Divide or demolish?
The Village of Baxter Estates is split over a cure for the Baxter House, a 1673 Colonial that is vacant and decaying from the inside out. Its condition has flummoxed village officials for the past decade as illegal rental and broken chimney violations pile up.
The vacant home overlooking Manhasset Bay is tilting, its roof is leaking, the blue paint is fading, and the foundation is collapsing. The owner wants to divide the property into two parcels and use funds from the sale of a second house on the site to repair the Baxter House, which has landmark status.
Preservationists worry the village was lax in enforcing its codes and the house, like other historic structures on Long Island, is doomed to “demolition by neglect.”
They also worry that approving a subdivision for the site at a planning board meeting Monday could allow the owner to have the house condemned and replaced with two oversized “McMansions.” Preservationists point to other historic homes ordered knocked down after years of being ignored. The 2014 demolition of the Pyrrhus Concer House, the Southampton Village home of a freed slave, has motivated supporters to rally around the Baxter House.
“The major worry is that the house isn’t going to survive,” said Peter Salins, chairman of the Baxter Estates Landmark Preservation Committee. “The fear really is if we don’t do something — either get the owner to restore it or accommodate the owner in some way so it becomes less financially burdensome — we’re going to lose the house.”
Owner Sabrina Wu’s plan to subdivide the property on Central Drive and Shore Road comes a decade after the village declared the home its first landmark. That designation came two years after Wu of Queens purchased the house with her brother, who has since given up his share in it.
The landmark protections given in 2005 to the Baxter House, the namesake for the village, prevented the Wus from making some renovations, her attorney A. Thomas Levin of Garden City said. The owner’s engineers say the home should be demolished, said Levin, who did not make Wu available for comment.
“The problem is the condition of the house has deteriorated tremendously,” Levin said. The landmark designation “froze any ability to do anything” to the home. He and Wu have consulted experts who say the foundation is crumbling, and the fix would be to “jack the house up and build another foundation under it.” However, the soil won’t support hydraulic jacking, Levin said.
Wu is “not really thrilled about demolishing the house,” Levin said. “We’re trying to find a way to make it livable to save the house.”
He added, “every day that goes by, it’s more and more expensive to fix this.”
“We’re losing a lot of houses, mansions,” said Elly Shodell, director of the local history center at the Port Washington Public Library. “The Baxter House is a real genuine memory of the past.”
The home has had many owners since the Baxter family owned the homestead that was incorporated in 1931 as the Village of Baxter Estates. Members of the original Baxter family had jobs as sea captains, shipbuilders, blacksmiths and whalers. They owned the house until the late 1800s. The most prominent owner was architect and art collector Addison Mizner, who developed much of Boca Raton and Palm Beach in Florida.
Baxter House was the first home of the Port Washington library, in 1892, when it was operated by 23 local women as a reading room and social club. Israel Baxter, a Revolutionary War hero, was forced to host Hessian soldiers there and supply the British Army with cords of wood.
“It stood out because of its placement at a very important corner; it’s the very first house you see when you pull in there from Main Street,” Shodell said. “It’s been transformed over the years from something that was a quite elegant, single-family dwelling, to whatever it has become now.”
The Baxter House has been cited by the village for a number of code violations in the past decade, including for renting the property as a two-family home and leaving the chimney in disrepair. A village file on the home documents advertising on rental websites such as Trulia and Sublet.com.
Preservationists across Long Island are still reeling over the loss of the 19th century Pyrrhus Concer House, which was demolished last year by its Brooklyn owners to redevelop the site. Months later they abandoned their plans and sold the property.
Preservationists say owners of historic sites often ignore them until they are unsafe and condemned by local governments. Experts say homeowners are causing “demolition by neglect,” common in gentrifying areas of New York City, but also in the suburbs.
“There are many cases in New York where people get around the landmarking by letting the properties rot,” Salins said.
Preservationists consider the Baxter House one of Long Island’s oldest structures and are advocating stronger measures to maintain it.
Jason Crowley, preservation director for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in Cold Spring Harbor, said “it really falls to the Village of Baxter Estates’ Landmark Commission to enforce their law and put pressure on the owner to bring the house back into good repair.”
A village law proposed in August would require historic properties to be better maintained.
Village officials considered buying the Baxter House in the early 2000s, to serve as the village hall. The plan was too expensive and the Wus purchased the property in 2003 for $990,000.
Preservationists said they plan to attend Monday’s hearing. Levin said Wu wants to return to the house and that they don’t want to “pick a legal fight” with the village. Engineers already consulted on the project have suggested demolishing it, Levin said.
“We’re trying to test the waters,” Levin said. He said the goal is to see “how the village feels about this idea of subdividing the property; if reaction is hostile, we’re not going to spend a lot of money to get experts, only to have them turn it down anyway.”
“How much is reasonable to spend to do this? This is a burden,” Levin added. “When she bought the property initially, it was not landmarked; had they taken it down at the time, there’d be nothing to talk about.”