Sunday, June 7, 2015

183. Landmarks: Saving the Old from the New

     Nineteenth-century New York was too drunk on the idea of Progress (usually capitalized) to worry about preserving anything.  It was Young America, it was Go Ahead, breaking free from the old and embracing wholeheartedly the new.  Obsessed with Bigger, Better, Faster, it didn’t need to grasp the ideas of the marquis de Condorcet, the eighteenth-century philosophe whose buoyant optimism saw humanity as marching ever onward and upward; indeed, New Yorkers almost daily saw proof of Progress right there before their eyes.  Almost daily, as the city’s growth exploded, they learned of a cornerstone laying, a bridge opening, a ship launching, or the laying out of yet another street, events marked with appropriate ceremonies, speeches, and cheers, and sometimes even the booming of cannon.  One amazing change after another transformed their lives: the steamboat, the railroad, indoor plumbing, the telegraph, the elevator, electricity, the telephone, and by the end of the century, the automobile.  They were fiercely convinced that their city was the locomotive pulling the rest of the nation faster and faster into the future.

File:(King1893NYC) pg790 THE OLD MERCHANTS' EXCHANGE ON WALL STREET.jpg     Spreading northward on the narrow, cigar-shaped island that was Manhattan, the city was in constant flux, tearing down and building up.  In the name of Progress old cemeteries were dug up and their bones scattered, so the property could be developed, and pious congregations joined the general migration northward, their abandoned churches becoming  warehouses, stables, markets, tenements, and even, alas, houses of prostitution.  And when the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed the whole Wall Street area, including the Merchants’ Exchange, an elegant marble-faced neoclassical building topped by a soaring rotunda, the fever to rebuild was such that work immediately began on lots still warm from the fire.  On the site of the old Merchants’ Exchange, where everything from steamboats to whale oil and molasses had been sold, a new exchange rose in Greek Revival style, even more massive and impressive, fronted by twelve soaring marble columns and topped by a dome.  As for the loss in the fire of the last old Dutch houses in Manhattan, not a tear was shed for those hopelessly quaint, hopelessly old-fogey one- or two-story brick structures, their stepped gable ends facing the street. The very notion of landmark preservation would have struck the citizens as needless, alien, and outlandish; it would have to wait a century or more.

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The new Merchant's Exchange (built 1836-41) as it exists at 55 Wall Street today.  
After serving as the U.S. Custom House 1862-1907, it was acquired by the National 
City Bank and radically transformed: the dome was eliminated, and four floors and a 
second colonnade were added.  Today it is occupied by an upscale restaurant and the 
luxury housing of Cipriani Club Residences.

Beyond My Ken

     The cult of Progress continued well into the twentieth century and took on a very American air with the appearance in the 1920s and 1930s of that distinctly American phenomenon, the skyscraper.  The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building were hailed as New World wonders, and Rockefeller Center, built in the very depths of the Depression, seemed dazzlingly grandiose and daring.  The Art Deco style characterizing all three was a sharp break with the Beaux Arts style of Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library, and with anything that smacked of the Old World.  Creating such marvels, New York was still the locomotive hauling the rest of the nation into the world of tomorrow. 

     The World of Tomorrow, indeed, was the theme of the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’ popular exhibit Futurama presented a model of the world twenty years into the future, with vast suburbs, segregated highways allowing a free flow of traffic and pedestrians, and an 18-minute ride on a conveyor system giving spectators a simulated aerial view of the panorama.

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The Futurama exhibit, showing a street intersection in the City of Tomorrow.  I leave it to
residents and visitors to decide if Bel Geddes' vision has been realized in New York

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Poster for the Chicago World's Fair.

     I never saw the New York World’s Fair, but at a very tender age was taken to A Century of Progress, the 1933 world’s fair celebrating the centennial of the city of Chicago, whose ill-timed theme contrasted sharply with the woes of the Depression.  But not even a depression could squelch the cult of Progress.

     The prime New York developer of the twentieth century was Robert Moses (1888-1981), who pursued public works – and pursued them ruthlessly – under six New York State governors and five New York City mayors.  (See post #78, The Hercules of Parks.)  In the city he transformed Pelham Bay Park and Riverside Park, completed the Triborough Bridge, built the West Side Highway, and created Lincoln Center, the United Nations Headquarters, Co-op City, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, and the New York Coliseum.  And that is only a partial list of his accomplishments.  New York City has always dreamed big, and Moses dreamed bigger than anyone.  But he wasn’t just a dreamer, he built.  And to build his grandiose projects he flattered, schemed, lied, and pressured, and so became, in the words of his biographer, the biggest builder the world had seen since the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  But to realize his dreams, he thought nothing of invading old neighborhoods, tearing them apart, destroying them, and displacing thousands of residents for the sake of the New.

     In 1952 Moses announced a plan to have two streets flank the Washington Square Arch and run on south through Washington Square Park, obliterating the fountain.  This assault on a beloved green space in Greenwich Village aroused the fierce opposition of local residents, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and under the leadership of urban activist Jane Jacobs they launched a campaign to save the park and ban all vehicles from it.  A long and complicated legal fight followed with many ups and downs, but David finally triumphed over Goliath: in 1963 the park was saved and all vehicles were banned from it forever. 

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The Washington Square Arch today.  No streets flanking the arch and no vehicles.
David Shankbone

     This and a few other rare defeats of Robert Moses signaled, by the 1960s,  a significant change in the attitude of New Yorkers toward grandiose projects created at the expense of small neighborhoods.  Especially influential was Jane Jacobs’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which denounced urban planning as destructive of organic city neighborhoods while replacing them with sterile urban spaces.  But even as Jacobs and her fellow Villagers fought off the attack by Moses, developers were demolishing old buildings in the Village and replacing them with big new apartment buildings with fancy lobbies and uniformed doormen, and names that oozed high culture: the Van Gogh on Horatio Street, and the Cézanne and the Rembrandt on Jane Street, the very street where I was then living.  Passing these unlovely but well-scrubbed behemoths as I often did, I wondered when a Puvis de Chavannes or a Whistler might appear, or perhaps a Bouguereau, though this last would be ill-advised, since Americans might pronounce it “Bugger.”  Only with the creation of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969 did these depredations stop, and even then the district’s borders zigged and zagged capriciously, stopping just south of 14th Street on the north and short of the Hudson River on the west, while reaching only to Washington Square on the south and east.  The heart of the Village was preserved, but not all of it.

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Jane Jacobs, chair of the Committee to Save the West Village, brandishing supporting documents
at a press conference in 1962.  It takes a lot of organized action to get anything done in this city,
and she knew it.

     What finally triggered a widespread movement to protect city landmarks was the demolition in 1963 of the old Penn Station, a 1910 Beaux Arts masterpiece built by the celebrated firm of McKim, Mead & White.  The pink granite façade on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets featured a colonnade of Tuscan columns, and the high-vaulted waiting room inside, patterned on the Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome, was the largest enclosed space in the city and one of the largest in the world.  Adjoining the waiting room was a concourse of glass and wrought iron, equally vast and imposing.  Photographs of the exterior and interior give breathtaking views, and aerial photographs of the ensemble, which occupied two whole city blocks, are awesome. 

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What we lost: the main waiting room.

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What we lost: the concourse.

     Demolished? one asks in wonderment.  A monument as magnificent as it was colossal -- destroyed?  How could this be?  There were protests at the time, but the Pennsylvania Railroad, faced with dwindling revenues and the burdensome expense of maintaining the existing structure, had sold the air rights to a developer who planned to build a new Madison Square Garden on the site.  Of course there would be a new Penn Station, and air-conditioned.  Much smaller in size, it was built below street level – the cramped mediocrity of a station that travelers are stuck with today.  Comparing the old and new stations, an architectural historian remarked, “One entered the station like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”  Expedience and cost effectiveness had triumphed over magnificence, and with a touch of irony as well: Stanford White, the famous architect whose firm had created the old Penn Station, had been shot to death in an earlier Madison Square Garden that he had also built; now the construction of yet another Madison Square Garden, the fourth of that name, was the pretext for demolishing his masterpiece.

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What we got: the Penn Station concourse today.  Glitzy, flat-ceilinged, uninspired and uninspiring.
Alan Turkus
     The full significance of the city’s loss registered with me only when I saw a New York Times photograph showing some of the station’s huge columns lying abandoned in a field in New Jersey, soon to be relegated to a Meadowlands landfill.  One wanted to denounce the railroad management and the developer, but weren’t we all to some extent guilty?  Hurrying through those remarkable vaulted spaces, we were too preoccupied with catching our train to pause and absorb the splendor all around us. 

     Belatedly, a firestorm of protest led to the creation, in 1965, of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, an agency charged with protecting all buildings and districts deemed architecturally and historically significant.  The Real Estate Board of New York vigorously opposed the commission’s creation, but in time came to realize that the commission’s work could actually increase a property’s value.  By law the commission consists of eleven commissioners appointed by the mayor and must include at least three architects, a historian, a city planner or landscape architect, a real estate agent or developer, and at least one resident of each of the city’s five boroughs.  To be declared a landmark, a building must be at least thirty years old.  A property owner can continue to use a landmarked building, but cannot demolish or alter it without the commission’s approval.  As a result, many an old building stands with its façade intact, though the interior has been gutted and renovated.

     As of 2014, more than 31,000 properties have been designated landmarks, most of them in 110 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions in all five boroughs.  Historic districts include Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking District, SoHo, Wall Street, and South Street Seaport in Manhattan; Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn; Grand Concourse in the Bronx; Jackson Heights in Queens; and Seaview Hospital in Staten Island.  One of the commission’s greatest accomplishments was the preservation of Grand Central Terminal, when Penn Central tried to alter the structure and top it with an office tower.  But the commission’s decisions  are often controversial and far from unanimous, and they can be appealed.

     Recently the mere threat of the commission’s disapproval forced the Frick Collection to abandon its plan to demolish a garden beloved of New Yorkers on East 70th Street so the museum could build an unlovely six-story addition.  (See post #142 on MOMA and the Frick, August 31, 2014.)  The garden, dating from 1977, is the creation of the distinguished British landscape artist Russell Page and his only completed work in the city.  Though only a “viewing garden,” meaning that the public can view it from the fence but not enter it, it is a precious bit of greenery in a city starved for greenery, with a rectangular pool surrounded by gravel paths and boxwood hedges.  Surprised by the intensity of opposition to their expansion plan by a coalition of architects, landscape designers, and preservationists, Frick officials finally yielded and agreed to explore alternative plans.  The opposition, after all, is motivated by a deep love for the Frick as it is. 

     Encouraging as the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission was, concerned citizens wanted an organization focused specifically on New York City.  So in 1973 a small group of architects, lawyers, planners, writers, and preservationists joined together to found the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which works to preserve and reuse the city’s architecturally significant buildings.  The conservancy modeled its work on the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to acquire, hold, and manage endangered lands.  Financed mostly by donations from the public, the Landmarks Conservancy works closely with owners and community groups in all five boroughs to safeguard landmarked buildings, and campaigns to get landmark status for buildings not yet designated as such.  It even makes grants and low-interest loans to help finance renovation and restoration projects throughout the city.  

     The conservancy insists that it is not opposed to new development, provided it doesn’t endanger existing structures that merit preservation.  For example, many Upper East Side “curtain wall” office buildings – those big glass boxes built in the 1960s and 1970s -- it considers culturally insignificant and ripe for replacement, which of course means demolition.  While my personal opinion weighs lightly in such matters, I’ll chime in anyway: all that glass bores me; good riddance.  Though one wonders what will replace it: wonders, or more monstrosities?  (There are a few other architectural horrors that I could easily part with – the Maritime Union building on Seventh Avenue, for instance, and the New School’s looming oddity with zigzag windows at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street -- but no matter.)

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The Lever House at 390 Park Avenue (1950-52).  One that I and the
Landmarks Conservancy could do without.

Beyond My Ken

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The New School University Center at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street: another that I could do without.

     Just as some concerned citizens felt the need of an organization focused  exclusively on New York City, so another bunch of concerned citizens (of whom New York has an endless supply) felt the need of an organization focused exclusively on Greenwich Village.  So in 1970 these local residents founded the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) to protect the cultural and architectural heritage of the Village and adjoining neighborhoods.  (For more on GVSHP, see post #181 on nonprofits.)  The Village had been declared a historic district in 1969, but many sites deserving preservation lay outside the district’s boundaries.

     Thanks to the society’s efforts, the Gansevoort Historic District was created in 2003, and the South Village Historic District in 2013.  And just as Robert Moses was the bête noire of preservationists in the 1960s, so New York University, with its perennial plans for expansion, has become the bugbear of GVSHP.  In 2014 the society and other plaintiffs won a case against the university’s massive 20-year expansion plan, only to see the ruling overturned on appeal, following which the plaintiffs in turn appealed to the state’s highest court.  Preserving old buildings is a constant battle with many antagonists, the Real Estate Board of New York prominent among them, and preservation doesn’t always win.

     And just as some concerned citizens felt the need of an organization focused exclusively on Greenwich Village, more of these good folk have joined together to maintain city parks: the Central Park Conservancy, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the Battery Conservancy, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, the Staten Island Greenbelt Conservancy, the Jackson Square Alliance, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, and many more.  Rare indeed is the park or historical site in this city that doesn’t have a clutch of do-gooders organized in a nonprofit to care for it.  Not that the Real Estate Board of New York, for all its protests and complaints, is suffering; to judge by the current real estate boom, it’s doing just fine (see post #178).  And NYU isn’t about to disappear.  But grandiose projects like the ones that Robert Moses sponsored are probably a thing of the past.  In the constant battle between the old and the new, the old appears to be holding its own.  History buff that I am, I’m glad.

     Tax breaks for the lucky:  According to a magazine I was leafing through in a doctor’s office recently, various states offer tax exemptions to select citizens or on certain items.  For instance:

·      Pumpkins, as long as you promise to eat them (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Iowa).
·      Circus tickets, but not trips to a haunted house (New York).
·      Adult diapers (Connecticut).
·      Fortune tellers (Louisiana).
·      Citizens over 100 (New Mexico).

Not having verified this information, I would welcome comments or corrections.  Also, information about additional interesting tax breaks.

      Improve your mind and body:  The same magazine also listed a host of self-improvement courses offered at various sites throughout the country.  For example:

·      Alligator wrestling.
·      Essential witchcraft.
·      Trapeze skills.
·      Cannabis cultivation.
·      Alchemy (ability to turn base metals into gold not guaranteed).

Regrettably, I can’t supply the addresses, but diligent online research will give you all you need to know.

     Coming soon:  Cast Iron and Terra Cotta: Adventures on 11th Street. 

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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