Museums

50 Years of Fighting to Save New York City’s Historic Architecture

Marble eagle from Pennsylvania Station sculpted by Adolph A. Weinman (1910)
Marble eagle from the demolished Pennsylvania Station sculpted by Adolph A. Weinman (1910) (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

The obliteration of the McKim, Mead & White-designed Pennsylvania Station in 1963, just a half-century after its completion, helped galvanize grassroots preservation efforts that eventually led to New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner signing the Landmarks Law on April 19, 1965. Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks, an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, chronicles the influence of that legislation on the development of the city in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The show also goes back to the emergence of historic preservation in the US in the 19th century when, in 1845, poet Walt Whitman mourned the country’s “pull-down-and-build over again spirit.”

Demolition of Pennsylvania Station (1964-65) (photograph by Aaron Rose, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Demolition of Pennsylvania Station (1964-65) (photograph by Aaron Rose, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Demolition of Pennsylvania Station (1964-65) (photograph by Aaron Rose, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Demolition of Pennsylvania Station (1964-65) (photograph by Aaron Rose, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Now, 50 years after the passage of the Landmarks Law, there are 1,347 individual protected landmarks across New York City’s five boroughs. Saving Place, curated by Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator for architecture and design, and Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, features architectural fragments and scale models of reuse and restoration projects on two long tables, which are surrounded by a timeline of preservation on the walls of the gallery.

From the 1910 marble eagle head sculpted by Adolph A. Weinman and plucked from the Penn Station wreckage, to a model of the glass skyscraper Norman Foster beautifully perched atop the 1928 Hearst Building in 2006, the exhibition mourns the loss of architectural treasures while celebrating adaptive reuse and the ways historic sites can contribute to growth rather than slowing it down. As a Jane Jacobs quote from her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities reminds visitors: “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” However, the exhibition doesn’t go into too much detail on how landmarks have propelled growth, contrasting instead what was torn down before the Landmarks Law was passed with what has been protected since.

Installation view of 'Saving Place'
Installation view of ‘Saving Place’
Mayor Robert Wagner signing Landmarks Law (1965) (photograph by Margot Gayle, courtesy New York Preservation Archive Project)
Mayor Robert Wagner signing Landmarks Law (1965) (photograph by Margot Gayle, courtesy New York Preservation Archive Project)

New York hasn’t experienced a preservation failure as monumental as Penn Station since the adoption of the Landmarks Law. The exhibition illustrates the law’s power in a 1967–69 Marcel Breuer proposal to overwhelm the façade of Grand Central Terminal with the base of a new tower; the drawings for the failed project are on view for the first time since it was rejected.

It remains a staggering task for a small commission to manage thousands of historic sites and, as the New York Times pointed out in April, Landmarks Preservation has one of the smallest budgets of any city agency. Back in December, there was outcry when the Commission proposed stripping almost 100 sites of landmark status consideration to streamline the agency’s backlog. The agency rightly withdrew the plan, but it was a sign of how difficult the city’s historic sites are to protect, preserve, and promote, especially with better-funded real estate developers always encroaching from all sides.

Terra-cotta cornice element from the Moynihan Station Redevelopment, designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1913, designated a landmark in 1966
Terra-cotta cornice elements from the Moynihan Station Redevelopment, designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1913, designated a landmark in 1966
Pressed-metal element from Pier A designed by George Sears Greene Jr. in 1886, designated a landmark in 1977
Pressed-metal element from Pier A designed by George Sears Greene Jr. in 1886, designated a landmark in 1977

Important and beloved buildings continue to fall: the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom this year; the Pan Am Worldport in 2013; the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Park Avenue Showroom, also in 2013. Saving Place demonstrates how essential the Landmarks Law was and is for protecting New York’s history and promoting it as a vital part of the city’s future. Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan was brought on to take photographs of the landmarked sites for both the exhibition and its accompanying book, and in both these presentations the buildings are active in their urban context, not closely framed as stranded relics of the past.

Saving Place is a compact exhibition and favors mentioning briefly as many sites as possible rather than spending more time on one place; even the stunning demolition of Penn Station just gets a corner. That can make the exhibition a bit cluttered, a feeling emphasized by the huge, box-shaped photographic panoramas hanging from the ceiling. However, seeing so much of what was lost and saved at once is powerful. There are almost forgotten near-misses like the proposed replacement of Carnegie Hall with a red ceramic-paneled skyscraper monolith in 1959, and a litany of destruction including St. John’s Chapel, the Brokaw Mansion, and the Roxy. There are also vital victories like the conversion of the Jefferson Market Courthouse into a library.

Writer Ada Louise Huxtable, a huge influence on preservation, stated at the time of Penn Station’s fall: “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we built but by those we have destroyed.” New York will never be a static city. On any given day it has over a hundred miles of scaffolding shadowing its sidewalks, and pending construction like the massive Nordstrom Tower — which at 1,775 feet, is set to be the tallest residential building in the world — will radically alter the skyline. Preservation will thus always be an issue, and retracing the last 50 years of its successes and failures can help prepare its advocates for the battles ahead.

Installation view of 'Saving Place'
Installation view of ‘Saving Place’ with a quote by Ada Louise Huxtable
Entrance to 'Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarking' at the Museum of the City of New York
Entrance to ‘Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarking’ at the Museum of the City of New York
Snug Harbor Music Hall on Staten Island (1899) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Byron Company Collection)
Snug Harbor Music Hall on Staten Island (1899), saved by the Landmarks Commission in the 1960s (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Byron Company Collection)
St. John's Chapel being demolished (1918) (courtesy American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society/Metropolitan History)
St. John’s Chapel being demolished (1918) (courtesy American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society/Metropolitan History)
Terra-cotta cornice elements from New York City Center, designed by Harry P. Knowles in 1924, designated a landmark in 1983
Terra-cotta cornice elements from New York City Center, designed by Harry P. Knowles in 1924, designated a landmark in 1983
At left: a portion of a wooden capital from a stairway in the Octagon, designed in the 19th century and salvaged from a 1982 fire
At left: a portion of a wooden capital from a stairway in the Octagon, designed in the 19th century and salvaged from a 1982 fire; Fiberglass sample from balustrade restoration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Original and replica tiles from the restoration of the Minton tile ceiling at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park
Original and replica tiles from the restoration of the Minton ceramic ceiling at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park
Model of the Scholastic Building in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District
Model of the Scholastic Building in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District
Edward Lamson Henry, "St. John's Park and Chapel" (1905), oil on canvas
Edward Lamson Henry, “St. John’s Park and Chapel” (1905), oil on canvas
Red skyscraper once planned to replace Carnegie Hall in 1959
Red skyscraper once planned to replace Carnegie Hall in 1959
Gloria Swanson in the ruins of Roxy Theatre
Gloria Swanson in the ruins of Roxy Theatre, photographed for LIFE Magazine
Ziegfeld Theatre (1927) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)
Ziegfeld Theatre (1927), torn down in 1966 (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)
Cast iron spandrel from the Edgar Laing Stores (1849)
Cast iron spandrel from the demolished Edgar Laing Stores (1849)
New York Post Office designed by A. B. Mullett (1902) (photograph by Irving Underwood, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
New York Post Office designed by A. B. Mullett (1902), torn down in 1939 (photograph by Irving Underwood, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Proposed skyscraper by Marcel Breuer above Grand Central Terminal (1967-69); collage for the Village Voice by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender satirizing the urban mash-ups
Proposed skyscraper by Marcel Breuer above Grand Central Terminal (1967-69); collage for the Village Voice by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender satirizing the urban mash-ups
Dyckman House after restoration (1942) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)
Dyckman House after restoration (1942) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)
Preservation buttons
Preservation buttons

Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) through January 3, 2016. 

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