On a July morning, at the tender age of five, I watched the building next to my Bronx tenement capitulate to the blows of a wrecking ball. The devastating simplicity of a dead weight buckling a masonry wall has stayed with me all my life, mostly because this theater of destruction is repeated in New York on a near routine basis. Thousands of buildings disappear in a pile of dust and brick each decade, to be replaced with others. Arguably a necessary evil in a large city, the practice had by mid-century become foolishly indiscriminate.
New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Law, passed 50 years ago, was prompted by the extraordinarily shortsighted destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station, a McKim, Mead, and White marble and steel masterpiece leveled for the indefensibly fatuous reason that it could not turn a profit. This especially egregious waste of our architectural heritage made it clear to those who cared that laws were needed to thwart forces of heedless destruction that came from both governmental and private interests.
Following the passage of the Landmarks Law, citizen groups similar to those that since the 19th century had argued for the preservation of unique architectural sites succeeded by 1973 in getting an amendment to the law that included parks — not all parks, but a group of nine, most of them associated directly or indirectly with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
At the Arsenal Gallery, located on the third floor of the Parks Department Administrative Building at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue, Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquites for the Parks Department, met with me to walk through an exhibition of photographs, maps, architectural drawings, and related ephemera titled Living Landmarks. Curated by Kuhn and Jennifer Lantzas, the exhibition is divided into the nine landmarked areas: Central, Prospect, Morningside, Bryant, Fort Tryon, Riverside parks, Eastern and Ocean Parkways, and Verdi Square.
A fascinating subtext of the exhibition is how the preservation movement was instigated by private organizations, the earliest of which formed in the 19th century.
“It was journalist John Mullaly who formed in 1881 the first important group of its type, the New York Park Association, to lobby the administration of then Governor Grover Cleveland to acquire for the city the area north of the Harlem River primarily for park land,” Kuhn explained. “From this huge parcel Van Cortland Park and Pelham Bay Park were set aside in what was to become the borough of the Bronx. Because land was cheap and sparsely populated, Mullaly’s group succeeded in quintupling New York City’s park acreage overnight. In fact there is a park named after Mullaly near Yankee Stadium to honor his legacy.”
Since then a number of civic organizations have formed, including those actually initiated by then-Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis in 1978 like the Central Park Conservancy, a private organization that is contracted by the city to both manage the park and to raise funds to support their efforts. Many others have followed, including the Prospect Park Alliance and the Friends of the High Line. This private/public hybrid keeps park funding somewhat clear of internecine political squabbling that inevitably develops over issues regarding the priorities of a large and complex city.
Though it is a lot to read, there is just enough wall text and labelling in Living Landmarks to give visitors a sense of the complexity involved in maintaining park land in New York, which is about all a curator can do. Any attempt at diagramming the labyrinth of city, state, and private agencies would likely prove too much for a coherent visualization. Wisely, the curators concentrated their efforts on historic documents including photographs, which to any New Yorker should prove fascinating. There is a photo taken in 1937 of the Brooklyn Museum on the newly finished Eastern Parkway that shows a large empty space where the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library now stands. A strange and unintentionally shocking 1869 photo finds tree pruners in Prospect Park literally hanging by one arm to a 40-foot latter held upright in mid-air by ropes anchored at ground level. No helmets, no safety harness, nothing between the workers and their demise but the one-hand grip they can maintain on the ladder.
A visitor to the exhibition might wonder why landmark status is not given automatically to city-owned parks, as each represents an ostensibly uncomplicated instance of reserving a municipal asset for public use. But New York City has several privately owned parks, including Gramercy Park in Manhattan, which was given landmark status indirectly when the entire district was declared a landmark. According to the law, the protection offered by landmark status can be given to a tree, a rock, a building, or anything in the city that meets the Landmark Commission’s criteria. Needless to say, landmark status, particularly on a parcel of land, is not bestowed casually.
“A site has to be at least thirty years old to even be considered for landmark status,” Kuhn said. “When something is landmarked it’s not just because it’s old and not just because it has historic value. Frankly everything in New York has historic value. Eastern and Ocean Parkways in Brooklyn, for example were significant contributions to the evolution of landscape design. In fact the word parkway was coined for Eastern Parkway. Combining a park with a road was a sort of urban and suburban idea, with some precedent in Europe.”
As with the pragmatic organizational model, instances of special cases are handled through compromise.
“Verdi Square is an unusual case,” he said. “It’s really just a sculpture standing on less than a tenth of an acre — hardly a park. It was given landmark status along with the bank building behind it, which dates to the 1920s. The bank building has a magnificent receiving hall that survives to this day. We’ve restored the sculpture in recent years.”
Yet in a democratic arena, not all issues can be resolved to everyone’s liking. Prior to my visit, Kuhn insisted that I not miss a bronze model in the entry hall that represents one of five unrealized designs for playgrounds that were to be built in Riverside Park. Created by sculptor Isamu Noguchi and architect Louis Kahn, the designs were initiated in the 1960s and funded privately, but were rejected by then-mayor John Lindsay, who aligned himself with local community groups that disliked the proposals. The modernist playgrounds’ fate goes to show that the parks of New York City, like many public art projects, are an ongoing expression of the city’s vital role in the public conversation that embodies what we mean by culture.