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Preservationists Hope World Trade Center Redevelopment Plans Won't Harm Historic Buildings - 2003-09-19

Politicians, architects and developers are moving ahead with redevelopment plans for the site of the former World Trade Center. At the same time, preservationists are calling on the city to safeguard some forgotten historic buildings of Lower Manhattan.

Construction workers are ripping apart the streets. They're replacing the pipes and repairing the damaged infrastructure on the narrow alleys just south of the World Trade Center site.

On the same passageways, architectural historian Francis Morrone cannot compete with the noise as he tries to show a group of curious New Yorkers remnants of the city's rich past.

"This is not going to work," he said. "Okay, I can tell you more about this later. Let's keep going."

On a quiet spot near the plot where the Twin Towers, symbols of modern commerce, stood, Mr. Morrone points to one of a handful of 200-year-old buildings.

"The building is in a rather forlorn state, as you can see," said Francis Morrone. "It does not strike you immediately upon looking at it as one of the great mansions of New York City. But, in point of fact, it was one of the great mansions of New York City when it was built."

Today, the mansion houses a hardware company. The gray paint is peeling, cracks protrude from the bricks, and rusted fire escapes cover the windows.

The building, known as the Dickey mansion, is of the federal style of architecture from the early years of the United States.

Fading elaborate moldings are signs of finer times when the street was lined with rows of fancy houses for the city's wealthy residents. The nation's first president George Washington even lived nearby.

The Dickey mansion, and a number of 100 to 200-year-old buildings south of the World Trade Center do not have so-called landmark status. Mr. Morrone says that designation would protect the buildings from demolition when the city rebuilds.

"Some of them may or may not be endangered, some of them are probably endangered," he said. "None of them is landmarked."

Preservationist groups have published a new map of the area and have commissioned a report to identify all the historic buildings potentially in danger.

Many of the buildings represent the neighborhood's industrial and commercial past.

An 1885 building still has an ornate insignia of a bear, a reminder of its original use as stables for the American Express Corporation. The words "American Curb Market" are written on another building, which housed the pre-cursor to the American Stock Exchange.

In the 1920s, the neighborhood became a hub for new immigrants. Unlike the poor and crowded lower east side, inhabited by Jews and Italians, the lower west side was New York's new Middle Eastern community.

Mr. Morrone says a beautiful church, now a pub, was built in 1925 for Lebanese and Syrian Christians.

"This chapel of the Mechite Rite, with its terra cotta fa├žade, with its wonderful colorful glazed terra cotta St. George slaying the dragon, is one of the most vivid pieces of terra cotta decoration on any building in lower Manhattan," explained Mr. Morrone. "This was created for a Middle Eastern-Christian congregation."

The Middle Eastern immigrants left Manhattan when public works projects broke up the neighborhood.

Preservationists point out that the neighborhood has gone through many changes over the last two centuries.

In 1844, American writer Edgar Allen Poe lived in a since-demolished house that is now a condemned part of the World Trade Center site. He described the area as the worst place he ever lived.

But Ken Lustbader of the Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund says that New York's historic buildings contribute to a sense of vitality.

"For hundreds of years, people have been coming to the city not specifically for the architecture but because of the dynamism that is New York," he said. "So let's not lose that texture, that grittiness, that urbanism that is here. We do not need strip malls and glass boxes to line lower Manhattan when it was America's oldest downtown."

Many old buildings were destroyed to build the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Since the September 11, 2001 tragedy, some New Yorkers are again taking notice of the buildings that remain. And they say they want to make sure that the politicians and the developers pay attention, too.