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More NYC landmarks, protected on the outside, get extensive interior revamps

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Everything old is new again

The 19th-century townhouse at 109 Waverly Place, looking distinctly modern
Brown Harris Stevens

On the outside, they’re historic buildings, vestiges of a past New York. On the inside, though, they’re modern condos.

According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s a “growing trend” throughout the city: restore the exteriors of historic properties to their former turn-of-the-century glory, while gutting the inside to bring the digs in line with modern tastes. By way of example, the WSJ turns to a row of three 19th-century townhouses on West 86th Street, which have recently gotten a complete interior overhaul. In fact, the houses have been converted into a six-story, seven-apartment condominium, although you wouldn’t know it looking at the buildings’ limestone exterior, which has been carefully preserved.

Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, calls the phenomenon “facade-ism.” Since the city’s landmark law doesn’t extend to the private interiors of individual buildings within historic districts, the WSJ explains, developers can completely scrap the existing interiors, as long as the facade is maintained. Often, they’re even allowed to build “rooftop expansions and extensions into rear yards,” since those sorts of additions aren’t easily visible from the streets.

“You can see this all over the Upper East Side,” Dolkart told the WSJ. “It has become the biggest issue in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, where early houses are being completely destroyed with interiors gutted, roof lines expanded and rear yards removed.” This week, a gut-renovated 1910 townhouse on West 12th Street sold for $19 million; a similarly upgraded Greenwich Village mansion (complete with a decidedly un-19th-century skylit indoor pool) recently hit the market for a cool $28 million.

The move—preservation on the outside, renovation on the inside—is popping up with increasing frequency as more and more of the city’s buildings are “designated as landmarks or included in historic districts designated by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission,” the WSJ explains. A full 70 percent of properties in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, for example, qualify for landmarks protection.