A property on Harbor Road known as the Tristram Dodge III mansion is once again the center of a controversy among neighbors in Sands Point. Mr. & Mrs. Berliner who own the property and have lived there for almost seven years want to build a new house and raze the old dwelling. To some people however this is not just the Berliner's home but a building they claim has important historic value which should be preserved for the benefit of future generations.
Built in 1719 by Tristram Dodge III, the house has been home to several eminent people, including W. Bourke Cockran, a congressman in the 1800s, Vincent Astor, member of the wealthy New York family and more recently Hedley Donovan, who was a senior advisor to Jimmy Carter. Alterations and additions have been made to the property in each of the three centuries it has existed and those in favor of preserving the building say these alterations add to its historical value and represent several eras of Long Island architecture. Those who oppose it say there is so little left of the original building that its historic value is insignificant. Feelings are running high among the neighbors who would like to see the property preserved but Mr. Berliner says the house is not suitable for his current needs and as it cannot be viewed by the public there is no benefit in maintaining it. He said after the meeting, "nothing of the original building is visible from the exterior."
The controversy began in 1992 when Sands Point's Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewed the property and recommended it be protected by a historic preservation order. The New York Times even wrote an article on the house but the recommendation was denied by the Sands Point village board in January 1993, with Mayor Wurzel describing the action as "the most difficult landmarking we ever had."
The meeting on Monday night was concerned with planning permission for the new building, not historical preservation of the current one, but several people attended in the hope they could influence the decision and save the house. Marvin Tepper, director of the Zoning and Appeals Board, called the meeting to order and quickly came to the two applications concerning the Harbor Road property. The Berliners' architect, Mr. Kurth, presented plans that showed the new house set slightly further back than the current house and a new circular drive and four car garage. He said, "we initially considered renovating [the existing house] but due to interior factors such as low ceilings it doesn't meet the needs of the Berliners." He described the new property as a "turn of the century, shingle Newport style house of approximately 6,800 square feet. He listed the interior floor plan and produced samples and photographs of the materials they intend to use on the new property which include cedar shingle and national fieldstone. His second presentation showed the cut and fill required for the project and he said every effort had been made to reach a balance and no cut will be removed from the site and no fill will have to be brought in.
After the presentations, Tepper asked, "any and all persons who would like to speak or ask questions to make a show of hands." Seven people raised their hands in response and
Tepper started with a gentleman who said he was concerned that the new plans would affect the drainage from the property. Robert Stanton, the village engineer, said the drainage question needed to be looked at in more detail but it appeared there would be no additional runoff to the ravine side of the property the gentleman was concerned about although more consideration needed to made to avoid sedimentation running into the Bay.
Charla Bolton spoke next and identified herself as Preservation Advocate for the Society of Preservation of Long Island Antiquities based in Cold Spring Harbor. She said several residents who were concerned about losing a building with so much historical significance had contacted her. She suggested a report be requested from an independent architect to review the structure's importance as a historic dwelling and that contractors, experienced in historical restoration, provide a "dollar and cents" evaluation for renovating the existing property. Tepper said he appreciated that her words reflected the position of some residents but, "our board has no power to consider historic considerations, these were reviewed at previous proceedings." He told Bolton, "You are addressing your comments to the wrong form of government."
Joan Kent, a well known local historian and author of Discovering Sands Point drew the board's attention to the Environmental assessment form completed by the applicants and pointed out the section that asked if there were any historical importance attached to the property. She said the applicants had checked the box for none and disputed this as untrue citing the age of the structure, the village's own recommendation for historical landmark status in the 1990s and the fact it was featured in her book. Later in the meeting it was noted that the plans state there are no freshwater or tidal wetlands attached to the property and this was thought to also be inaccurate.
When he was called forward to speak Pete Mohan strode to the front of the room and asked whether the demolition schedule was to be immediate or after the completion of the new building. Tepper pointed out that the question was again "not the province of this board" but allowed Mr. Berliner to respond who said, "Our intention at the present time is to live in the house until construction of the new one is completed." Mohan then asked if "Anyone has considered relocating it to somewhere where it may be appreciated Tepper responded that if people wanted to move it, they could but pointed out the owner is still living in it. He finished "Maybe you can work it out with him, this is not within our jurisdiction."
Anthony Orso, the only person who spoke in support of the plans, said he was a resident at 261 Harbor Road and the only family "with a direct line of site of the property" and therefore the only ones affected by the suggested changes. He described the building as "A wreck, worse on the inside than it is on the outside." He claimed that the current taxes the Berliners are paying are "based on land value only, none on the house" and it therefore had no value. He received a smattering of laughter from the board and audience when he said he personally looked forward to the new property because he would "like their taxes to go up and pay for social services." In a strange quirk of fate the application for landmark designation made in 1992 indicates the address of the property under consideration as 261 not 263 Harbor Road. This would suggest the landmark status was referring to Mr. Orso's property not Mr. Berliner's.
The last gentleman to speak raised the question of a land swap between Berliner and Orso, suggesting that it was a way for Berliner to gain his planning permission by increasing the frontage of his property. The Village attorney Mr. Kenneth Auerbach said it was something "adjacent property owners can do" and didn't believe it was an issue. The gentleman also said he hadn't had a chance to review the plans thoroughly and requested more time.
A lengthy discussion followed on the positioning of the new driveway, which the plans indicated cut across Mr. Orso's property. The board strongly recommended that this be reconsidered but Mr. Berliner argued that repositioning the drive would mean the destruction of approximately 50 trees. It transpired that part of the land swap between Orso and Berliner involved the area where the proposed drive was to be and Tepper told Berliner he should have retained his right of way. The board and Berliner argued for some time over this question but Berliner eventually agreed to presenting a revised plan after the village attorney told him, "you can't take the benefits without the minuses."
Finally Tepper asked Mr. Berliner if he would be prepared to allow someone to move the old property. Mr. Berliner said no one had contacted him about that but that he would be agreeable to the suggestion. He said any interested parties would have one to one and a half years to work it out. Tepper then jested, "I don't know what kind of tax break you could get for a donation like that." From the back Mr. Mohan shouted "I'll take it, I'll take it." Tepper called for order and said, "we have ventured a little far afield, people feel strongly about this but it must be worked out between the private parties and done with a modicum of goodwill at the appropriate time."
The board agreed that the site needed to be viewed again, another presentation was needed to resolve the driveway issue and the drainage plans needed to be looked at in more detail. It is almost certain there will be continued opposition to the razing of the Dodge house but Tepper made it clear that the historical landmark designation question had been resolved in 1993 and that the village zoning and appeals board would not be sidetracked onto an issue that was outside of their jurisdiction. In a lighthearted aside, as people filed out, one lady said to her friend, "Maybe we should rename it Dodge City" and her friend responded "or even bring back the Brooklyn Dodgers."