Deirdre Stanforth: an Oral History Interview
FD: Let me ask you, how did you get involved in Penn Station?
DS: Well, maybe people have brought up that subject, which has made me think a great deal, to try to remember what I was thinking and feeling forty years ago that made me become one of the picketers in front of Penn Station, which was about to be destroyed, torn down. I am neither an architect nor an architectural historian, so why was I there? Nobody had told me to go there, I went there on my own, by myself. Which is what has made me think back, forty years ago. Why was I there?
It mainly has to do with my past, I suppose, partly. I grew up in New Orleans, and New Orleans was the second city in the United States to legislate historic district laws to protect the buildings in the French Quarter from being torn down. This was in 1936, and even though I didn't think about that at the time, I did spend a lot of time in the French Quarter. So that, obviously, had an influence on me and my past, although I always wanted to live in New York. So when I did move to New York, I, of course, came into Penn Station, and it had a tremendously powerful, overwhelming effect on me. It was so magnificent. Obviously, that still was influencing me when --
Well, I came here to live, permanently, in 1947, so it was nearly twenty years later that this happened, that they were about to destroy Penn Station.
FD: Did you hear that on a specific day you were supposed to go there?
DS: Obviously, I did, although I don't remember the details of that. Well, it was much talked about, of course. That didn't happen overnight, quietly. So I just had to be there. I'm trying to think again, what the next step was.
FD: Did you carry a picket sign and move up and down?
DS: Of course, of course. Whatever was being done at the time, I was doing it, too, joining in the complaint, the objections, and the picketing that went on there. In the meantime, of course, I had gone about my own life, gotten married, had children. But, also, a tremendous influence on me, in this direction, was -- I took, all together, three trips to Europe over the time I had begun living in New York, each of which lasted three or four months. Obviously, Europe had a tremendous effect on me, too. I'm sure it does on everybody. Why do people go to Europe? It has a lot to do with the old buildings, that are everywhere. And in Rome, for goodness sake, in the center of the city, where the most expensive real estate must be, they not only keep their old buildings, they keep their ruins of old buildings! They wouldn't dream of tearing down the Coliseum or the Forum. So that, alone --
The other thing is -- At first we were living in old buildings on the East Side, and they were being torn down all around us, including one of the ones we lived in. This hadn't happened at Penn Station yet, but we eventually had two buildings torn down around us.
FD: How does that happen? They just call you one morning and say, "Move."
DS: Well, not quite as rapidly as that, but they announce that the building is going to be torn down at such and such a time, and you have to get out.
FD: No compensation or anything?
DS: No, no.
FD: No lease?
DS: No. That's the way they tear down buildings in New York, many, many buildings in New York, of course, because they value real estate more than the value of the buildings. Now the first building we lived in was not really a gorgeous, wonderful building, but --
FD: Where was it?
DS: The first one was on 94th Street, between Madison and Park Avenue, right across the street from the Armory, where they had polo games and the policemen kept their horses. It was a wonderful neighborhood, but it was a rather crummy old, tenement type building. We had a wonderful apartment -- eight rooms -- and it overlooked the back where the Georgia Baker house was, and the Billy Rose house was. So that was torn down, before Penn Station. Then we moved to another, much nicer building on Madison Avenue, between 89th and 90th, and they tore down that whole block, five buildings all together.
FD: What did they put up there?
DS: A huge, ugly building, in the middle of the block.
FD: Oh, yes. The Rose family.
DS: Exactly. Exactly. In the meantime, we had all this going on around us. The second building wasn't torn down until after Penn Station.
FD: What year would that be?
DS: Roughly. What, the second building? It must have been about 1966, and Penn Station -- the destruction of Penn Station, of course, would have been '63. But we'd already had another building torn down out from under us. They were tearing them down all around us, and I loved some of these buildings, loved living in these buildings. The second one had marble stairs and parquet floors, and was a lovely building. The one next door to it was even more of a lovely building. So all these things had a tremendous influence on me, and I've only begun to realize now, as I've thought back on this, that it was only three years after the destruction of Penn Station -- which to me, was an awful tragedy, because that was an overwhelming, gorgeous, magnificent building -- it was then, in 1966, that, after being evicted from two buildings because of demolition, we bought an old house on the West Side. This house was an 1881 house, one of the oldest buildings on the West Side, because there wasn't a building built up here until the Museum of Natural History in 1877. Then that was the only building up here. It was all farmland --
FD: -- and the Dakota.
DS: The Dakota was 1884. This building preceded the Dakota. The whole area was considered a slum. Unfortunately, it hadn't been torn down yet, but there was an urban renewal program started in the city, at that time, and that's what brought us over here, to look for a building to live in. My husband was, frankly, scared to death of the challenge and the risk and so forth. But I had lived with this kind of thing in New Orleans, with the French Quarter and so forth, so it didn't scare me.
So it's changed our whole lives in a way, and we were really pioneers in this neighborhood, because it was down below the urban renewal area.
FD: What was the block like when you bought this?
DS: It was crummy. It was all rooming houses, or almost 100% rooming houses. There were a couple big apartment buildings in the middle of the block, where, obviously, buildings like this had been torn down. But one whole block north of here, on 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam -- the city had been forced to tear down the block because they couldn't control the gangs, the street gangs, and the behavior of the people who were living in these buildings. So they tore down the whole block on 84th Street and built public schools. We had this synagogue across the street, which was some help in controlling the total devastation up here, but the whole neighborhood on the Upper West Side, except for Central Park West, was considered, really, a disaster area at that time. At the same time, Lincoln Center was being built, and they tore down a huge area around there to build Lincoln Center. But that was all part of what West Side Story was all about. Another woman I got to know later on, who had bought in the urban renewal area, which was up in the nineties (she was on 94th Street), she had bullet holes in her living room, from before she bought the house and worked on restoring it, and actually living there. Some of that fighting was still going on in her neighborhood at that time.
FD: What made this gradually improve?
DS: Well, a lot of it had to do with the urban renewal area, which was between 86th and 96th. The city had taken over and declared this area an urban renewal area, from Central Park West to Broadway, or at least to Amsterdam. They tore down a lot, but they also decided to keep the brownstone neighborhoods. By the law of eminent domain, they had the right to demand that the owners of the buildings either had to restore them as apartments, for rental apartments with so many -- There were a lot of regulations. You had to have a number of apartments in your building, but the owners had to promise to live there, to guarantee to live there, I think for at least three years, in the buildings they were buying.
So we first heard about this -- there was a great deal of publicity about it -- in the newspapers. This was happening, actually, at the same time in several cities in America, even though they were sort of unbeknownst to each other. Because when I later wrote books about this (I ended up writing three books on preservation, after this experience in my life), for instance, Providence, Rhode Island, at the same time -- about 1959 all of this started, in different areas in the city, and others. I can't remember many off the top of my head but we did a great deal of research on it.
FD: Wasn't that Doris Duke?
DS: Yes, she did it in Newport. Absolutely. I've written two books on it. We did a lot of research about this, so I don't want to, off the top of my head, quote some that aren't the same date, but there are quite a few that didn't necessarily happen -- That was not a concerted effort, or an organized effort from one city to another, but it was all happening at about the same time.
FD: Well, now did you move in here and start to live here?
DS: Oh, absolutely. We had no place to live. We were the last people in five buildings on Madison Avenue, between 89th and 90th, the two large buildings that faced Madison Avenue, and then they owned three more brownstone-type buildings around the corner. We were the last ones living there. That's what drove us to buy over here: It was the second time we were being thrown out, because they were tearing down the buildings. We had to go. As a consequence (and this is the main reason I wrote the first book, with another woman who was also restoring buildings in this neighborhood) -- I've lost the track of what I was about to talk about.
FD: You were saying that this became a national -- not organized, it just happened all around.
DS: That's right. What I was getting at was that, finally, people in America were beginning to realize that we shouldn't keep tearing down all the older buildings, or part of our historical heritage, to build new buildings which weren't, in any ways, as well built. In many cases wonderful old buildings, even if they were not suitable for homes, although many were -- One of the books I wrote, Restored America -- many of them were people who were living in old churches, old schools, or many other kinds of old buildings, which is called "adaptive use." So it seemed to be sort of a simultaneous awakening in various places in the country, that was suddenly beginning to happen at the same time.
FD: Well, now, could you describe what condition this house was in when you bought it?
DS: Almost all the other buildings on the Upper West Side, or on Central Park West, had been divided up into really crummy rooming houses packed with people, whole families living in one room. That's what the whole neighborhood had become.
FD: How did they evict those families so you could buy it? What happened?
DS: Well, we didn't want any part of putting somebody out of their home, no matter how bad it was, because we'd been through the same thing ourselves so many times. So, as it turned out, I saw the building first, and I wanted my husband to see it before I agreed to buy it. I thought it was going to be the right building but we didn't grab it the minute we saw it. Within a day or two I was told by the real estate man who showed it to me that somebody else had bought it. At that point I was really upset, because I thought that was the right building. The man who bought it was a speculator, and he bought it just to resell. He didn't even have to look at it, and he paid a ridiculously low price for it. The price we ended up paying for it was $10,000 more, but it was still a ridiculously low price. So he vacated the building for us.
Well, I don't even know all the details, but I think eventually he got in a lot of trouble for the way he operated in getting people out.
FD: Was it legal then to just keep doing that?
DS: No, what he did was not totally legal, but we paid him to deliver it vacant, because I didn't want any part of trying to get people out.
FD: Well, now at that time, was the same thing going on up and down the block?
DS: Not so much.
FD: Or were you the pioneers?
DS: We pretty much were. I wouldn't say completely, but we were. There were four people I knew of in this block who were like us, who bought houses to live in. There was a couple across the street. They were living in the house, and they had actually decided to make friends with the bad guys, the kids who were causing so much trouble on the block. So after they were out brutalizing people, they invited them to come over to their house for milk and cookies. Some of these kids actually stole, and put up barricades in front of their driveway, because they actually had a garage in the basement of their house. They were kidding around that anybody who tried to park in Joe Cohen's driveway would get their head busted in.
So that was one couple. Then there were three other single men who were living in houses they bought in this block, one of whom was a quite well-known painter called Theodore "Stamels," who had a building across the street. There were two other people like that.
FD: How did it gradually change?
DS: Well, we had quite a good deal to do with it, as a matter of fact, because people who came looking, we would invite them into the house, show them what we were doing, and we also planted many trees in the block. Our renovation was very visible, which, in many cases, probably wasn't as true. Instead of just moving in and doing it gradually ourselves or something like that, we actually had hired an architect and a contractor, so it was plain that somebody was fixing up the house to live in. So many people came to us and we encouraged them. In fact, my husband met a man whom he had known -- they worked together -- he happened to meet that man on the street, and in discussing "what are you doing now?" he said, "We're buying an old house on the West Side and restoring it, to live in." So that family bought the house next door to us.
FD: The twin of this?
DS: Yes. So that was a direct, obvious influence. It was like dominoes -- which it always is in these cases. When neighborhoods go bad it's like dominoes. One bad house usually influences more houses in the same neighborhood to become slums, and the reverse happens, when neighborhoods recover. People see one house becoming better, and they're encouraged to buy another house. So it takes the first few people to get it started.
FD: Tell me, how did you go about reconstructing all this. It must have been a mess.
FD: It was a mess. That's the thing, as I said, that inspired me to do the first book -- which, fortunately, encouraged many people to do the same thing in other neighborhoods and other cities. I wrote a book with a woman named Martha Stamm, who lived five or six blocks away from here, who did five buildings in one block. So she had a lot of experience that I never had, things that she knew how to do. We had a horrible experience with a crooked contractor, and there weren't many regulations at the time (although I think this is still happening, everywhere, everywhere), somebody who comes and tells you they'll do your roof over and they do a horrible job. Then the next thing you know they're gone, they're nowhere to be found, and they didn't even have licensing of contractors at that time -- not that I think that's cured every bad experience.
But it was awful. It was really awful. It's amazing that we survived it. Eventually, this guy got every cent he was supposed to get in the contract without finishing the job. He walked out in the middle of the job and left us -- We had to move in by that time, we were forced to move in by that time, because we were homeless. So we lived in it half finished, and he'd gotten all the money out of it. So we were stuck here with a bunch of workmen, that we had to find the money to pay every week, and living in the mess.
FD: How long did it take to reconstruct all this?
DS: About twice as long as it should have. Well, we were not only doing a very thorough restoration -- all the plumbing, all the wiring -- but our architect, who was wonderful, and he was very new at being an architect (he'd been a carpenter, and then decided to go to school to be an architect and he went to Harvard), he was great. He was great, we're still friends. I just had him and his girlfriend over to dinner about two weeks ago. But he came up with a marvelous plan to make an apartment, a rental apartment down below, in half of what used to be the cellar, underground, and one room on the ground floor in the front -- a duplex apartment. That was a much longer, difficult and expensive part of the restoration, but if we didn't do it then it would never get done.
FD: So you have someone else living in that part?
DS: Oh, yes, we have, and they share the garden, too. It makes a lovely apartment.
Anyway, because of this crooked contractor, it took us more than a year before we were really finished.
FD: What year was that. Do you remember?
DS: Oh, God, do I remember? Actually, we moved in at Christmastime -- what a horrible thought; to move into an unfinished house -- in 1967. The closing was in February. We actually went to contract in 1966, which was only three years after the destruction of Penn Station. So, obviously, the destruction of Penn Station had a direct effect on the rest of my life --
FD: Yes. Well --
DS: -- and it's only today that I realize that.
FD: You can trace the roots.
Well, now, when you walk down the street, it's beautiful. Is there a block association?
DS: Yes. There isn't one now.
FD: Oh, really? What happened?
DS: My husband died. We also got tired of doing all the work without a whole lot of help. I think that happens in a lot of situations. At first you try to get people to pitch in and contribute and help, maybe some do and some don't, but finally the people who are doing all the work get tired of doing all the work. Then people come around, saying, "Where's the block association?"
FD: You then got involved with what? Landmarks West?
DS: Landmark West, yes. Yes, I did that shortly after we moved in. I started getting distressed at some of the things that were being done to the neighborhood, terrible things, the worst of which was some kind of developers -- I don't know if it was all the same people or a bunch of different people -- began, in order to get the maximum space to rent, to make more money, they would buy two brownstones side by side, tear the facades off, move the facade out about six feet, and cover the whole front with glazed tile, like in a subway. We have one on our block, down the street -- number Fifty-Five -- that is shiny, black tile, an up-ended shoebox covered with shiny, black tile. The gorgeous block that Martha Stamm was in, that is the street that is behind the Museum of Natural History -- the ugliness of the finished result wasn't as bad as some of the others (which I can later describe), but the facade they tore off was a Venetian gothic style building, beautiful, and what ended up there was an up-ended shoebox covered with blonde brick. But on 85th Street, which also has a lot of beautiful, beaux arts-style buildings, there are two like this. One is a glazed tile in powder blue, and the other is glazed tile in olive green.
So, you know, at the time this was going on and on --
FD: No zoning or anything?
DS: Nothing. Nothing. So at that time -- which must have been about 1970 -- I wrote a letter to the Landmarks Commission and said, "We need some historic district protection." The answer I got, finally, was, "Sorry, it's too big." So that was the end of that. So some years later, when Arlene got involved and began Landmark West, I jumped into it as fast as I could.
FD: This is Arlene…?
FD: Just for the record.
DS: So as soon as I found out about it I joined it. Somebody was asking me what did I do the other night and I couldn't remember off the top of my head, except I did a lot. But I was the only homeowner in Landmark West, so Arlene asked me to organize the rest of the homeowners, which I did. I got a hold of a real estate company, or somebody in real estate that I knew, and I was able to track down most of the name of the people who owned other brownstones in the whole area, to get their support for the historic district. I was obviously the head of that committee, and also I just put in a lot of time doing whatever needed doing. We had a storefront that somebody donated to us on Endicott, between 80th and 81st, where we showed the elaborate slide projection they had made up. We worked as hard as we could to get other people to agree that this was needed, and that they would support it, back it. So, naturally, I was at the meeting of "Chorus World," where the whole thing went before the Landmarks Commission, and they finally got it approved. So I joined it, and worked as hard as I could.
Another thing that was happening at the same time was (I'll never forget this), somebody from South America bought one of the whole block of buildings on Columbus Avenue, in the same block, between 82nd and 83rd and the whole block was identical -- the same building height, the same architecture, everything. It was storefront, but nice, attractive type buildings. Someone from South America bought one of those buildings, in the middle of this identical block, tore it down over the weekend and built a splinter building -- hideous -- in the middle of the block.
FD: What could anybody do?
DS: Well, nobody could do anything at the time, because there was no legislation against it.
FD: Is it still there?
DS: Yes. It's going to be there until it falls down. And that was right across the street from the storefront where we were trying to boost support for a historic district.
FD: Well, what is [ ? ] -- into now? What else has to be done?
DS: Well, there are always fights. The present Landmarks Commission is doing less and less about it, unfortunately. She said, when we first started Landmark West, that when we got the Historic District designation, we were going to have to be curators of the neighborhood, because even at its best the Landmarks Commission had not enough money and not enough people working for them to go out and cultivate the huge areas that they're supposed to police. So it's very much necessary for people who live in this neighborhood to watch what's going on, because some people, out of sheer ignorance, and other people who just decide, well, to hell with it, I'm going to do what I'm going to do with my house, and they just don't follow the rules and regulations. You either have to try to stop what's being done before it's too late, by at least telling the Landmarks Commission that somebody's breaking the rules, and sometimes they don't pay enough attention even when you do tell them.
FD: Well, now, in a house like this, did you make an effort to bring it back to its original state?
DS: Yes, because that was my taste. That's what I wanted to do.
FD: How did that go?
DS: Very well. And fortunately, even though I don't think I was that well tutored, or smart, about the whole thing, it was my instinct -- Our architect, I still feel grateful to him for what he did, but he was more -- his taste was more in the modern than in the restoration, and that was true of most architect at that time. Because the first architect that I approached (I was given his name by the lawyer who was representing us at the closing), he has become a very famous, accomplished architect. Also, in the meantime, he's become very good at restoration. I later met him and told him about this. I called him on the phone and said, "We bought a brownstone on 83rd Street and we want to restore it." He said, scornfully, "We didn't go to school to be a plumber."
DS: When I told him that, more recently, he said, "Well, things change, you know." Anyway, "Jello," our architect, one of the things he wanted to do was to make a hole in the ceiling of the dining room and make it into a two-story room, in a house that is only fifteen feet wide. We hardly have time to get around on the parlor floor, so I said no. And thank God, I said no. He also wanted to throw away the Victorian "newel" post on the parlor floor and do something more modern. I said no to that. But other than that -- and he did throw away all of the doors, the old doors, because they were all cut up with a million holes for locks and things of that sort -- which was probably justified. But he put in these flat column doors, you know, everywhere in the house. We didn't have a lot of money to spend on this, so that would have been part of it, too. So, recently, like maybe ten years ago, I put paneling, "fake" paneling on all the doors in the house myself.
FD: Well, now you have what? Four stories?
DS: Yes, we do.
FD: So you've got a parlor and a living room.
DS: The top floor is two bedrooms, for my daughters, who are up here. The floor in between the top floor and the -- it's the third floor -- is our bedroom and the study, which is a place where I've done work, with a drawing board, thousands of books and the television, radio, and things like that.
FD: What are the disadvantages of living in a brownstone?
DS: I can't think of any. I love it.
FD: The stairs?
DS: But that's good for you. In fact, I think my husband may have lived ten years longer than he might have because of the stairs.
FD: And you have a garden?
FD: Is that a greenhouse back there?
DS: That's the building behind us. You can look out the door and see it. It's terraced, because it had to be dug out by the rear of the building, because that floor, which was the cellar originally, was three-quarters underground. So the [ ? ] -- of the garden was dug out to the level of the floor in the living room of the apartment, but it's stepped up, so it's a three-level garden.
FD: So basically this goes back to New Orleans, and then pioneering all of this.
DS: That's true. That's true.
FD: That's a fascinating story, really.
DS: I never really realized the influence that New Orleans had directly, I never had thought about it. I never loved living in New Orleans, I always wanted to live in New York. I was never that thrilled about New Orleans, on the whole, except the food. I didn't like living there and knew I didn't want to remain there. But I wrote several books about the food of New Orleans before I wrote several books about preservation. I never did take it back directly to the fact that New Orleans was the second city in the country to do something about retaining their old buildings. Because Charleston and New Orleans probably had more than the rest of the country, so they didn't care about those old buildings.
FD: Well, I thank you very, very much.
DS: Well, it was a pleasure.
FD: A very interesting story.