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Forty-Five Years of Landmarks in New York

Historic Landmarks Preservation Center
April 19th, 2010

Good afternoon, and thank you, Charlie, for your kind words here, as well as for everything you do every night of the week. And thank you, Barbaralee, for gathering so many people here who are critical to the future of New York, and for doing all that you continue to do to extend the reach and deepen the impact of the historic preservation movement, both here and elsewhere.

Forty-five years of official landmarks, which we mark inside this fifty-two year old restaurant, which a lot of us, particularly those of us who remember Philip Johnson having lunch every day in his corner banquette in the Bar Room, watching over his creation, still think of as something relatively new. The Four Seasons cannot be fifty-two. Fifty-two, some of you may know, happens to be exactly the age that Pennsylvania Station was when it was torn down in 1963. In other words, this extraordinary space has already existed for longer than the entire lifetime of Penn Station. And it has been around for quite a bit longer than the Savoy-Plaza Hotel ever was, since it was only thirty-seven when it was demolished in 1964 to make way for the General Motors Building—in other words, the Savoy Plaza never got any older than a building built in 1973 would be today. And the Four Seasons and the Seagram Building of which it is a part are now almost as old as the Singer Building was when it was torn down in 1968, at sixty years of age—an event that the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was then a cautious three-year old agency with limited authority, was powerless to prevent.

And at fifty-two, this is hardly the oldest modern landmark. Lever House is getting close to sixty, the United Nations is already sixty, and so is Manhattan House. I mention all of this not to make any of you feel old, and I am sorry if it does, but I do think that it gives us pause, and makes us reflect on the arc of time, which is, in the end, a significant part of the reason we save buildings. As Lewis Mumford said, “In a city, time becomes visible,” but in our age that is not always so automatic, and it is preservation that assures us that the city will have the resonance, the sense of the layers of time always being visible, that we need for it to be a civilized place. We need to feel that at least some of what surrounds us has been there for a long time, and will be there for a long time to come—it is reassuring to us that our grandparents may have seen Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center, but it is even more reassuring, in a way, to be able to feel that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see them, too.

Today, of course, these notions are not new. We have been living in what we could call the Landmarks Era for forty-five years, and nobody has to make the case any longer for the basic value of preservation. At forty-five, the Landmarks Preservation Commission may not be old, but it has certainly reached very solid middle age. It is no longer the agency that tiptoes gently, as it was in its early years. It designates wide swaths of the city, and its reach has extended far beyond the iconic buildings of New York to take in literally thousands of structures in more than a hundred historic districts, many of them reflecting the vernacular architecture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems ever more cognizant of the importance of the city’s modernist heritage, not only with designations of buildings like this one and Lever House across the street, but also with decisions like the one announced just last week to give landmark status to the light, elegant, green glass Springs Mills Building on West 40th Street, an important decision since this is a much less well-known building that might genuinely have been threatened at some point.

Forty-five years into the Landmarks Era, the role of the Landmarks Preservation Commission is deeply established in the city’s culture. It affects many thousands of property owners, and the real estate industry, while it may differ with individual decisions, long ago gave up challenging its right to exist. Indeed, it is now thirty-two years since the critical Supreme Court decision on the Grand Central case, affirming the city’s right to designate key properties for preservation—so with forty-five years of existence and thirty-two years since the Commission’s most important legal challenge was overcome, we are now very clearly in a time when there are plenty of property owners who come before the Landmarks Preservation Commission who were not even born before the Commission came into existence, and many who do not remember the struggle to save Grand Central. To them, preservation is a fact of life in the city, period.

If you remember the great battles of the earlier years, this would seem like a tremendous victory, and in many ways, it is. But it is also a loss, and that is what I want to talk about for a moment. As preservation becomes more and more a part of the establishment, an expected, normal part of the life of the city, there are some dangers, some downsides. Every silver lining has a cloud, you might say, and I see three different ones here. The first is the risk that as we take preservation more and more for granted, we designate more and more loosely, thinking that since we have so many landmarks already, and that so many of the great, iconic buildings are already landmarks, and that people have come to accept the landmarking process so much more willingly than they once did—well, then, why not just keep going and going, and designating everything under the sun. The risk, you might say, is that we are having so much fun that it’s hard to know where to stop.

And that, in turn, creates the second risk, which is that we may upset the delicate, ever-shifting balance between change and continuity. It’s not an easy balance to achieve; there are no formulas to guide us, no standardized ratios of old to new that we can fall back on. All we know is that we need to feel both continuity and change, since a city that preserves not enough is a rootless culture, based on shifting sands, a place where time is never visible. I went to Dubai earlier this year, and if I had any doubts about that before, they were put to rest. But of course a city that does not change enough is dead, and if there is anything we cannot ever allow ourselves to be, it is some grotesque version of Colonial Williamsburg on the Hudson. Change is New York’s lifeblood, and it has to be. I have a dislike of preservation fundamentalism wherever it pops up, but it is particularly egregious in New York, where the insistence that everything be exactly as it was, and that historic districts should not continue to evolve, that they cannot contain modern buildings within them, and that the only way to show proper care for an individual landmark building is to make sure its appearance never changes—these attitudes seem altogether inconsistent with our nature and identity as a city. Respecting and preserving landmarks does not have to mean treating them like hothouse orchids. Many of our great buildings are tougher and more resilient than that, and we should not be afraid of engaging them in architectural dialogue with the present. Believing that protecting our landmarks means keeping them pure, like vestal virgins, then, is the second pernicious danger that can come of preservation’s success.

The third potential effect of the success of the preservation movement is that, as preservation becomes more and more an established fact of our culture, we lose sight of the radical beginnings of this movement, when it was not part of the establishment at all, but fought it at almost every turn. This is perhaps the most insidious danger of all, because there is so much good in preservation’s success, and so much justly to be proud of. But as preservation is now part of the established order of things, it is part of the establishment, and that, in turn, means that it comes under question not from the forces of power, but from the opposite end—from the young, from the avant-garde, from those who grew up in a world in which historic preservation was natural, and who feel, unlike most of us in this room, not that preservation is a great battle that they are proud of winning, but that it is a force of stasis—even, in some ways, a conservative force. The great challenge right now, strangely enough, is in figuring out how to keep preservation closer to the cutting edge.

The two most important ways to do this, I think, are, first, to recognize that preservation involves urban fabric, community, streets and places as much as it involves isolated and iconic buildings, that it can be a force for community development and sustainability, and that it needs to work hand in hand with people and organizations that focus on these things. The second is to recognize that the preservation movement is going to have to focus more and more in the coming years on mid-to-late twentieth century buildings, many of which are not, in the minds of many people, particularly deserving of landmark status.

Not always easy. And certainly not easy to reconcile with that other risk of designating too much. But we have to remember that as late as in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the Art Deco buildings of the Grand Concourse were roundly dismissed as cheap, common, vulgar and unworthy of serious attention, as nothing more than ordinary builders’ stuff. Now, as they recede into history, we all think otherwise. Will the same thing happen with the office buildings of the postwar era, or white brick apartment houses? I’m not so sure, but I know that some of that is because I grew up watching them be built, and never had the sense, as a younger generation does, that they were part of the architectural legacy to be inherited. I think we owe it to time to make certain judgments. I recall the wise words of the architectural historian Sir John Summerson, who said, “I suppose all architecture has to die before it touches the historical imagination.”

Time does not stand still, and the purpose of the landmarks legislation is not to make it stand still. It is to force us to bring reason, and judgment, into the process of urban growth, since we know that laissez-faire development will not create the civilized city that we crave. And making time visible means making the present visible as well as a series of layers of past times. Too often, we have preserved not so much out of love of what we were saving as out of fear of what we were preventing. We cannot afford to keep doing that. Preservation, at its best, should mean using the values of the past to inspire the present, and to encourage us to find new ways of expression that speak comfortably to the old. If the Landmarks Preservation Commission is truly successful, its legacy won’t only be in saving things—it will be in inspiring the landmarks of tomorrow.

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