a half centurY of saving new york exhibitions

| 27 Apr 2015 | 04:20

On April 19, 1965, Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the New York City Landmarks Law, authorizing, among other things, the formalization of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (which had actually been established informally in 1962) for the purpose of “preserving the City’s architectural heritage.” This historic legislation has led to the landmarking of over 33,000 properties in 114 historic districts in the five boroughs, as well as over 1,350 individual landmarks, 117 interior landmarks, and 10 scenic landmarks.

As the city, and particularly its historic preservation community, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the law, there have been and continue to be many exhibitions and events. The most important and comprehensive exhibit is at the Museum of the City of New York, at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. Entitled “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” it opened on April 21st and runs through September 13th.

Curated by Donald Albrecht (the museum’s curator for architecture and design), Andrew S. Dolkart (director, historic preservation program, Columbia University), and Seri Worden (consultant, National Trust for Historic Preservation), the exhibit -- comprised of a combination of photographs, documents, artifacts and videos, and nicely presented in a large gallery with adequate, yet austere lighting -- has three components: a timeline of the law, including its pre-history and impact; a section on “restoration” and “preservation and new architecture”; and a photo exhibit (by architectural photographer Iwan Baan) of landmarks “in context” with their surroundings.

The timeline, set neatly around the walls, is broken into five periods. The first, “Prelude to the Law” (late 1800s to early 1940s), includes: the demolition of St. John’s Chapel in 1918; the first “chronicling” of NYC architecture by the city’s Art Commission; the saving of City Hall and City Hall Park; early efforts to protect buildings with “patriotic” or “national” associations (e.g., Fraunces Tavern); and the “City Beautiful Movement” which promoted the “visual” qualities of the city vis-à-vis their “moral and civic virtue.”

The second period, “Fighting Robert Moses” (1939 to 1950), deals with the first stirrings of a broader concern (which became the “grass roots” of the historic preservation community as we know it today) as Mr. Moses was laying waste to thousands of architecturally significant buildings in pursuit of his many massive public works projects. His first real opposition came when he sought to demolish Castle Clinton; a coalition that included Eleanor Roosevelt ultimately saved the Castle. He faced his first organized community opposition when the Brooklyn Height Association successfully fought off his attempt to run a section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway through the heart of Brooklyn Heights. Other defeats included an attempt to extend 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park, and to demolish Tavern on the Green.

The third period, “Sparking the Law” (1945 to 1965) includes: the 1956 passage in Albany of the Bard Act, which authorized cities to pass landmarks laws; the city’s first formal survey of historic buildings; saving Carnegie Hall (scheduled to be demolished when the Philharmonic moved to Lincoln Center, but saved by a coalition led by violinist Isaac Stern); an intensification of the “development versus history” battle; the protection of most of historic Greenwich Village and a huge swath of Brooklyn Heights; the infamous demolition of the old Penn Station; the involvement of the press (in particular Ada Louise Huxtable); the demolition of the Brokaw Mansions (the true “straw that broke the camel’s back”); and the passing of the New York City Landmarks Law.

The fourth period, “Defending the Law” (1965-1978) includes: the first landmarks (beginning with the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House); “last minute saves” (including the Astor Library, which is now the Public Theater); some losses (including the old Metropolitan Opera house, the old Ziegfeld Theater, the Jerome Mansion); restoring landmarks -- particularly including Weeksville, a 19th-century settlement of free black New Yorkers in Crown Heights; the expansion of the Landmarks Law in 1973, which included its ability to designate interior and scenic landmarks, and made the LPC a full-time body (prior to this, it only met for six months every three years); protecting the Soho “cast-iron” district; and the battle to save Grand Central Terminal, led by Jackie Onassis. This lawsuit (against the LPC by the owners of GCT) went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 in favor of the LPC. This helped legitimize the NYC Landmarks Law in a way that nothing else could have done.

The final period, “The Law in Action” (1978 to the present) includes: the saving of the interior of Radio City Music Hall; the protection of the Broadway Theater District after the infamous “dead of night” demolition of the Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters; the rejection of certain proposed skyscrapers (e.g., over St. Bartholomew’s Church); the tension between preservation and affordable housing; the designation of “modernist” architecture; and ongoing advocacy. (Interestingly, neither the interior of Carnegie Hall nor, even more incredibly, the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, has been landmarked.)

In the center of the room are two tables, one devoted to “Restoring Landmarks,” featuring both elements of existing or lost landmarks, and materials used in restoration of existing landmarks. The other is devoted to “Preservation and New Architecture,” and deals with aesthetics of new additions to existing landmarks, and new construction in historic districts.

The Landmarks Law remains controversial, particularly for real estate developers, who feel that it prevents growth of both housing and jobs. What is undeniable is that the Landmarks Law was critical in protecting the “built environment” of New York City, spanning all historical eras and all types of architecture, while still permitting growth and progress -- protecting our history while leaving plenty of room for our future.

Ian Alterman is a former co-chair of the CB7 Landmarks Committee, a member of the West End Preservation Society, and an avid historic preservationist