Built To Last: New York’s Historic Houses and Ships Largely Unharmed By Hurricane

aliceausten Built To Last: New Yorks Historic Houses and Ships Largely Unharmed By Hurricane

Still standing: the Alice Austen house on Staten Island (the Historic House Trust).

Their floors may creak, their plaster may crumble and their halls may be filled with daunting drafts, but New York’s old houses have proved their mettle through many a storm. Hurricane Sandy was no exception. The city’s historic mansions appear to have come through the hurricane basically unscathed, preservationists told The Observer, although at least one Lower Manhattan Landmark remains unaccounted for.

“We’ve been very lucky, none of our 23 houses sustained damage,” said Frank Vagnone, the executive director of the Historic House Trust. “And many of them were right in the path of the storm. The Alice Austen House, in particular. It’s right on the Verrazano Narrows.”

The Alice Austen house did narrowly escape damage from a fallen tree, whose branches scraped the home’s exterior, but neither it, nor the artifacts and collections in any of the Trust’s homes were damaged.

“These buildings can sustain a lot of battering,” he said. “The Conference House in Tottenville [Staten Island] is a stone building with thick wooden shutters. It’s been there since before the Revolution.”

It was one of many historic waterfront properties that withstood the storm surge: Gracie Mansion is unharmed and ready to house the next mayor if he or she is so inclined. The Bartow-Pell Mansion did not succumb to the waters of Pelham Bay and on Tuesday morning Trinity Church took to its website to assure parishioners and preservationists that there were “no reports of significant damage to Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, Hudson Square properties, St. Margaret’s House, Trinity Preschool, or Charlotte’s Place.” Meanwhile, the basement of the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Seton in Lower Manhattan was flooded with at least three feet of water, but the structure’s first floor does not appear to be breached. (The Shrine also had one of its doors torn off).

The South Street Seaport museum was flooded, with water rising five feet high on the building’s first floor, the Museum of the City of New York reported, but all museum artifacts and docked ships weathered the storm’s wrath. These included a car float, a barge, the Pioneer’s dock and historic vessels the Ambrose, the Wavertree, the W.O. Decker and the Peking, which starred in the film Around Cape Horn documenting her 1929 passage around the southern tip of South America in hurricane conditions.

Arlene Simon, the President of Landmark West, the preservation organization that watches over the stretch of Manhattan between 59th Street to 110th Streets, the River to the Park, said that there was no real damage but tree damage, and even that wasn’t bad.

“Much of the architecture on the Upper West Side is incredibly sound architecture from the 1800s. I live in a building that was built in 1903 and if you didn’t listen to the radio or read the paper, you wouldn’t have even known about the hurricane,” said Ms. Simon.

Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council said that he had yet to hear of any flooded interiors, waterlogged museum collections or otherwise compromised structures. He added that it was encouraging to hear news trickle in that many of the city’s lower-lying, waterfront landmarks like the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Alice Austin House were unharmed.

“Old buildings were built pretty sturdy,” he said, noting that he had yet to hear the fate of the Battery Maritime Building or the bungalows in Far Rockaway that Historic Districts has been trying to save.

“I do expect the bungalows got bashed pretty good,” he said, adding “no news doesn’t necessarily mean good news when there is limited phone service and power outages.”

The West Village, while waterlogged, without power and missing its Halloween parade, does not appear to have lost any of its historic charm, Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation reported as he walked through Village this afternoon, scouring the neighborhood structures for signs of damage.”

“Although it’s the emptiest and the quietest I’ve ever seen it,” he added.

The Merchant House Museum on East 4th Street appeared to be intact as well, although the 19th Century home, rumored to be haunted, did cancel its candlelight ghost tours. It would appear that on this Halloween, the only ones roaming the house’s pristinely preserved halls will be the ghosts.

kvelsey@observer.com