Horace Mann ready to convert another Tibbett Ave home


For years, many who lived on the stretch of Tibbett Avenue north of Manhattan College likely felt their street was a de facto part of nearby Horace Mann School, with bus traffic and student gatherings not far from their front doors.

In recent years, however, Horace Mann has removed the “de facto” label — for the most part, at least — buying up a number of properties along Tibbett, absorbing them into the private school’s campus.

Some homes still welcome residents.

Others have been converted to other school uses — all while keeping the look and feel of a residential neighborhood, protected as part of the Fieldston Historic District.

Now the school has its eye on a home it wants to use to help connect Horace Mann’s older students with the right college.

The school bought the barn-inspired home from the estate of late attorney Arthur Dillon in 2018 for $1.125 million. And now they hope Community Board 8 will give its initial blessing to some modifications to the building that will help make its transformation into an educational building complete.

But Horace Mann’s continued forays into the residential neighborhood is not sitting well with some CB8 members, including its chair, Rosemary Ginty.

Horace Mann’s requirement to come before CB8 has nothing to with zoning — since residential buildings can be used for educational purposes — but instead because some of the changes Horace Mann is proposing to the school requires a thumbs up from the city’s landmarks commission.

Because of that, Ginty fears what Horace Mann wants to do to the house may fall short of those historic preservation guidelines.

“All the changes that I see are being proposed because of the new use,” Ginty said during a video conference of CB8’s land use committee on April 2.

“They are not being proposed to make a residential structure a residential structure. What I’ve seen feels institutional, and so I just find the changes at this point in time to be inappropriate for the district.”

The school hired architect Michael Nieminen, a partner with Kliment Halsband Architects in Chelsea, to lead the renovations replacing — and adding — windows to the structure, making its entrance more accessible, upgrading some of its facade, and creating multiple rooms on the three floors and basement of the structure.

“There are some changes to the rooms, because rather than bedrooms with closets, they’ve become ... reworked to provide office space for college counseling,” Nieminen said. “But the main living room is retained as the reception space much like it was, the vestibule remains intact, and the stair is nominally in its original location reconfigured.”

Although Nieminen shared plans the school had on the inside, he pointed out to the community board its jurisdiction as far as landmarking goes applies only to the exterior of the building. He described the rest of the street as an “eclectic” group of homes, something he said the school’s proposed changes to 4456 Tibbett won’t negatively affect.

Gordon Jensen, the facilities management director at Horace Mann, told the committee his school was working to integrate 4456 Tibbett into the cluster of services offered in neighboring houses, but wouldn’t talk about any future acquisition plans that might expand Horace Mann’s campus into the Fieldston neighborhood even more.

That was enough to give land use committee chair Charles Moerdler pause.

“Slowly but surely you’re turning that portion of Fieldston into a college or high school campus,” Moerdler said, removing the home “from a residential community that has a historic effect.”

History, however, is very important to the school, Jensen said, especially along this stretch of Tibbett that separates Horace Mann from Manhattan College.

“We try to be aware that it is a historic district, and we keep those houses in a historic fashion,” Jensen said. We are “not ripping anything down and building a new modern building or anything.”

What would normally be a ticking clock on such a decision by CB8 doesn’t exist right now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, once restrictions are lifted, Moerdler added, decisions on projects like this one will likely have to come quickly.