The Great Debate: A house’s rights vs. individual owner’s rights

The latest shit-storm stirring up the house blogosphere is a highly polarizing debate centered around one very unfortunate house.

Before I give you the back-story, and my expert opinion on all of this, I’ll show you pictures of the house.

BEFORE: Historic preserved Victorian in New York City….

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AFTER: Butterscotch bricked and concreted McMansion with guarding eagles….

Yes, that is the same house.

Images of the befores and afters were first posted on a website called Scouting New York – you can read the complete article here: The Saddest House in New York City

Here’s a quick run-down:

A historic preservationist owned this 1905 home in Richmond Hill, Queens for 14 years. Her name was Nancy Cataldi. She fought for the rights of old homes in historic neighborhoods in New York and she lobbied for her own street to become protected but was denied by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2001. She passed away unexpectedly about four years ago and her home was sold.

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The new owners renovated. They said they had to because of an infestation of carpenter ants.

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Local news outlets first picked up on the extreme alteration and recently, it has been lighting up the blogosphere. The reaction has been visceral and heated.

I’ve been reading all the debate and commenting myself on various blogs and forums because I find this all very heartbreaking and intriguing.

There are two opposing viewpoints on the matter:

– those who are appalled and sickened by the butchery of-a-reno job by the new owners;

– and those who may not like the reno, but uphold the individual homeowners’ right to freedom of expression.

Here’s my 2 cents….

The house was beautiful. It had soul, it was loved. It was a historic treasure and has been around a lot longer than you or I. Yes, I agree that individuals should be able to express themselves any darn way they please and I don’t believe in conforming to societal standards. (I’m a go-against-the grain type of gal, afterall.)

HOWEVER, I do strongly believe in my heart of hearts that this house was wronged, and hey, houses have feelings too!

In my humble opinion, this home was denied its inalienable right to peacefully exist. A long-standing historic item like this – which has seen two Worlds Wars, The Great Depression and countless other episodes of history should have some rights of its own that supercede the individual rights of a Homo sapien whose subjective tastes and whims vary like puffs of fleeting smoke.

Yes, this house should have been protected. I’m not going to get into the nasty debate of cultural differences and “new immigrant architecture” (just writing that xenophobic phrase makes me feel icky) because I don’t believe that we should beat each other up over our differences and how and when and where we display or celebrate them. It is what it is.

Nonetheless, I do believe that houses should have rights, and be respected irrespective of who owns them. Some might accuse this type of thinking as being a bit “House Nazi”, but that accusation just makes me queasy.

Of course we need to balance individual rights and freedoms with protection and preservation. Obviously, it’s an age-old issue.

But I view houses as being the voiceless victims in all this. They are like vulnerable dogs at an animal shelter – they can’t speak (our language), they can’t directly tell us what they want and need. But if we listen quietly enough and feel for their soul, we might hear that they just want to be loved for who they are.

That’s my take anyway.

But take anything I say with a grain of salt, after all, this is House Crazy Sarah here!


For further reading ferocious debate on this issue, see the links below:



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  • Nick Kirby says:

    I am right there with ya! No reason to butcher a beautiful home as that one was.If they wanted a new McMansion why didn’t they build a new one?

  • Sharon says:

    This is a hard one. I think what they did to the house was a tragedy but…I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and cannot do to my own historic house. There are probably some folks that were appalled by what we did to our house, but I love it! I wish we could sell our houses with some sort of lifetime restriction on what can/cannot be done with them. Then, if you’re willing to take the hit to the sales price, then you can sell it with the restriction. I’d do that with the newly stripped wood in my craftsman house, if I could, when I sell it.

    • housecrazy says:

      I guess I see it as humans being caretakers of old houses, rather than “owners”. I kind of feel the same way about my adopted shelter dog – I don’t feel right being called his “owner” — I’m just the human who feeds him :)

  • Marcia Flanders says:

    I agree with you and Nick! I can’t understand why someone would buy a beautiful old house only to turn it into a cookie cutter McMansion stripped of all it’s character and charm. Why do people do this instead of leaving these beautiful old houses for people who love and respect them?!

  • Jayne says:

    I totally agree with you Sarah! I strongly believe that those of us who live in historic/old houses are caretakers and should protect that small piece of history. I live in a National Register Historic District and we have to get approval from the town’s Historic Preservation Commission before doing anything to the exterior of our houses.

    Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about his house in Hartford, CT:
    “To us, our house…had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”

    I agree with the good Mr. Twain!

    • housecrazy says:

      Jayne, what a beautiful quote from Mark Twain! “lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction” – I just love that! Thanks for sharing!

  • Norma says:

    The “after” pictures made my heart cry. Totaly speechless here.

  • Norma says:

    OMG they put in new windows

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