A cherished piece of Spuyten Duyvil’s past could be in jeopardy. And while the Villa Rosa Bonheur might not be completely obliterated, it could be fundamentally changed.
Kevin McDermott, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade, wanted to know what was happening to the Villa Rosa Bonheur on Palisade Avenue near the Spuyten Duyvil train station, a charming, stony structure clinging to the cliff side under the Henry Hudson Bridge.
Built in 1924 as a co-operative by John J. McKelvey — a lawyer, writer and developer, who also was the first editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review — the seven-unit apartment building hit the market last year, according to published reports.
McKelvey — who also built the Villa Rosa Bonheur’s sisters, the Villa Charlotte Brontë and Villa Victoria around the same time — had more than money on his mind when he created what would be Riverdale’s first apartment houses. Alarmed by what he called the encroaching “city ugly” — the wave of high-rise development spreading through northern Manhattan and other parts of the Bronx at the time — McKelvey’s answer, according to the Lehman College Art Gallery, was to construct cooperative apartments resembling villas made up of individually owned duplex and triplex studio homes.
The 2395 Palisade Ave., property was scooped up last November by New Jersey-based 2395 Palisade LLC for $2.6 million, according to public records. Chatter circulated over the summer the beloved building would be torn down to make way for a residential tower, setting off a hasty resident-led grassroots campaign in protest.
The owner — Joseph Seidenfeld of Timber Equities, according to a July 31 alteration permit issued by the city’s buildings department — didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
“It was more the suddenness of this” that caught McDermott off-guard, he said. “It’s like, ‘Holy smokes.’ Everybody had heard rumors about this, and then suddenly, there was construction fencing up around it.”
Work started around mid-August, McDermott said, although some neighbors calmed down a bit after finding out the construction would mainly affect the building’s interior, under terms set forth in a buildings department-issued permit.
According to approved plans, the existing four-story, seven-dwelling building would be converted to 11 dwellings, a DOB spokesperson said, involving removal of interior dividing walls. But the building’s size wouldn’t be enlarged, and its essential envelope would remain intact.
Residents really ignited, however, when they noticed the roof stripped to its very beams, its red tiles removed — which some suspected violated the permit’s terms.
“I’m very relieved they’re not just tearing down the whole building,” said Jennifer Scarlott, who lives nearby. Still, “the roof is in appalling shape. I care a lot about the building and its future — that we don’t just lose history.”
In fact, DOB inspectors checked out the site Aug. 19 in response to complaints construction crews were altering the roof beyond what was allowed, a spokesperson said. But they found the work — involving removal of roof tiles and sheeting — complied with the plans and issued no violation.
DOB responded to a similar complaint days later, instead finding one of the contractors was using a machine to tear down interior walls instead of using hand-held mechanical equipment called for in the approved plans. That delayed demolition another week.
The most recent stop work order — citing missing overhead protection over Bradley Terrace as well as some insurance issues —was still in effect as of Sept. 21.
Greg Gallent, who’s lived in the neighborhood some 15 years, said any significant changes to the Villa Rosa Bonheur are about more than the building itself.
“Based on its importance to the area and its connection to Riverdale and history, anything to change the overall construction would mean a change of character to the neighborhood,” Gallent said. “We’d hate to lose something that increases the overall charm of the neighborhood.”
Paul O’Brien, board director for nearby 2465 Palisade Ave., said it was one of his neighbors, Este Gardner, who organized a petition. She gathered more than a hundred signatures urging the city to consider making the building into a landmark.
Alas, their efforts proved unsuccessful.
“It may merit consideration as a potential landmark,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman Zodet Negrón, after the agency evaluated the villa. “Unfortunately, permits had already been issued that allowed for the removal of significant exterior features for which the building was being considered.”
“I’m heartbroken,” Gardner said. “There was this little walk you could take going down the stairs to the Metro-North station, these steps overhung with trees, old-fashioned lamplights, and this beautiful sort of cottage-castle right next to you. It just lent so much beauty to the neighborhood.”
To be sure, the struggle between old and new, preserving the beauty of the past against ever-looming development, is what McDermott calls an “ancient New York story.”
“I understand that dynamic,” McDermott said. “But this just feels like something sweet has been lost from the neighborhood.”