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One On 1 Profile: Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen Watches Over The City's Architectural Landscape After Hurricane Sandy

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Since 1994, but even more so after Hurricane Sandy, New York Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen has helped preserve and restore some of the city's most important architectural icons. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 report.

Walking the streets of New York with Peg Breen can take some time.

She constantly stops to point out the historical significance of one thing, or the beauty of another.

"You're always discovering something," Breen says. "I can walk down a block a million times and all of a sudden my eye will light on something at the top of a building."

As the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, one of the largest of its kind in the country, Peg Breen's world revolves around buildings.

Breen often finds herself having to explain that the Landmark Conservancy doesn't actually landmark buildings. It's a nonprofit that provides expertise and money to sites that are already landmarks.

"If you care about people saving their homes, we're there," Breen says. "If you care about landmark religious institutions, we're there. If you care about nonprofits that need emergency help, we're there."

But Breen also has a snappier, catchier way of putting it.

"Got a preservation problem, who you gonna call? The Landmarks Conservancy," she says. "So I think of us as the 'Ghostbusters' of preservation."

Breen says the conservancy, created in 1973, has helped around 2,000 sites with grants, loans and technical advice.

The conservancy is constantly hearing about and reaching out to landmarked sites in need of help.

That's been especially true since Hurricane Sandy.

"The South Street Seaport, for instance. The buildings date to the 1830's. The buildings were fine but when they were flooded, the boilers went out, the electricity went out," Breen says. "But the physical structures were pretty good."

Buildings like that of the printers Bowne & Co. Stationers at South Street Seaport, which some thought would need many expensive renovations after Sandy, until the conservancy came in to say otherwise.

"This is an 1830's building. These are very old floors, and there's a lot of wood in here," Breen said. "So initially they were afraid they would have to take this up. And our technical director, an architect, came in here and said he didn't believe so."

Another landmarked site that suffered extensive damage was the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

The historian for the 400 acre cemetery, Susan Olsen, says Woodlawn lost about 35 trees and 50 major limbs in the storm.

"We have a couple of marble angels that were smashed, got an obelisk that was shattered," Olsen said. "All depends on how the tree falls and the weight of the monument and where it lands."

"You've had the best landscape architects of the day [build these monuments]," Breen says. "A lot of these places are little gems."

Breen also facilitates tours of sites for a group of architects, engineers, design professionals and conservators who do preservation work.

One group took a tour through St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Most of the religious structures assisted by the conservancy aren't nearly as famous, but are just as important to neighborhoods and the overall fabric of New York.

"They are beautiful, they really show you immigration patterns, and a real sense of history," Breen says. "Working with congregations where these buildings mean so much to them and being able to help is enormously rewarding. It's a very soul satisfying job."

It's a job that requires passion and patience.

In 1997, Breen toured the site of the former hospital on Ellis Island.

"I can get tears in my eyes every time. The south side isn't restored yet, so your imagination can take over, and you can go to one of the isolation wards on the southern most part of the island and look at the Statue of Liberty and think some poor immigrant child who can't speak English is looking at the Statue of Liberty, wondering if they are ever going to get there," Breen says. "Odds are they did because of the good work they did on the south side of Ellis Island."

Peg Breen says that her love of old buildings started as a kid growing up in Glens Falls, in a big old house built by her great grandfather just after the Civil War.

"Being an Irish family, sometimes you knew more about the ghosts than you did about the real folks. So there were the legends of relatives I never met, people in the neighborhood that I never met, but I knew them all anyway," Breen says. "So I grew up with a great sense of homes and that buildings contain history."

Breen came to New York University to get a master's degree in American studies, but returned upstate to help create, and then co-host for 12 years, the public television political show "Inside Albany."

She had a reporter's natural curiosity. The show took her all over the state, including a trip around the South Bronx after the blackout of 1977.

"This gang came out and started screaming that people only come to the South Bronx when there's trouble," Breen says. "But one of the gang members said 'Wait a minute. Aren't you that lady from Albany?' And I said 'How do you know?' And they spent so much time watching TV that 'Inside Albany' went by."

Breen moved to the city in 1986 to work at the Department of Investigation as a press representative for prosecutors who she says didn't trust her and didn't like the press.

She was terrified.

"I was doing radio interviews and television interviews and barely knew what I was talking about. I would go get the early edition of the [New York] Times every night to see if I had said something that would either drive me back to Albany or make sure that I had to go to Staten Island to be a waitress for the rest of my life," she says.

She sat on some preservation boards while in Albany, and volunteered for some more preservation assignments while working for then City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

Still, Breen admits she had no background for the conservancy job when she started in 1994.

"I thought I was leaving politics behind and going off to become a lady," she says. "I was going to give parties and I would be genteel."

She quickly learned she could play an influential role.

"I had a staff here that knew about Minton's and the lime content of mortar, but they didn't know what I knew about state and city politics. And they didn't know what I knew about lobbying," Breen says.

In her first year on the job, she created the annual living landmarks gala, honoring famous New Yorkers.

She got the idea from one of the first honorees, former Gov. Hugh Carey.

Many of these projects take years. There are battles between landmark and real estate interests, and now there are added challenges posed by Hurricane Sandy and future storms as well.

But Peg Breen remains a walking endorsement of New York, block by block.

"It makes it much more enjoyable to walk around town, or ride around town," she says. "You have a better sense of who built it originally, who's there now and that you've done something to keep it going."

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