The Montagues & The Chobans
I was a director of a community service department at Pratt Institute when I first came to Albemarle Terrace in the early and late 1970s. My students and I were conducting land use and building condition surveys for the Flatbush Development Corporation. At that time, there wasn’t a block in Flatbush that did not carry the burden of a vacant or abandoned building. The survey helped to prioritize the energy of a community-based nonprofit development corporation in its preservation efforts.
I also knew the area in our work for Irving Choban to produce an architectural details record of Flatbush Town Hall (Synder). As a lawyer and historian, he was tenacious in saving this High Victorian structure (more here), getting it on the National Register to prevent demolition in the late 60s. It became New York City Landmark in 1966. He was a tenacious man. He lived on Kenmore Terrace. He is why we live in a historic district.
In 1998, I brought my wife to see Albemarle Terrace and meet with Richard and Dorothy Montague. They raised their two boys and decided to move to upstate New York and sell their home on Albemarle Terrace. I knew Richard as a writer for the New York Post. The day Rupert Murdoch took it over, he and Roberta Gratz, author of “The Living City,” left the Post to its dust and grime. Along with Roberta, Richard’s greatest joy in writing is to chronicle moments directly in front of all of us. He wrote the following article about our little part of New York as an editorial for Newsday. I hope you enjoy it, and it is a beautiful bit of writing. It describes what it was like in 1978 when they learned they had succeeded in sustaining a part of Brooklyn’s history through its architecture.
Two Short Blocks of a Great City’s Past
Richard Montague Newsday Sunday, July 23, 1978
“Like any place else, New York’s essential characteristics are rooted in times past.”Nathan Silver, Lost New York
A little after 8 o’clock on a recent Wednesday evening, a Brooklyn lawyer named Irving Choban and his wife, Rosalind had an open house for their neighbors.
The house is an attractive two-story brick structure on a dead-end street in northern Flatbush. It is older than either of the Chobans; it is 59. Along with 30 other similar buildings close by, it has been designated the day before by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a part of a new “Albemarle-Kenmore Terraces Historic District.”
So, for the next couple of hours, in the Chobans’ comfortable living room at 2118 Kenmore Terrace as full of cheerful people, all members of the terraces’ block association, celebrating their official recognition.
That was a landmark for everybody too. Represented by Choban who is the official historian of Flatbush, and Donna Sanft of Albemarle Terrace, the association began asking its first hopeful questions about how to go about obtaining “landmark status” five years ago this fall.
The new Albemarle-Kenmore historic district is one of the smallest in New York. There were 31 others Brooklyn Heights, for instance), plus 526 individual landmarks, 13 interior landmarks, including Radio City Music Hall, and five scenic ones, of which Central Park is the best known. The commission has sought out, examined, and designated them all in only 13 years.
Sometimes the choices are easy, undisputed, and without commercial implications. Other times, as demonstrated by years of litigation in the Grand Central Terminal case just decided – in favor of preservation –by the U.S. Supreme court, there could be intense, expensive contention. In either case, the values involved are always appreciably more than financial.
The new Brooklyn landmark is “historic” because, as a commission survey puts it, the terraces built between 1916 and 1920 are “part of the general history of Flatbush.” They exhibit well cared for examples of the “neo-Federal” style; include designs that developed from the English Garden City movement (adapted to Forest Hills Gardens in Queens in 1903); and were among the earliest row houses to have garages, setting a style that is now standard in many parts of New York.
But there are other features to be appraised; the languorous sway of the tree branches in the vagrant winds of idle summer afternoons; the cascades of red and yellow leaves and bouncing acorns from the oaks under the blazing blue sky of fall; the door wreaths, lights and family carolers at Christmastime, and the small back yards in spring, with their moist flowerbeds, budding shrubs and secret corners hiding moss and violets.
In his book of photographs and thoughts on “Lost New York,” the vanished buildings torn down over the years, architect Nathan Silver quotes Lewis Mumford: “in the city time becomes visible.” Silver thinks, “Architecture provides the only measurable way to discover the past in the urban environment.”
Discovering the past doesn’t interest everybody. Landmark designation is not automatic preservation of either monuments or neighborhoods. Some have subsided into decay. Others have been daubed with graffiti, chipped, and hacked at, even hauled to scrap metal dealers. Those that have escaped that kind of abuse are not always decently cared for. There has not been a surplus of money for maintenance in recent years.
Nevertheless, the landmarks everywhere in the city serve honorable, dignified, and particularly today, invaluable purposes. They are as different as possible from the fast-food architectural style common in much of New York construction. They were created and built with care, imagination, and civilized intelligence. They are sentinels of a kind, guarding tasteful traditions that are sometimes neglected as the landmarks themselves. They have the artistic durability to reward admiration and care, no matter how long it has been deferred.
Consequently, they are essential to New York’s recovery and restoration as belated fiscal reforms, a revival of industry, accessible jobs, and schools worth of the name. It is inevitable that other monuments and buildings will join “Lost New York”. The vitality of the living city depends a great deal, on how many more are found, appreciated, and saved.