Unfinished New York

Preservation has evolved from a rarified special interest to an institution — an ethos — entrenched in our culture. But has it become too conservative, even elitist?

Left: Exhibition catalogue, Museum of the City of New York. Right: Photo from the catalogue [Iwan Baan]

New York’s historic preservation community has been in celebratory mode this year, marking a half-century since the passage of the city’s Landmarks Law. Observances will go national next year, with the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The Museum of the City of New York is honoring the occasion with a splendid exhibition, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” curated by Donald Albrecht and Andrew Scott Dolkart, which is accompanied by a handsome catalogue and a series of smart public programs.

Earlier this year I attended a panel discussion at the museum on “The Politics of Preservation.” There panelist Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, cut through the generally congratulatory mood by declaring that historic preservation in New York is “under siege,” facing its gravest threats since 1978, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the city’s landmarks ordinance in the famous Grand Central Terminal case. To which my response was: Really? Can this be true? Or is this just the latest posture of a movement that seems always to be in need of a crisis?

In fact it would seem that historic preservation is today stronger than ever. The past half century has seen the movement evolve and mature from a rarified special interest on shaky legal and political ground to an institution — an ethos — firmly entrenched in our culture. In New York City, for instance, large parts of every borough are protected by historic district designation, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission has unquestioned authority to prevent building owners and developers from making “inappropriate” alterations to landmark structures or intrusions into historic districts. But no; according to Breen, I am wrong. There are ascendant forces, fueled by New York’s white-hot real estate market, that threaten to undo decades of progress. Breen cited the current mayoral administration’s intention to modify the longstanding regulation of “contextual zoning” — a mechanism to control the height and bulk of new buildings in neighborhoods of distinctive character, generally to the effect of perpetuating existing development patterns — by allowing taller buildings in such zones, many of which are contiguous with historic districts. Likewise she warned about the potential effects of up-zoning Midtown East — of allowing taller towers in the area around Grand Central Terminal — which would raise land values and thus subject historic properties to intensified threats of demolition, while the Landmarks Preservation Commission is acting too slowly to designate and protect those properties. And she lamented a proposed bill being debated by the City Council that would impose time limits on the LPC: that if a property is nominated for landmark designation and the commission does not act within a certain period, there would be a five-year moratorium on reconsidering that property, during which time anything could happen.

That the preservation battle is now playing out over wonky issues of bureaucratic process suggests the phenomenal success of the movement.

Let me process this. The possibility that a building somewhat taller than those in its immediate context might be sited on a lot not within, but bordering, a historic district may alarm conservation purists; but it hardly constitutes an existential threat to historic preservation in New York City. And no matter the possible rezoning of Midtown East, the LPC should be considering the designation of worthy properties around Grand Central: In this light it might actually be good that the proposed rezoning gives this matter new urgency, since the commission has become notoriously slow with designation cases. And why shouldn’t it be subject to deadlines, like other city agencies? To put it another way: these are the kinds of problems that the preservation pioneers who picketed unsuccessfully to prevent the demolition of Penn Station could only dream about. That the discussion — the preservation battle — is now playing out over wonky issues of bureaucratic process and procedure seems proof of the phenomenal success of the movement in the past fifty years. Far beyond struggling to save individual buildings from destruction — though clearly this remains a never-ending concern — preservationists today are going head to head with City Hall, the City Planning Commission, and the real estate industry over the very shape of the city.

I don’t mean to insult the estimable Peg Breen by trivializing her argument, which is, to be sure, more nuanced than my summary. In a later conversation she elaborated on the evidence she sees of a distinct shift in power; an upset of the hard-won balance that for years existed between historic preservation and development interests, which she sees now tilting back toward the latter. This may indeed be the case, but one doesn’t have to be a member of the demonized Real Estate Board of New York to believe that a recalibration of that balance might be in order.

I would like to argue that a more potent threat to the ongoing political viability of historic preservation is the perception that the preservation industry has become a conservative, indeed revanchist force; that it is elitist and sometimes even racist in its abetment of gentrification. How did this happen? Historic preservation in New York, according to the favored creation myth, was born in the postwar era as a progressive grassroots movement — Jane Jacobsian community activists and cultural advocates battling City Hall and greedy developers to prevent the desecration of their neighborhoods. Now the movement is too often viewed, justifiably, as being simply anti-development. The current dispute over contextual zoning brings this issue to the fore. Bill de Blasio — probably the most progressive mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia — has made the production of affordable housing the number-one priority of his administration. To this end, he proposes tweaking zoning regulations to allow developers to increase the size of new residential projects, with special bonuses for low-income or senior housing. In practice, this would allow apartment buildings in contextual zoning districts — which often overlap with or surround historic districts — to exceed current height limits by some calculated degree. The response to this proposal on the part of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Districts Council, and other preservation groups has been vehement opposition — a position that makes it all too easy for both housing advocates and the Real Estate Board of New York to portray the preservation community as the enemy of affordable housing and, by extension, the common people.

What has brought us to this unhappy impasse? On one level it is the result of supply and demand. In 1964 James Marston Fitch founded the country’s first academic historic preservation program, at Columbia, which began granting graduate degrees in 1973. Cornell and the University of Vermont started their programs in 1975; Boston University and Eastern Michigan followed in 1976 and 1979. More programs rolled out in the ’80s and proliferated in the ’90s, and over fifty-five institutions now grant historic preservation degrees. (The pace has slowed in the 21st century, as sustainability has taken over as the vogue within architecture and planning schools.) Thus hundreds of newly-minted preservationists — a term that did not exist as a professional title when I was in school — enter the job market every year and, simply put, they need stuff to preserve. The burgeoning ranks of the profession have populated preservation agencies in virtually every region and municipality in the United States. Likewise, the tools and strategies of preservation have greatly expanded in recent years, along with notions of what should be preserved.

When the first New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was constituted in 1965, the panel was equipped with a list of 750 buildings that had been identified as worthy — or in urgent need — of the protective status of “landmark.” The commission accomplished this early round of work with a speed that now seems astonishing. Yet the commissioners were cautious; they side-stepped designations that might trigger legal challenge or political backlash — a situation not remedied until the Supreme Court’s 1978 Grand Central Terminal decision which, after a bruising battle, affirmed the constitutionality of landmarking buildings and thus galvanized the whole preservation movement. Since then the LPC has expanded its brief, now designating not only individual buildings and discrete districts but also interiors, scenic landscapes, and miscellany such as lampposts, clocks, and signs. From the original list of 750, New York City now has over 33,000 buildings that are protected by individual designation or inclusion in one of 134 historic districts or district extensions. (The city’s first historic was Brooklyn Heights, designated in 1965.) The LPC, with a staff of about seventy, is stretched to process the thousands of applications filed each year for work on designated properties.

At the time of its establishment, some thought the Landmarks Preservation Commission would do its work, mop up the pool of eligible properties, and be done with it — since, as it was said, they aren’t making historic buildings any more. But of course we are “making” historic buildings every day. In New York City, thirty years is the minimum age at which a structure can be given landmark status, which means that every year hundreds of buildings from the not-distant past are eligible for potential consideration. In 2015 a building erected in 1985 can be designated a landmark — a proposition that gives pause to someone my age, who entered the architectural profession in the late ’70s and was working in a New York firm in 1985.

The architecture of the recent past often embodies values that can seem woefully obsolete, or discredited styles not yet ready for reappraisal.

The relative newness of each year’s class of eligible structures incites fascinating discussion and difficult judgment calls. The architecture of the recent past is the most vulnerable sector of our patrimony, since these buildings (and landscapes and interiors) often embody values we consider woefully obsolete, or discredited architectural styles that can seem not yet ready for reappraisal. As an undergraduate at Yale, I took a class with the formidable Charles Montgomery, one of the eminences of American decorative arts. Professor Montgomery told us that as a young man he shared his generation’s abhorrence of Victoriana: the elaborately decorated buildings — all that gingerbread — were considered embarrassing eyesores, and when it came time to clean out grandmother’s house, Tiffany lamps were consigned to the junk shop. It was under this prejudice that Philadelphia’s Society Hill was made an urban renewal zone and, in the 1950s, purged of countless 19th-century structures. Today, in the kind of ironic turn that characterizes contemporary preservation, the modernist structures that in-filled many Society Hill sites — designed by such notable Philadelphia firms as Louis Sauer, Mitchell Giurgola, Geddes Brecher Qualls Cuningham, Bower and Fradley; we admired their work when I was a graduate student at Penn — are now considered “historic” and people argue for their preservation.

In the early days of the preservation movement, it was modern architecture that was the enemy.

Indeed, in the early days of the U.S. preservation movement, it was modern architecture that was the enemy. People decried the “soulless” steel and glass towers that replaced richly ornamented old buildings, and fought against modernist urban renewal schemes that threatened traditional neighborhoods. Today, of course, mid-century modernism has accrued sufficient patina to be widely appreciated and deemed worthy of protection. I find it richly ironic that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation today cites the high quality of the mid-century townscape of University Village — a complex designed in 1960 by I. M. Pei & Associates that replaced several blocks of historic buildings and against which preservationists of the day fought bitterly, and which in 2008 was landmarked — to argue against New York University’s plans to add density to the superblock.

The present-day equivalent of Montgomery’s Victoriana is the brutalist architecture of the 1960s and ’70s. Those brawny concrete constructions, appreciated by the architectural intelligentsia but conspicuously unloved by the general public, have proven to be particularly heavy lifting for preservation advocates. Boston City Hall (designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles, and constructed in 1968) appears to be safe, for now, but the Orange County (New York) Municipal Building, a Paul Rudolph design of 1967, is under partial demolition as I write. And Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates’ heroic 1972 New Haven Coliseum (Cor-ten steel, not concrete) was imploded in 2007, just a few years before an exhibition at Yale School of Architecture would present a sympathetic review of the firm’s work.

Left: Huntington Hartford Museum, designed by Edward Durrell Stone in 1964, ca. 2000. [Docomomo] Right: 2008 renovation by Brad Cloepfil, which houses the Museum of Art and Design. [Flickr/Commons]

On my own list of “embarrassing eyesores,” Edward Durrell Stone’s Huntington Hartford Museum, which opened in 1964 to critical disdain and for years occupied a prime spot on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, was recently altered beyond recognition after the LPC scandalously succumbed to political pressure and declined to schedule hearings on its nomination as a landmark. Personally, I never liked the building — I thought it was tacky — but there’s no question that it deserved a public airing of the pros and cons of its preservation. And I confess that when I walk around Columbus Circle today I wish Stone’s confection were still standing, rather than the wan make-over that now contains the Museum of Art and Design. (I also wish the Museum had commissioned the very talented Brad Cloepfil to design a new building rather than renovate this old one.) Also in Manhattan, Philip Johnson’s AT&T (now Sony) Building, with its notorious Chippendale crown, has reached the age of thirty-one and is being bruited as a potential landmark. OK … but how many lesser, cringe-inducing post-modernist follies will follow on the landmark eligibility roster? That which was the leading edge of architecture the day before yesterday is the leading edge of historic preservation today. The problem of sorting out the architectural legacy of the recent past and mustering public support for the preservation of worthy artifacts before they are lost is the urgent task of the graduates of all those preservation programs, and it’s a job that will never end.

The notion of fighting to save an individual building from demolition seems quaintly small-scale these days.

But the preservation of individual buildings is only one interest — and, as I perceive it, a lesser one — of the preservation industry. As the profession has grown and diversified, so too has its scope and focus. It is telling that the title of the show at the Museum of the City of New York is “Saving Place.” Likewise, the tag line of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s magazine, Preservation, is “People Saving Places.” Pratt Institute has just inaugurated the country’s first degree program in “Place Making.” Come to think of it, I am writing this essay for a journal called Places. Clearly, the intellectually respectable lens through which to study, critique, and influence the built environment is not the narrow one that focuses on the part but the wider one that takes in the whole. The notion of fighting to save an individual building from demolition seems quaintly small-scale these days. In recent years, at least in New York City, energy has been poured into the creation and expansion of historic districts, the objective being to preserve entire neighborhoods and their ambiance. This generally means preventing the construction of buildings bigger than what’s there already, or the demolition or alteration of any building deemed “contributing” to the character of the district — a determination that can be very elastic.

Proposed addition to the Parke-Bernet Galleries, left, and redesigned addition, right both by Norman Foster + Partners.

The inevitable conflict between development interests and those who seek to “save place” played out dramatically, a few years ago, in the Upper East Side Historic District, when the LPC bowed to the vociferous and well-funded protests of wealthy residents and vetoed an elegant scheme to construct a slender glass apartment tower on top of the refined Parke-Bernet Galleries building (a 1949 design by A. Stewart Walker and Alfred Easton Poor). The architect of the proposed tower, Norman Foster, was compelled to redesign the project as an ungainly squat block, which thoroughly degrades the Parke-Bernet — but preserves the Central Park views of the millionaires living in the Carlyle Hotel, across the way. A few blocks south on Madison Avenue, the LPC forced the compromise of a design by Renzo Piano for an addition to Marcel Breuer’s landmark 1966 Whitney Museum by denying permission to remove one utterly banal brownstone (itself in altered condition), on the grounds that it was a “contributing” structure within the historic district because it was typical of the row houses that populate the neighborhood. But isn’t the fact that there are so many of these generic houses a reasonable argument for allowing this one to go? Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz said at the time that the LPC could never allow the demolition of a contributing building in a historic district. But of course it could. That’s the commissioners’ job, to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a proposed intervention is justifiable on grounds of relative benefits. Gratz’s absolutism is the sort of attitude that gives historic preservationists a bad name.

Robert A. M. Stern, in his provocative introduction (written with Jacob Tilove) to the book Saving Place, observes that historic preservation has gotten into the business of physical planning through the back door. This is true, and is the proximate cause for the preservation community’s collision with the city’s real estate interests and its dispute with a mayor who seeks to deploy zoning regulations for social purposes that many New Yorkers view as more vital than the strict preservation of neighborhood ambiance (as all too often defined by aesthetic criteria). One widely acknowledged problem with the administration of the municipal landmarks law is its disconnect from city planning. The Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission frequently find themselves working at cross purposes, which only leads to damaging misunderstandings and a colossal waste of resources. A perennially recurring proposal — or rumor — is to merge the LPC into the Department of City Planning. This is anathema to most preservationists. But really, might that not be the ideal scenario for historic preservation — that considerations of cultural, historical, and architectural significance be given standing equal to economic, demographic, and environmental factors in the formulation of zoning and other planning policy? I say yes, but we are not there yet.

Pennsylvania Station, ca. 1910. [Library of Congress]. The building was demolished in 1965.

Dust jacket of first edition of Lost New York, showing Penn Station.

I have noticed that just as the preservation movement has enlarged its focus from discrete buildings to entire places, so too has it subtly shifted from self-identification as “historic preservation” to simply “preservation.” My uneasy feeling is that more and more this implies a shift of mission from preservation guided by criteria of historical, architectural, and cultural significance to preservation inspired by the nebulous “character” of places; that is, the wholesale preservation of the physical fabric of the city — keeping things the way they are — by whatever justification and means possible. I have long thought that I’d like to write a counterpoint to the fascinating and heart-breaking Lost New York, written by architect Nathan Silver and published in 1968, which catalogs architectural treasures that might still be standing if landmark laws had been established sooner. My book would be called something like Never Would Have Been Built New York, and would be a survey of present-day landmarks that would never have been built, for the same reason. On the list would be the Empire State Building, which required the demolition of the first Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and the Seagram Building, which replaced the remarkable Romanesque revival Montana Apartments. 1 And Breuer’s Whitney Museum, one of the greatest mid-20th century buildings in the city (and the nation), required the removal of not one but seven of those “contributing” Upper East Side brownstones.

At Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where I teach a design studio within the Historic Preservation program, we train our students to identify the “character-defining” features of a building or site in order to inform a strategy for its preservation or to determine the appropriateness of an intervention. I posit that New York City’s ultimate character-defining feature is change: the constant redevelopment of property for new purposes, the recycling of neighborhoods by successive immigrant groups, the recontouring of the skyline with new towers that rise to heights considered impossible by each preceding generation. O. Henry famously quipped of New York: “It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.” But if they ever do finish New York, it will have lost its essential character — and greatness. The preservation community would do well to keep this in mind.

  1. This sentence was slightly revised after publication, to remove an inaccurate statement that the 19th-century campus of Columbia University was torn down to make way for Rockefeller Center.
Belmont Freeman, “Unfinished New York,” Places Journal, October 2015. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/151019

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