In a rare piece she wrote for the Architectural Review, Ada Louise Huxtable laments the architectural preservation culture, or lack thereof, in New York
Originally published in AR August 1962, this piece was republished online in connection with the publication of AR March 2019 on Women in Architecture + Sex, in which we awarded the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize for Contribution to Architecture to Hélène Binet
Photo scan rupert.bickersteth 2019 03 11 17 17 51
It would be very easy, and not untrue, to say that the preservation score in New York is zero, or close to it. It would not be true, however, to say that there is no interest in or action towards conservation of the city’s older and more important structures. But the sad fact remains that such action is lagging far behind demolition, for New York is currently in the midst of a fantastically accelerated building boom and the belated calls for preservation sound pathetically like whistling in the wind. The old building mortality rate – except for a few familiar, ‘safe’ monuments, like Thomas McBean’s historic St. Paul’s Chapel of 1764 or Town and Davis’s Doric Sub-Treasury Building of 1842, now the Federal Hall Memorial Museum – is running dangerously close to 100 per cent.
‘An insatiable demand for identical box-like offices that add nothing to the pleasure or dignity of man’
The reasons for this go beyond the obvious one of economics, although the New York real estate market, thanks to peculiarities of the tax structure and an apparently insatiable demand for identical box-like offices and apartments that add nothing to the pleasure or dignity of man, has never been more profitable. New Yorkers, and most Americans for that matter, do not believe that anything less than a monumental classic pile signifies historic architecture. The kind of anonymous, popular ‘street architecture’ that does so much more to define the true spirit and style of an era is little understood, although New York is – or has been – particularly rich in examples. In fact, it is just this irreplaceable street architecture that suffers most from our large-scale plans for urban renewal, and that accounts for our most lamentable, and least lamented, losses.
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Our casualties in recent years include substantial amounts of the city’s oldest architectural survival: the intimately-scaled, four- and five-storey, brick and granite Greek Revival commercial rows built from the 1820s to the 1840s in lower Manhattan, from the Battery to Brooklyn Bridge. Virtually all that is left now will be sacrificed to scheduled urban renewal projects. The latest announced threat is to New York’s unusual cast-iron district, a section just below Greenwich Village on the West Side containing continuous streets of iron-fronted commercial ‘palaces’ of the 1860s and ‘70s, a remarkable technological and historical pocket that was given its first important public notice by W. Knight Sturges in The Architectural Review of October, 1953. It would be quite safe to say that New Yorkers, except for architectural historians (and we are a small, strange breed) are completely unaware of its existence. Or, as in the case of Manhattan Borough President Edward R. Dudley, who proposed the area for renewal, awareness does not extend to appreciation; the spot is ideal for redevelopment, claims Mr. Dudley, because it contains nothing but ‘rundown, bad buildings.’
Other losses of note have been Rhinelander Gardens on West 11th Street, by one of New York’s most famous nineteenth-century architects, James Renwick; the elegant historic houses on Washington Square North, known simply as ‘The Row,’ replaced by apartments of consummate mediocrity – the once beautiful square has been subjected to equal depredations by New York University and private speculators; and George B. Post’s Produce Exchange at 2 Broadway, New York’s most famous landmark of the 1880s, demolished with great difficulty for a far less distinguished successor.
However, awareness of the problem is growing and has finally reached official levels. Although certain citizens’ groups, and some of the press, have tended to make a glorious black and white melodrama of the situation – the villainous government versus the victimized people – this is a distorted picture. Last summer, Mayor Wagner appointed a Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Aesthetic Interest to study the matter and make recommendations. This fall, the committee submitted its report, the crux of which was the proposal of a permanent, official Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would set up lists, initiate legal machinery, and make suggestions to city agencies like the Planning Commission and the Housing and Redevelopment Board for sites and buildings to be preserved within renewal areas. (Almost thirty American cities already have such bodies and laws; New York’s awakening is shamefully late.) This step was taken in March, when the New York Board of Estimate established the commission, with a budget of $50,000, to start the preservation wheel rolling.
‘The sin is as much with our architects and urban renewal sponsors who, conspicuously lacking knowledge, concern and creative imagination, prefer the bulldozer to the more difficult job of integrating new and old’
Urban renewal officers have been conspicuous offenders in the past, and are still far from free of blame, but the present City Planning Commissioner, James Felt, is increasingly aware of the case for conservation. He has put himself quietly behind the call for a Preservation Commission by approving the proposition even before the Mayor released it. In addition, he is responsible for the recent appointment of the first architect-member of the City Planning Commission in many years, who is also one of the authors of the preservation proposal issued by the Committee for Historic and Aesthetic Structures. It is with the Preservation Commission, of course, that the real future fate of New York’s historic architecture lies, and if it follows conventional time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, there will be few old buildings left to save.
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Except for this official action, preservation in New York relies on the isolated activity of private groups, as threats to cherished structures arise. If there has been any single leader, it is the Municipal Art Society of New York, an organization devoted to maintaining the city’s aesthetic and architectural standards. (Harmon Goldstone, the new, preservation-minded member of the City Planning Commission, was also President of the Society.) In 1957 the Society published a ‘New York Landmarks’ list of three hundred buildings considered worthy of preservation with the assistance of the Society of Architectural Historians. Not surprisingly during the six-year study approximately one third of the buildings slated for inclusion had been torn down. Subsequently, the New York Community Trust, a philanthropic foundation, has been placing Landmarks Plaques on the more important remaining structures, which gives them a certain cachet in otherwise unobservant eyes. It is also not surprising that some owners, interested in keeping their buildings anonymous and negotiable, have refused the plaques. This is true, for example, of Louis Sullivan’s only New York work, the still handsome, though partially disfigured, Bayard or Condict Building at 65 Bleecker Street, of 1897-98. Walking tours of older neighbourhoods, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and the Museum of the City of New York, under the direction of the ardent classicist, Henry Hope Reed, Jr., have attempted to educate New Yorkers to at least a part of their architectural past. If blame is to be distributed, however, the sin is as much with our architects and urban renewal sponsors who, conspicuously lacking knowledge, concern and creative imagination, prefer the bulldozer to the more difficult job of integrating new and old.
Individual battles have raged noisily. Carnegie Hall, the acoustically perfect concert auditorium built in 1891 by W. B. Tuthill with Adler and Sullivan as consultants, was saved by a citizens’ group in 1960, although its legal and financial status is still shaky. The Jefferson Market Courthouse, an High Victorian monument of 1873-77 in Greenwich Village by Frederick Withers and Calvert Vaux, drew a band of ardent neighbourhood protectors when the city’s plan for its sale was announced; their proposal for its use as a branch public library seems to be moving toward municipal approval and funds. (Significantly, as an index of general architectural ignorance, most of its defenders consider it a lovable old horror, and have no idea why they like it – they just do. In 1885 it was voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in the United States.) Grand Central Terminal, built by Warren and Wetmore, Reed and Stem from 1903-13, was rescued from the threat of bowling alleys last year. McKim, Mead and White’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station of 1910 is to be demolished for a flashy complex of sports arenas and commercial structures, but one feels that its champions are crushed by the sheer size and vulgarity of the gargantuan new scheme. Henry J. Hardenbergh’s substantial ‘French style’ Dakota apartments of 1882-84 were bought by their tenants for a co-operative residence.
‘Criteria for preservation must be enlarged beyond that standard sentimental bromide “George Washington slept here”’
The most disorderly and best-publicized battle of all was the near-riot conducted by the Committee to Save the West Village, led by the articulate and able architectural journalist, Jane Jacobs, author of the new, acutely perceptive, but highly controversial book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Mrs. Jacobs and her Committee fought the City Planning Commission to a standstill on the neighbourhood’s selection as a renewal area. Redevelopment plans and official ‘slum’ designation have both been withdrawn, after sensational proceedings that included the carrying of protesting residents kicking and screaming from City Hall hearings, and a series of sinister accusations and counter-accusations that still hang smoking in the air.
The New York press has been sympathetic, reporting the battles conspicuously, and in the case of the two major papers, the Times and the Herald-Tribune, often lending editorial support. But until the public and any city-appointed Commission realize that criteria for preservation must be enlarged beyond that standard sentimental bromide, ‘George Washington slept here,’ we will have confusion, obstruction, and little real progress. We are a nineteenth-century city, and our landmarks are largely business and commercial structures that trace the fascinating, dynamic diversity of a unique period of changing technology and taste. Unless we understand and appreciate the nature of this heritage, our best efforts are doomed to fail.