By Bill Primavera – By the time the capacity crowd had gathered Sunday morning for “Coffee with Kevin” at Teatown Lake Reservation,” the battle plans had been drawn and everyone present knew exactly where they stood concerning whether The Croft, the 1914 historic structure on the 67-parcel of the nature preserve, should be salvaged or destroyed.
Kevin Carter, Executive Director of Teatown, and the crowd, more than 50 strong in two concentric circles, were mostly board members,neighboring property owners, and a few community activists, both preservationists and environmentalists.
The Board of Teatown had already made its decision that The Croft, built in 1914 from assortment of architectural elements assembled from the 17th to 19th centuries from Europe, was to be sold for $125,000 to be dismantled and re-purposed for other structures or stage sets. The reason for the meeting with the community was for Teatown to explain its decision after the fact in response to an outpouring of criticism lobbed online from environmental lobbyists and particularly from preservationists.
Most vocal among the latter was J-F de Laperouse, who was the first to alert the Yorktown community in an email blast sent January 21, 2015, with the subject line, Landmark Emergency, advising a broad recipient list of elected officials, preservationists, environmentalists and the media of Teatown’s decision to “demolish the Tudor-style house known as ‘The Croft’ that was once owned by the family that created the preserve and sell off its salvaged pieces–(some of which date back to the 17th century)– to the highest bidder. This structure — one of the grandest houses ever built in northern Westchester — is an architectural gem. It forms an essential part of the humanly engineered landscape that made Teatown Lake itself possible. Since The Croft is not a locally landmarked structure, there may be no legal means to delay or prevent its destruction. However, it would be a shame to let this unique resource go for ‘set design material’ as they propose without exploring all options. If anyone has any ideas, please share them soon.”
Following de Laperouse’s initial alert, a flood of emails parried back and forth among recipients, with more urgency and mounting criticism with each day that passed. By the end of the week, just prior to the February 1 meeting, the criticism of the board’s decision had become so harsh that such adjectives as “cavalier,” and “imperious” were being directed at the executive director and “clubby” and “clandestine” lobbed at the board.
At the meeting, visitors at the Carriage House were greeted by Carter, who stated the purpose of the meeting as an opportunity to explain the decision of the Board to sell The Croft. He then turned the agenda over to Nancy Felcher, vice chairperson of the Board of Trustees, who outlined the board’s due diligence in coming to that decision.
“This purchase of 67 acres was very important to Teatown,” she said. “They are the hole in the donut in the very middle of the preserve. At first, we thought we would have to sell The Croft and the eight acres when we acquired it in 2008, but we raised more money than we thought we would, and we didn’t have to sell it. When we took title in 2010, we had other compelling issues, such as repairing the damn at Vernay Lake, but we set out to determine what to do with The Croft. It must be known that we sought the acreage, not the house. And when we received a grant from the Open Space Institute for the purchase of the land, it was made very clear that the money was only for land without a house because old houses are troublesome. And it was the same when we received a grant from Westchester County. It also excluded the land on which The Croft sits.”
Felcher further stated that after much thought and consideration by the board, it was determined that no viable use could be found for The Croft and that the expense for its continued upkeep did not meet the mission of Teatown.
When Felcher had completed her presentation, Hugh Vanhengel, a Teatown resident and supporter, asked to speak and said, “That is not quite how I remember what happened,” further commenting that the Teatown board historically has a habit of asking for funding by painting a certain scenario, but using the monies in a different way than that promised to its donors.
Another visitor asked if the board had considered selling the eight acres on which The Croft sits along with the house as a single-family dwelling to a private investor, and the answer given by Felcher was that the board unanimously deemed that option unwise to the mission of Teatown.
“Do we really want Mr. and Mrs. Jones living in the middle of our preserve and, really, do Mrs. And Mrs. Jones want to live in the middle of the most active area?” she said.
At one point toward the end of the hour-and-a-half meeting, two neighbors with differing positions on the fate of The Croft tangled into a shouting match and had to be quelled by Carter who suggested that this was not the appropriate setting for such a heated debate.
A turning point in the discussion came at the 11th hour with a quietly raised hand from the back of the room and an emotional appeal from a neighboring architect named Galina Kanevsky of GnG Design Consultants. Her words captured the audience’s rapt attention in just a few seconds as she said: “In my professional opinion, to remove a structure of such scale will cause huge environmental impact on our surroundings, especially being a part of the watershed! As a preservation and educational center, Teatown stands for preserving the environment, and The Croft residence is a part of it! To reuse a structure of such complexity will be practically impossible. To dismantle it piece by piece will be equivalent to a total demolition.”
“The bottom line: If Teatown’s mission truly is to teach our youth about the environment and preservation, what kind of message does this send to the young generation?” she added. “We would be saying that Teatown stands for destruction, not for preservation!”
At the end of her comments, Kanevsky received a rousing hand of applause from most of the people in the room. Carter then adjourned the meeting and suggested that attendees might stay for individual discussions in small groups or to ask questions.
Going from group to group, a reporter eavesdropped on one conversation among several neighbors who were complaining about the “divisiveness” among board members with some of the “old guard” members of the community who “still wanted to hold on to Teatown “as though they own the property themselves and just don’t want to let go.”
Another group discussed the difficulty that the community was having in communicating with the executive director. “He’s just not the warm and fuzzy type,” one neighbor volunteered. “We had hoped that he would ask for suggestions today, but he did more talking than listening. All he did was talk over everybody else.”
But the most promising reconnoitering done on a reporter’s part was with Board Chairperson Joan Lindaur in the company of Felcher. Lindaur whispered gently that the community could be assured The Croft would not be torn down.
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