Wednesday, May 26, 2010

After Queens Historian Nancy Cataldi's Death, Her Classic Home Undergoes Makeover, Irking Residents by Nicholas Hirshon - NY Daily News

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Even a historic preservationist's home is not immune to the ravages of time and an impulse for the new.

Two years after Queens historian Nancy Cataldi died, the Victorian home that she lovingly restored has been drastically altered - its signature porch and stained glass windows removed.

The prominent Richmond Hill house was rotting so extensively due to an infestation by carpenter ants that the new owners said they had to replace key elements.

Locals sympathize with the incoming residents. But they also blame the city Landmarks Preservation Commission for not protecting Cataldi's home long ago as part of a historic district.

"We're losing too much," said Carl Ballenas, who co-authored a Richmond Hill history book with Cataldi in 2002. "We would have had this solved 10 years ago if we had a historic district."

A Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman responded that even landmarked structures are routinely changed with the agency's approval.

The home was built on Washington Ave. in 1905 by noted architect Henry Haugaard for his brother John and sister-in-law Margaret, according to the book written by Ballenas and Cataldi.

Haugaard's design incorporated several columns, dormers with "temple-like" pediments and fluted corner pilasters, the book says.

The new homeowner, Donna Harricharan, defended her family's decision to renovate - citing an outdated kitchen and decaying walls that had to be fixed before they moved in.

Harricharan, 37, also said her clan couldn't afford to restore the facade in period style.

"If somebody wanted to just keep it as a museum, they should have done that," she said.

In 1996, the Queens Historical Society honored the stately home with a "Queensmark" plaque - short for Queens landmark - for historical and architectural merit.

But Queensmarks carry only honorific, not protective, status.

Cataldi, the longtime president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, wanted her home also designated a city landmark - perhaps as part of a Richmond Hill historic district - to prevent major alterations or demolition.

But the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected the district proposal in 2001 - declining to protect Cataldi's tree-lined block, now co-named 109th St. and Nancy Cataldi Way.

The commission's chairman, Robert Tierney, told the Richmond Hill Historical Society in 2008 that the commission was upholding its decision.

"They collectively saw fit to foot-drag and stonewall with this as the indirect result," said Ivan Mrakovcic, chairman of Community Board 9.

Cataldi lived in the house for 14 years, painting the exterior white with green trim and repairing the porch, Ballenas said.

"I'm very sad to see what's happening," he said. "It's just horrible."