed the first Baracini house my grandfather was the grandfather of modern architecture in Scarsdale. The only modern architecture magazine featured his home. I presented overwhelming evidence of my grandfather’s contribution to architecture in Scarsdale and architectural history.”

Committee members spoke.

Chair Adam Lindenbaum read a statement from Committee member and architect Mark Behr who was not present at the meeting. He said, “We did not have all the pertinent information at the first meeting. Now I consider Zelnik a master in his field …. Due to his inclusion as a fellow in the AIA, two of the six works submitted were residences in Scarsdale – those two are both gone at this point…. 76 Birchall is the last remaining residence which makes it more unique and historic. Though it took three times to get admitted (to the AIA), that does not decrease the accomplishment… The additions and renovations did not diminish the design and characteristics of the original design. For the reasons stated above I cannot support the application.”

Jonathan Lerner said, “I work in real estate, I look at houses every day. I went up the driveway today. It blends into the landscape. It is not a cookie cutter home. It is unique. It is a beautiful home. When you go to see a piece of art and it moves you.”

Talaiya Safdar said, We have evidence for criteria 3 or 4. (Zelnik was a master or “That the building embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction that possess high artistic value;”

Kevin Reed thought there was enough evidence to deny the application and let the Board of Trustees decide, if the applicants appealed.

Wendy Goldstein was concerned about the renovations to the house. She said, “Assuming he is a master, how substantive are the changes and do they make it not a Zelnik house?”

Lerner responded, “Look at the house – it’s the same house as it was in 1950. You can’t see the changes in the roof.”

Lindenbaum said, “We have to speak clearly and we have to make a recommendation. I need to be convinced that the changes did not affect the historical significance of the house.”

Kevin Reed then changed his mind, saying, “We’re here to preserve homes, but only if they meet certain criteria – I am going to support the application. Due to the renovations.”

Taliaiya Safdar defended preservation, saying “What home is worth preserving if not this?”

Ultimately, Chair Adam Lindenbaum, Kevin Reed and Wendy Goldstein cast their three votes to approve the demolition of the house. Talaiya Safdar and Jonathan Lerner voted to deny the application. The vote stood 3-2. Lindenbaum reviewed the code and found that four votes were needed to approve an application. Short one vote, the application was denied.

Lindenbaum told the applicants they had the right to appeal to the Board of Trustees and to plead hardship.

The decision could be appealed on hardship, but the question arises: Is it a hardship when one of the wealthiest families in the country is denied the right to demolish a home and sell the property to a developer who will subdivide the property and build two homes where there are now one? Rather than sell it to a developer, could they find a family who might live in the home and treasure it, even if the sale price is a bit lower?

And about the resolve of the CHP: The committee had ample evidence to defend Zelnik as a master architect and to defend a rare mid-century modern home in Scarsdale. However, it was clear that the leadership of the committee was reluctant to turn them down and spur a potential lawsuit from the applicants who opened the meeting by threatening an Article 78.

Ever since the entire Committee for Historic Preservation (CHP) resigned in protest in 2017 when the Village board overturned their decision on 12 Dolma Road, the replacement committee seems wary about following the code to preserve homes, especially when the owners have deep pockets.

If any homes are to be saved, the code needs to be strengthened, the Village Board needs to exercise some resolve or new personnel are needed on the CHP.

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