Life After Landmarking: What’s Next for Sunset Park’s Only Freestanding Mansion

The Dr. Maurice T. Lewis house, on 55th Street | Photo by Caroline Chen for The Brooklyn Ink

Landmarking is considered an effective way to preserve historic buildings and neighborhood culture. But for some privately-owned properties, like the Dr. Maurice T. Lewis House in Sunset Park, this could present a dilemma. What has landmarking done for the only freestanding mansion in Sunset Park?

Built in 1907, the building at 404 55th Street was recently listed for rent at around $10,000 a month, and negotiations with a community bank and a church are underway. But this is not likely what the current owners had expected when they made the purchase.

The single-family house was twice listed for sale in 2016, first at $6.5 million and later $4.8 million. But it was still apparently too expensive for buyers, until its price dropped to $2.8 million and the mansion was finally sold to an otherwise unknown limited liability corporation called SL 218 LLC in late 2017.  SL 218 LLC was then approved by the Department of Buildings to demolish the house and build a seven-story condo.

But that plan was halted, by the Landmark Preservation Commission’s landmark designation, on March 7, 2018.

“It’s around the corner of one of the nicest blocks, which is in the historic district. And I think that if it had been knocked down, it would’ve really destructed the harmony of that block,” said Lynn Massimo, Project Leader of Sunset Park Landmarks Committee.

She collected 400 individual letters and 2,800 signatures in support of preservation and landmarking to submit to the Landmark Preservation Commission in a public hearing in March, 2018. “I’m for saving historic buildings. And that’s my motivation,” Massimo said.

The Renaissance Revival style house, according to the Landmark Preservation Commission, is an important part of Sunset Park, which mostly consists of row houses and brownstones. The commission’s designation report describes the house, made of vermilion brick and limestone, as “an excellent example of early 20th century residential design.”

The house was designed by a famous architect, R. Thomas Short, for Dr. Maurice T. Lewis, president of the Bay Ridge Savings Bank, who lived there until his death in 1931. Dr. Sonya Monen, the first female physician appointed as Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, moved in the same year, residing and practicing medical services there until she died in 1996. A few years ago, the assistant Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Felix Ortiz, rented the house to use as an office.

With landmark designation, Shuang Lin, one of the members of SL 218 LLC, apparently took a hit.

He and his business partners bought the house with an ambitious plan to build a 24-unit condo, according to both his former and current real estate agent. But the landmark designation has put him in a difficult situation. Even though only exteriors of the building are being regulated, he cannot proceed with plans to knock the building down. Lin could not be reached for comment.

Zodet Negron, Director of Communications at the Landmark Preservation Commission, said in an email that the commission’s staff met with Shuang Lin various time throughout the designation process. Paul Chen, the current real estate agent of the house and a friend of Lin, said that he had connected Lin with someone on the community board to help with the situation at that time. But all of Lin’s efforts failed to stop the designation. He was present at both the public hearing and at the formal designation, but did not testify.

Forced to suspend his plans, Lin tried to sell the house. But the landmark status apparently made the Lewis House less favored in the market. Chris Liang, the real estate agent who helped Lin buy the house, said landmarking certainly affects the house’s value. And Lin told Liang’s colleague that he regretted buying the house, according to Liang.

The front door and its chained gate | Photo by Caroline Chen for The Brooklyn Ink

Chen said he once introduced a pastor to Lin to make a deal, thinking that landmarking wouldn’t affect the house if it was to be used as a church. But Chen said the pastor asked for a price that Lin couldn’t accept.

According to Chen, once interested buyers realized it was a landmarked building, they tended to steer clear from it to avoid trouble, or they’d ask for a lower price.

The side yard and its weeds | Photo by Caroline Chen for The Brooklyn Ink

“I’m not sure what the current market price for selling the house is, but I’m sure there’s a big difference with landmark or without landmark,” Chen said, suggesting a possible 20% to 30% drop in market price.

Chen believes that landmarking helps preserve neighborhood culture, but it also leads to the devaluation of buildings. “Landmarking is positive for the community over all, but it causes a loss for property owners,” he said.

And he thinks it’s unnecessary to landmark the Dr. Maurice T. Lewis House, arguing that the designation was initiated by the personal interest of community board members who lived close to the house rather than preservation of the building.  “They don’t want a condo there,” said Chen.

Massimo doesn’t think landmarking leads to the building’s devaluation, but owners’ neglect might. “What if they just let the building deteriorate?” she said, expressing concerns over demolition of neglect.

So far, no deals have been reached. The stately mansion has been unoccupied since Lin’s purchase in 2017.

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