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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.”
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.
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.
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.