Aaron Rose, The Demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-65, Museum of the City of New York (Gift of Aaron Rose)

The character of a city is the result of its people and its places. I’m sure there are other things I’m leaving out (the weather comes to mind) but when one thinks of the defining characteristics of a city, it is the personality of its denizens and its streets that make an impression. Paris is grands boulevards and surly citoyens; New York is proud skyscrapers and gruff residents; London, stately townhouses and courteous habitués. Architecture and attitude leave an indelible impression on the mind, conditioning the way in which one frames a city. But what if a city’s architecture were in a state of continuous flux? What if there were nothing to stop treasured buildings from coming down? This is the question asked by "Saving Place," a new exhibition marking the fiftieth anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law, on through January 3, 2016 at the Museum of the City of New York.

The answer, naturally enough, is Pennsylvania Station. What happened to the original Penn Station is a frequently told story, to the point of cliché, but it bears repeating in the context of the show.  In 1963 the old station, a McKim, Mead &White production dating to 1910, was deemed to be too expensive to continue operating, and simultaneously too costly to renovate. The Beaux-Arts structure, made of pink granite and colonnaded and pedimented with unfluted Doric columns, was a pastiche in the best sense of the word, a mélange of classical styles thought suitable for entrance into the modern metropolis, not architecturally “correct,” in that Vitruvian sense, but certainly significant and imposing. (As an aside, in the face of what passes for contemporary architecture now, even the worst of miscellaneous Beaux-Arts imitation doesn’t seem so bad.) Naturally, the unquenchable thirst for the new won out, as it often seems to do in New York. (That it hasn’t more is a tribute to the continued success of the law.) The original Penn Station was torn down and I needn’t reprise the litany of (entirely justified) complaints surrounding the new behemoth structure occupying its space. Penn Station, in its current formulation, is a dump, and ugly as the word may be, there’s little substitute for the correctly visceral impact of it. That is clear to us now, as it was to New Yorkers at the time of the original’s destruction.

Aaron Rose, The Demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-65, Museum of the City of New York (Gift of Aaron Rose)

Though the demolition of Penn Station is often cited as the catalyst for the signing of the Landmarks Law, the direct impetus came two years later with the demolition of the Brokaw House at 1 East 79th Street. Despite the formation of a Landmarks Committee by Mayor Wagner, without legislative authority the committee was well intentioned but ultimately toothless. It would take another wicked destruction to spirit forward the law authorizing the City to impede the demolition of architecturally significant structures. Modeled after the Chateau Chenonceau in the Loire Valley, the Brokaw House engages in the sort of Continental fantasy so popular in the Gilded Age, an amalgam of turrets, balconies, and other decorative follies. The building was no one’s idea of understated elegance but it had a rugged and squat toughness that added substantial character to the corner. The Brokaw family deserted the sepulchral house in 1938 and in 1946 it was bought by the Institute of Radio Engineers, who set about renovating the admittedly dated but still impressive interiors so as to better suit office work.  Just under two decades later the Engineers had had enough of the building, which remained exceedingly ill suited to their work. It was to become a notably undignified red brick, twenty-five story apartment building, developed by Bernard Spitzer, whose poor taste seems to have filtered down directly to his son, Eliot. The plans to demolish the building were met with general dismay but without a legal method to stop the destruction there was little to be done. As The New York Times told it,

“In weekend stealth the vulture-like work of destroying another New York landmark has begun. Wrecking crews are busy tearing down the Brokaw Mansion . . . and lovers of beauty can indulge once again in the macabre pleasure of attending a demolition-watching. The despoilers were so eager to get this lovely building down that they were delighted to pay premium rates to the workmen for their weekend toil.”

Finally the Landmarks Commission was to have legal powers. Robert Wagner signed the law in 1965 and it’s no exaggeration to say that New York, with its charmingly ahistorical medley of building styles, owes much to that seminal event.

Brokaw House, c. 1910, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Much of the exhibit (in fact, all the wall space) is given over to historical documents documenting specific examples of the preservation law in action. It recounts the above history, in addition to later examples of preservation battles, including the famous fight for Grand Central Terminal, which owes much of its notoriety to the involvement of Jacqueline Onassis. That campaign, which sought to block the erection of a grim modernist tower by Marcel Breuer, of the “old” Whitney fame, made it to the Supreme Court in 1978, ten years after the tower was first proposed. The Court sustained the Landmark Commission’s right to block demolition of significant buildings, bolstering the law for future confrontations between developers and the City, which remain ongoing. Better than the extensive historical documents are the bits of ephemera surrounding them. Particularly enchanting is an apparently candid photograph of Jackie O, Robert Wagner, and Brendan Gill in the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

And better yet is the center of the exhibit, which features two distinct sections, each worthy of further attention. One side displays reclaimed features of renovated or demolished buildings. Most striking is a marble eagle recovered from Penn Station, a poignant and tangible reminder of legacies lost. The other side presents models of renovations both proposed and realized. The Landmarks Law is not in place to ensure that no new construction occurs; it also provides for necessary renovation of and additions to landmarked structures, ensuring that these renovations coexist peacefully with the existing structure. An unfortunate trend is the increasing unseemliness of these additions, which in their craving for originality neglect the prevailing aesthetic in favor of a bold statement or perhaps worse yet, a sarcastic wink or nod to the original forms. For more on this trend, I would direct readers to Charles Semes’s recent tome on the subject, The Future of the Past, and urge readers to look for his piece on the topic in our December issue.

The Landmarks Law, when applied correctly, continues to protect New York’s architectural tradition, and to date over 33,000 properties have been landmarked within the five boroughs. Under the auspices of the Landmarks Law, 114 historic districts have been designated within city limits, safeguarding original architecture ranging from mid-eighteenth century Federal-style townhouses to cast iron commercial buildings. Individual buildings are being added each month at the Commission’s public hearings and historic districts are being enlarged. The law is, of course, not perfect, but it is certainly better than the alternative.

One57, seen from Columbus Circle via 

And last, a note on the exhibition’s financial supporters. The show is sponsored by Extell, the oft-controversial real estate development company whose “One57” is the latest whopping glass tower to, depending on one’s aesthetic sensibilities, either grace or bespoil New York’s skyline. A company focused on ever-growing glass boxes mainly used as a money laundering vehicles by foreign oligarchic classes would seem a strange sponsor for an exhibit dedicated to celebrating the endurance of New York’s cultural patrimony. Alas, the arts are in no position to decline funding, even of dubious origin. And so let us celebrate that a show like this, one surrounding a relatively narrow topic, can even exist in our current climate, and let us be thankful Extell is willing to participate at all in the dialogue that is architectural history. Regardless of sponsors, The Museum of the City of New York has done a great service to the city from which it takes its name: educating its populace on why the City is so distinctive and cultivating an appreciation for a formative moment in history. In an age of seemingly limitless ambition for gimmicks in architecture, “Saving Place” shows a different, better way, one that ensures New York will never become Dubai-on-Hudson.

"Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks" is on view at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, through January 3, 2016.

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