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All Blogged Out: The 45th Ends and the Future Begins

As part of the celebration of the 45th Anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law, in April of 2010 this blog was launched to help focus attention on events from the last 45 years of preservation history.  Now over 100 blog entries later, as the 45th anniversary year comes to its end, it is time to bring this blog to a close.

Simeon Bankoff and Anthony C. Wood at the Preservation Cafe. Photo courtesy of the Neighborhood Preservation Center.

Thanks go to our loyal readers.  It has been interesting to discover who is blog literate in the world of preservation.  My conclusion is that many who would have found the subjects of this blog interesting don’t do blogs and that many who do read blogs, didn’t have any way of knowing this blog might be of interest to them.  This leads to the conclusion that a blog was exactly the wrong medium to use for this message.  Put more kindly, this blog was ahead of its time or at least ahead of the technology used by most of its likely readership.

Despite this, I would recommend others to bring preservation into the blogosphere. Not only do we need to embrace new ways of communicating, blogging turns out to be easy and inexpensive.  I confess I had a much younger preservationist set up the blog but the fact I could manage it after its creation testifies to its simplicity. The cost of entry is minimal and with a skill level only slightly more elevated than my own, a final blog product can look quite professional.  A modest blog entry can look better than a circa 1980 newsletter.  Like any regular writing assignment, keeping a blog populated with timely material is a major yet enjoyable investment of time.

As this blog comes to a close I would urge any who found its content of interest to consider launching a blog site of their own. Such a blog site, populated by periodic regular contributions from a host of writers, could be more easily sustained and would greatly enrich the preservation movement.

Crowd at Fitch Forum 2011. Photo by Katie Chao Photo. A synopsis of the Fitch Forum and more photographs are now available at

One of the lessons of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Landmarks Law is that there seems to be a hunger in our community for opportunities to come together to both socialize and to engage in serious conversation. The year’s kick-off lunch at the Four Seasons even had some angling for invitations (and not just because of the food). Preservation Café’s at the Neighborhood Preservation Center sold out, various preservation  events celebrating milestone anniversaries of preservation groups were packed, and the Fitch Forum 2011, looking at 45 years of preservation law, had a full house.

Clearly the preservation movement needs time and space to address the challenges we face today and the ones that loom on the horizon. The 45th Anniversary Celebration helped launch and nurture conversations that with some luck will continue and ultimately lead to a better and brighter future for preservation in New York!


Little Sisters/Big Loss: Thoughts on Changing Tastes

Convent of the Sisters of the Bon Secours/Convent of the Little Sisters of the Assumption at Lexington and 81st Street. Demolished. Photo ©1982 Cornelis Verwaal.

In March of 1985, the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided not to designate the Convent of the Sisters of the Bon Secours at Lexington Avenue and 8lst Street.  Originally built for that French order in 1888-1889, after a stint as a funeral home, it became the home of the Little Sisters of the Assumption in 1954. Despite extensive testimony in support of designation from individuals including  Andrew S. Dolkart,  City Council Member Bob Dryfoos, Michael Rebic and Julie Sloan, and organizations including the Municipal Art Society, the A.I.A, the Preservation League of New York State, the Victorian Society, Friends of the Upper East Side and CIVITAS, after its November 13, 1984 public hearing, the  Landmarks Preservation Commission ultimately decided not to designate this William Schickel creation and today it no longer enriches or energizes New Yorkers with its vivid presence.  It is gone.

Convent of the Sisters of the Bon Secours as depicted in King's Handbook of New York City 1893. The image,when compared to the one above, shows how remarkably unchanged the building was for its almost century of existence. Page from Statement Submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission by Andrew Dolkart, November 1984.

The Convent of the Little Sisters was a victim of the religious property wars and of stylistic prejudice.  The mid 1980s witnessed major clashes between those trying to preserve New York’s historic religious properties and those trying to develop those sites.  The Little Sisters wanted to sell their building for top dollar, unconstrained by any landmark designation.  Despite the building’s obvious landmark qualities, the intense politics of the moment made it hard for preservation efforts.  It was almost impossible to overcome the initial framing of the issue in the press:  preservationists versus nuns.

The other problem the building faced was its style.  At least one architect at the hearing called the building a “monstrosity.”  One of the Landmarks Commissioners commented on the oppressive quality of the Victorian architecture he had grown up with as a child.  Being a religiously-owned buildings was not bad enough, being a Victorian religiously-owned building proved to be fatal.  It is hard to imagine that negative feelings about Victorian Architecture were so strong even in 1984, then again there is good reason why the work of the Victorian Society has been so necessary.  Such prejudices against architectural styles do change over time proving the wisdom of the Landmarks Law which doesn’t call out particular styles as being worthy of preservation but leaves that determination to the Commission, allowing it to reflect new understandings over time.  Thanks to that flexibility, the law has been able to reflect new understandings and appreciation and hence Art Deco, Victorian, and Modern structures have been able to achieve landmark designation.

Today it is unlikely that the Victorian style of this building would be an impediment to its designation.  Sadly, despite the force of our law, the ownership of the building by a religious organization opposing designation would still be a very strong deterrent to designation.  In the quarter of a century since the Landmarks Preservation Commission turned its back on this treasure,  sentencing it to demolition, it is nice to know that some things have changed and troubling to know that others have not.


Preservation Oral Histories: With Inspirations from StoryCorps and Texas, What Are We Waiting For?

During the course of this 45th Anniversary Year of the passage of NYC’s landmarks law, how many events were you at where you heard a great story about some preservation event from the last 45 years of preservation history?  Odds are good that the informative, infuriating, inspiring story that you heard has not been captured for the benefit of future preservationists. The good news is more and more groups are taping their programs but the bad news is so many good stories come out in less formal settings or as part of less structured remarks and will likely be lost forever. One solution to capturing these stories and the larger context in which they fit, is to conduct oral histories with the tellers of these great preservation stories.

For several years, the New York Preservation Archive Project has been gathering oral histories in a variety of ways. It inherited some that I conducted in the 1980s and others that I conducted years later while working on Preserving New York.  In its early years, the Archive Project helped fund a series of oral histories conducted by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Additionally the Project has gathered others in partnership with graduate students in a recurring preservation class at Pratt.  Lacking dedicated funding for oral histories, the Project has had to be opportunistic in its approach.

Recently, thanks to a generous grant from the Robert A. and Elizabeth R. Jeffe Foundation, the Archive Project has been able to take a more pro-active and systematized approach to its oral history work.  At the moment the Archive Project is in the process of conducting oral histories with all the past living chairs of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. When these are done, when combined with oral histories that were conducted in the 19980s, all the past Chairs of the Commission (with the exception of David Todd) will have been captured on tape. This collection will be an invaluable resource when the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law is celebrated in 2015 and as future historians start to focus their work on the history of the Commission.  Keep your eyes open for more on this oral history initiative  in the next issue of the Archive Project’s newsletter.

With the wonderful exception of this initiative, opportunistically conducting oral histories is still the order of the day.  Having cobbled together some existing resources, before the end of this month the Archie Project hopes to conduct an oral history with Frank Gilbert, a key player on the staff of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its early years.  A more organized and sustained way to conduct oral histories with many more of those involved in all the many different aspects of preservation (from neighborhood advocates to board members of civic organizations to those involved in the official landmark process) is needed. Fortunately other preservation groups are getting into the act.  LandmarkWest! recently conducted a series of videotaped interviews with key preservationists.  Unfortunately, such efforts are still too few and far between.

Preservation needs its version of StoryCorps.  Such a major initiative is needed to systemically gather and facilitate the collection of the stories needed to fully tell preservation’s history.  If funds were available it would even be possible to formally partner with StoryCorps.

There is yet another inspiring example for study by New Yorkers.  It comes to us from Texas and represents an effort to preserve a movement’s history through a sustained oral history initiative. The Texas Legacy Project is the subject of an upcoming program on April 5, 2011 at the World Monuments Fund sponsored by the New York Preservation Archive Project in partnership with the New York Restoration Project.  Texas seems always to be associated with big projects and this one is no exception.  The subject matter of this oral history collection, however, is not something usually associated with Texas:  grassroots conservation efforts.  Through this project, the Conservation History Association of Texas has gathered over 200 videotaped oral histories capturing the stories of conservationists ranging from humble farmers to environmental attorneys.  Many risked their reputations, finances and even their lives for the cause of conservation.  Pretty inspiration stuff!

Not only can this collection be accessed online ( it has a non-virtual life in the physical form of an impressive new publication, The Texas Legacy Project Stories of Courage and Conservation. One of the editors of the book, David Weisman will be showcasing the project at the April 5 program.  Weisman directed, catalogued, and compiled the video portion of the oral history interviews. For more information on the event contact NYPAP.

Come join us on April 5th to be inspired by the Texas Legacy Project.  With examples like StoryCorps and the Texas Legacy Project to inspire us, now the question is  can New York find the resources, energy and interest to conduct a similar effort documenting the history of preservation in New York City? You know the answer I’m hoping for.


Celebrating the Anniversary of Sailors’ Snug Harbor

Guest blog by David Schnakenberg

Sailors' Snug Harbor

Monday, March 21st, marks the anniversary of a legal decision of lasting and significant consequence.  The case, Matter of the Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York v. Platt, 288 N.Y.S. 2d 314 (1st Dept. 1968), reversed a decision of the lower court which found the designation of a group of Greek Revival, Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival buildings on Staten Island to be an unlawful taking where the Trustees charged with maintaining the buildings could not demolish or alter them without proof that they were transferring ownership of the property.

The buildings at issue are located on an 83 acre site overlooking the Kill Van Kull.  They were constructed over a 50 year period beginning in the 1830s and had been used, as per a charitable trust established in the will of Captain Robert Richard Randall, for the purpose of maintaining “aged, decrepit and worn out” seamen.  At the time of the Snug Harbor case, there were approximately two hundred retired sailors living on the premises, in four separate dormitories.   The Trustees, who believed the dormitory space was cramped and inadequate for its purpose (the buildings lacked elevators and fireproofing, among other amenities) wanted to erect a single, modern tower, demolishing the historic dormitory buildings to maintain the mariners’ views of the Kill Van Kull.

In reversing the lower court’s decision, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, conceding that New York City’s Landmarks Law was valid, asked whether the law, as applied to the Snug Harbor buildings, went so far in regulating the property that it amounted to an unlawful, uncompensated confiscation.  The Court’s inquiry was grounded in the takings standard announced by the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922), which stated that “the general rule at least is, that while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.”  The Appellate Division noted that the city’s landmarks ordinance provided parameters by which the Landmarks Preservation Commission (“LPC”) could make that determination and grant a variance from the landmarks regulations, but that none of those statutory guidelines applied to the Snug Harbor buildings.  (For commercial property owners, the statute called for the LPC to grant a variance where the landmarks law would preclude the owner from realizing a reasonable return, as defined in the landmarks law.  The statute also provided guidelines for the LPC to determine when property put to a charitable, as opposed to commercial, use was being unduly burdened, but that provision only applied when the owner of the charitable property intended to transfer ownership of the property at issue.  The Trustees of the Snug Harbor estate did not wish to do so.)  The Appellate Division wisely reasoned that omitting a variance provision applicable to the Snug Harbor buildings did not necessarily render the statute unconstitutional, as the Trustees claimed, and that the court could determine, in the absence of statutory guidelines, whether the regulations effected a taking, thereby warranting a variance, or hardship relief.  In applying the Pennsylvania Coal rationale to the case before it, the Snug Harbor court found that an appropriate test for whether a charitable property owner’s property was taken by the landmarks regulation would turn on whether “maintenance of the landmark either physically or financially prevents or seriously interferes with carrying out the charitable purpose.”  The court noted certain factors which should inform the determination of whether the regulations did indeed sufficiently interfere with the non-profit owner’s charitable purpose and remanded the matter to the trial court for further testimony.

The Snug Harbor standard, known to many as the “judicial hardship test” because it has not been incorporated into the NYC Administrative Code, was adopted by the state’s highest court in Lutheran Church in America v. City of New York (1974), and later relied on by that court in Society for Ethical Culture v. Spatt (1980).  The test, which was derived from the takings standard of its day, was considered in light of current takings jurisprudence (as articulated in the landmark decision of Penn. Central Transp. Co. v. City of New York, which arose from efforts to erect a large office tower over Grand Central Terminal) in Rector, Wardens, and Members of the Vestry of St. Bartholomew’s Church v. City of New York, in 1989.  In that case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rearticulated the takings standard applicable to non-profit property owners to determine whether a hardship variance from the city’s landmarks law was appropriate to preclude a taking; the “constitutional question is whether the land-use regulation impairs the continued operation of the property in its originally expected use.”  The Court continued that “so long as the [non-profit owner] can continue to use its property in the way that is has been using it… there is no unconstitutional taking.”

The St. Bart’s decision does not necessarily undermine the Snug Harbor test.  Indeed, the two tests reflect the same legal reasoning; in the absence of statutory guidance as to whether a hardship variance from the landmarks law is appropriate, a constitutional takings analysis is appropriate.  Where the regulation does indeed effect a taking, a hardship finding is appropriate.  In the absence of such a finding, however, the judicial test requires that the regulations remain in place.

Jurisprudentially speaking, the Snug Harbor legacy is as nuanced and complex as the architectural treasures which gave rise to the litigation.  You can consider both by visiting the Snug Harbor Cultural and Botanical Garden, in Staten Island, where the buildings at issue in the case still stand.


Preservation and The Triumph of the City

Every preservationist needs to read Edward Glaeser’s new book Triumph of the City.   I suggest you borrow a copy so his book sales don’t soar leading others to conclude popular support for his ideas.  Preservationists need to read the book because it is a wake up call. Besides raising your blood pressure, the book provides all the evidence one needs to know that preservation is still very much under assault by very powerful and sophisticated forces. It also underscores the need for preservationists to more clearly make the case that preservation is indeed in no small part, responsible for the triumph of the city.

Glaeser’s assault on preservation is particularly dangerous because he has a gift for getting media attention and his misdirected attacks on preservation are mixed in with some otherwise solid observations about cities.  Glaeser can be seen as an upgraded and more presentable version of the old wise use movement.  Clothed in the respectable garb of a Harvard economist and sounding a note or two of concern for “ordinary people,” his attack on preservation tries to provide academic cover for those who have been working for years to roll-back or essentially gut appropriate land use regulations.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Glaeser’s book is that time and again he inadvertently makes the case for why historic preservation is fundamental to the future health of cities while then concluding just the opposite. He writes: “The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people” (p. 9).  “Human capital, far more than physical infrastructure, explains which cities succeed” (p.27). ”In a free society, people choose where to live, either explicitly by moving or implicitly by staying in the places of their birth” (p.71). “Yet as people have become richer they have increasingly chosen cities based on lifestyle—and the consumer city was born” (p.10).  “Yet, as older cities have become safer and healthier they too become reinvigorated as places of consumption, through restaurants, theaters, comedy clubs, bars and the pleasures of proximity” (p. 11). “Over the past thirty years, London and San Francisco and Paris have all boomed, in part, because people have increasingly found them fun places to live” (p. 11).  “One reason that London and New York and Paris are so pleasant is that they contain centuries’ worth of investment in buildings and museums and parks, but they also benefit from the urban ability to magnify human creativity which makes cities enjoyable as well as industrious” (p. 118).  “People are increasingly choosing areas on the basis of quality of life and the skilled people who come to attractive areas then provide the new ideas that fuel the local economy” (p. 132.).

So if people are cities and a city’s future success depends in a great deal on its ability to attract people and if quality of life is key to attracting people and since preservation’s contribution to quality of life is well known to virtually everyone but Glaeser, why doesn’t Glaeser applaud preservation instead of attacking it?  (Perhaps one clue is that Glaeser’s bibliography shows he has failed to devote any serious study to the field of historic preservation.  Why let facts get in the way of opinions?) He does note that, “Preservation isn’t always wrong—there is much worth keeping in our cities—but it always comes at a cost” (p.12). “Too much preservation stops cities from providing newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants” p. 136.  Why single out preservation as an obstacle to newer, taller buildings when zoning and other land use regulations play such a greater role in shaping and controlling growth?

Trying to position himself as one who appreciates preservation when it is kept in its place, Glaeser repeatedly suggests preservation in New York has gone too far.  He offers up the notion that “More than 15 percent of Manhattan’s nonpark land south of Ninety-sixth Street is now in a historic district” (p. 149).  This figure itself seems questionable (it seems to be based on land area, not tax lots, and obviously all land area is not open for building—whether in a historic district or not).  Since his book deals with the importance of cities as a whole, it is more appropriate to look at the citywide picture. Today some  3% of the city is under the regulation of the Landmark Preservation Commission leaving 97% unrestricted in any way by landmark protection.  Yes there are other barriers to constructing the skyscrapers that Glaeser so badly wants to see pop up all over the city, however Glaeser seems less interested in going after the policies behind these other constraining factors.

How much preservation is not too much? Glaeser suggests “three simple rules” for replacing what he calls the “maze of regulations now limiting building..” (p. 161).  His second rule is:  “…historic preservation should be limited and well defined…My own preference is that in a city like New York, the landmarks commission should have a fixed number of buildings, perhaps five thousand, that it may protect” (p.162).  To be fair, he does admit that number might be “too few” but he clearly calls for “some sort of limit.”  What does 5,000 buildings get you?  You could keep the Brooklyn Heights Historic District (1325 buildings), the Greenwich Village District (2035 buildings), the Soho-Cast Iron District (466 buildings) and 1,174 of our 1,279 individual landmarks and nothing else.  Or you could retain the Upper West Side/CPW Historic District (2,020), the Upper East Side Historic District (1,044), the Fort Greene District (825) and 1,111 of our current individual landmarks.  Think how many of our historic districts would have to be eliminated to get down to this number. With some 27,000 buildings currently under landmark protection, to meet Glaeser’s quota we’d have to eliminate more than 4/5ths of our existing landmarks.

Glaeser stresses that cities are about people and not buildings yet he is all about one type of building: the skyscraper.  It is his solution to all.   Unfortunately his love of the skyscraper undercuts his ability to fully appreciate the quality of life argument that at times he articulates.  People need to want to live in cities.  He attacks preservation because it restricts development.  However he notes that Paris has kept its high-rise development outside the old city, “Its distance from the old city keeps Central Paris pristine but deprives too many people of the pleasures of strolling to a historic café for lunch.” (p. 157) Without the very preservation he attacks it is likely his beloved skyscrapers would have destroyed all those historic cafés thus removing them for all, within strolling distance or not.  Glaeser totally fails to see preservation’s link to livability.

Glaeser’s excessive and self-contradictory attacks on preservation are indeed curious.  Preservation is only one force that limits high rise development and frankly, one of the more minor forces to do so.   Other forces—like zoning—play a greater role in limiting that building type. Why does Glaesr focus the brunt of his assault on preservation? (What did a landmark ever do to him?)  Is he just an apologist for developers frustrated by the Landmarks Commission?  On that score he does lament that Aby Rosen was unable to put up a twenty-two story glass tower at 980 Madison in the heart of the Upper East Side Historic District, or in his words, the “massive” Upper East Side Historic District.  Even if that historic district designation disappeared and the entire stretch of Madison Avenue in the historic district were lined with high rises, it would not make it any more affordable for “ordinary people” to live in New York–all it would do is provide more luxury housing for the almost insatiable worldwide demand for luxury housing in New York City and fill the coffers of developers. To suggest any dribble down from the skyscrapering of former historic districts would have any meaningful benefit for ordinary people is disingenuous at best.

Does Glaeser single out preservation because the forces continually  attacking land use regulations see preservation and historic districts as the weak under belly of such controls?  Whatever his reasons, Glaeser is blind to the obvious fact that the preservation movement has helped cities become triumphant. Preservation is essential to the future health of cities.  It is sad that Glaeser is unable to see that reality.

Edward Glaeser: Photo Credit Louise Kennedy.

We need to make sure that Glaeser’s now well publicized blindness does not obscure the sight of the general public and policy makers.  There is so much wrong with what Glaeser espouses about preservation that a concerted effort to set the record straight is needed.  This is beginning.  For a more reality based look at cities and preservation and some good information to counter Glaeser, check out Roberta Gratz’s “Landmarking Urban Change in New York “ on the Huffington Post, March 2, 2011.

The real story of preservation’s role in the triumphant of the city is one we all need to tell. Every historic district has a story. That story needs to be captured, documented, and celebrated.  Start telling yours loud and clear.  If you don’t, Glaeser will.  His version isn’t pretty and it ends in destruction.


How Soon They Forget! Let’s Keep Those Names Alive

Halina Rosenthal receiving the Historic District Council's Landmarks Lion Award. From left to right: Anthony C. Wood, Halina Rosenthal, Laurie Beckelman, Beverly Moss Spatt, Gene Norman and David Todd. Photo courtesy of the Historic Districts Council.

It was twenty years ago, in March of 1991 that Halina Rosenthal died at the age of 73.  I was shocked when in a recent conversation with a younger preservationist I mentioned Halina’s name only to discover they had never heard of her. On reflection, I realize I shouldn’t be shocked.  Why should I expect a younger preservationist to know of Halina Rosenthal when the preservation community has done so little to keep her memory alive?

For those not active in preservation in the 1970s and 1980s,  Halina Rosenthal was preservation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Moving to East 73rd Street in 1973, she started a block association and her interests grew, and grew, and grew until she became a major citywide figure in preservation.  Born in Poland, and married to the sculptor Tony Rosenthal, Halina’s advocacy style was counter intuitive and extremely successful.  Passionate and persistent, she was so genuinely friendly with those she was trying to persuade or defeat, in essence drowning them in honey, that it was hard for them not to ultimately give her what she wanted. Her personal style of advocacy was legendary.  Often she would write several letters a day to the public officials she was wooing on one issue or another.  Whether elected official, architect, civic leader or developer, once in Halina’s sights, her unrelenting joyous advocacy was almost impossible to resist

Laurie Beckelman, Halina Rosenthal, and Jerry Max. Anthony C. Wood archive.

After the Upper East Side Historic District designation in 1981, she helped launch Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District and built it into an effective organization monitoring the historic district.  She led successful efforts to maintain the district defeating early efforts to insert inappropriate towers and destroy its brownstones.  By adding an “s” to its name, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts became a voice for preservation for the entire Upper East Side.  Appreciating that the preservation of her districts depended on the health of the Landmarks Law, Halina became engaged in citywide preservation issues.

Halina also appreciate that the Landmarks Law was not the only tool available to help advance preservation.  She successfully launched an effort to change the zoning on some 200 blocks on the Upper East Side to R-8b, a zoning classification sympathetic to preserving the existing character of the neighborhood. I remember when Halina told me she was going to undertake the zoning change.  Knowing how politically impossible such a zoning change was, I said nothing to her but in my mind put her effort in the category of Don Quixote and windmills.  Against conventional thinking and all odds, Halina pulled off the zoning change.

Halina was the consummate preservation advocate.  Not only does she deserve to be remembered, her accomplishments, tactics and strategic approach can be instructive to present and future preservationists.  After her death, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts created an internship position in her name.  Unfortunately, that effort faded after several years as funding ran out.  The disappearance of Halina Rosenthal from preservation’s consciousness is not the result of some evil plot targeted at Halina’s memory.  Instead it is standard practice for a movement that has yet to take its own history seriously.

As a community we rob ourselves of intellectual capital and inspiration every time we let a name like Halina’s disappear into the mists of history.  The twentieth anniversary of her death is the perfect time for Friends to reinstitute the Halinan Rosenthal Fellow or name an internship or create something that keeps her name in front of new generations of preservationists.

One of the most successful examples of keeping a great name alive and adding value to the field of preservation, is the Ralph Menapace Jr. Fellowship in Urban Land Use Law at the Municipal Art Society of New York. Ralph, one of the Society’s great leaders, a major figure in preservation law, and a civic leader, died tragically young in 1984. The Fellowship program has kept alive Ralph’s memory, enhanced the Society’s work and trained a cadre of young lawyers. Whether an endowed Fellowship like the Menapace Fellowship or naming an existing volunteer intern position at a preservation organization, named positions can help keep alive the memory and example of preservation’s great leaders.

In a few years emerging preservationists will no longer recognize names of important deceased preservationists. People like Dorothy Miner will be forgotten.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  In preservation we tend not to name something unless there is money involved.  Wonderful as such funding is, we should not let the lack of funds hinder our ability to keep inspirational names front and center.  Let us start linking those names to lecture series, existing staff positions, volunteer intern slots, and other ongoing positions and activities.  The lack of financial capital does not have to lead to the loss of intellectual capital.

Dorothy Miner and LIz McEnaney.

For years, preservation’s great leaders have fallen into obscurity.  Names like Albert Bard, George McAneny, and Harmon Goldstone are known to only those with an interest in preservation history.  Until recent times, preservation didn’t think of itself as having a history.  Today, that has changed.  As preservation begins to see itself as a movement that has a past, present, and future, we need to take steps to make sure that preservation’s more recently departed heroes, don’t suffer the fate of those who came before them.

Preservation needs the stories of its Halina Rosenthals and Dorothy Miners to instruct and inspire us. Let’s keep those names alive.  Go forth and name something.


The Historic City Committee: Any Lessons for Today?

June 29, 1988 picketing of Penn Station to protest Mayor Koch's proposed changes to the landmarks law. Kurt Vonnegut reads the famous passage on Penn Station from Thomas Wolfe's You Can't go Home Again. Front right is Ray Rubinow, civic activist extraordinaire. Right of him is James Marston Fitch. Photo by Steven Tucker.

On March 7, 1985 Mayor Koch created the Cooper Committee (named after its Chair, Alex Cooper) to review the landmark process and determine if reforms were needed.  It issued recommendations in May of 1986. These led to Mayor Koch’s initiatives to change the landmark process.  Those initiatives were uniformly opposed by the preservation community. That opposition led to a restaging of the famous picket line in front of Pennsylvania Station.  One of the best sources for information and analysis of the Cooper Committee report, the Koch initiative, and preservation’s concerns about them, is Village Views Volume V, Number 2&3, Spring-Summer 1988.

One of preservation’s strategic responses to the report and Koch’s initiatives was the creation, in January of 1988 under the auspices of the Municipal Art society, of the Historic City Committee as “an independent entity charged with studying the Landmarks Law and its administration.”  This blue ribbon committee of preservationists, civic leaders, and developers, engaged in a serious study aimed at improving the operations of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That committee released its report, New York: The Historic City, on February 6, 1989.

It is important to remember these reports and the chapter in preservation’s history that they represent. In the mid-late 19980s concerns about preservation had reached the point that they caught the attention of the Mayor and the leadership of the preservation community. Both reports were triggered by a sense that something wasn’t working as it should in the landmark process.   The Cooper Committee saw this situation largely through the eyes of the real estate development community whereas the Historic Committee saw it more from the preservation perspective.  Both brought together leading thinkers who focused significant energy on analyzing the landmark process.  Though from a preservation perspective one report was suspect in its conclusions, both efforts represented serious attention focused on the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Village Views Volume V, Numbers 2 & 3, Spring-Summer 1988 dealing with the Cooper Committee Report and Mayor Koch's "Initiaties" to change the landmarks process.

Ultimately, what were the impacts of the two efforts?  Both reports had political implications and impacts.  Did either lead to specific changes?  A complete analysis of their impacts has yet to be conducted.  Enough time has passed that such a piece of work will be distant enough from the emotions of the moment to be detached yet not so distant that all the key players are gone.  Such a study would make for a more interesting piece of work.

Concerns about the preservation process, reform ideas floated over the past several years, discussions about preservation in the context of Charter revision, continuing disillusionment in some sectors of the preservation community, and the excitement of new ideas that might advance the cause of preservation, all suggest it is indeed time again for a serious, thoughtful analysis of the Landmarks Law and its application. The looming 50th anniversary of the law provides an appropriate framework for such an effort.  Do episodes from preservation’s past, like the work of the Historic City Committee, have anything to offer?

The work of the Historic City Committee is particularly of interest because it offers an example of the preservation community coming together in response to a set of concerns about the landmarks preservation commission and the landmark process.  A group of informed and concerned citizens (including leaders of the three citywide preservation groups) were pulled together, funds were raised, staff was hired, and a serious study was undertaken. Does this approach from over twenty years ago have any lessons for preservation today?  Would such an approach be useful today?  If it was, could it even be replicated?

Kent Barwick at the June 29, 1988 restaging of the picketing of Pennsylvania Station to protest Mayor Koch's proposed changes to the landmarks law. Photo by Steven Tucker.

The dynamics of New York’s preservation community have changed so much over the last twenty years that a direct replication of the Historic City Committee model would likely be doomed to failure.  Perhaps, however, the most important lesson from the committee is still relevant: the importance of serious effort to appreciate and analyze the state of the landmarks law and its administration. A 2011 effort to do this will and should look very different in form and function from the 1986 effort.  Let’s’ hope there is such an effort and that those involved in it will spend a little time looking backward at such examples as the Historic City Committee before blazing an exiting new path forward.


Preservation Martyr, Archival Triumph: Richard Nickel and the Richard Nickel Committee

Preservation has many heroes but very few actual martyrs.  One who fits that definition is Chicago’s Richard Nickel.  He died on April 13, 1972 while salvaging decorative elements from Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building.  At the time it was undergoing active demolition.  His presence was unknown to those doing the demolition and whether as a result of their ongoing work or due to the collapse of a structurally weakened floor, some 28 days later his body would be found under the wreckage of the Trading Room.

A photographer (see Richard Nickel’s Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City), a preservation advocate (see They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture), and obsessively dedicated to documenting the work of “The  Master,” Louis Sullivan, Nickel devoted years to researching, photographing and writing the definite work on Sullivan’s work. A perfectionist constantly discovering new buildings by and information on Sullivan, the book was continually delayed.  As recounted in They All Fall Down, in 1959 Nickel wrote Adolf K. Placzek, then director of Avery Library, “I’m still struggling with the Sullivan book, which becomes more comprehensive every year and if I live so long, I think it will be something.”

He didn’t live long enough but the book did become “something.”  At his death, Nickel left behind his research, photographs, and unfinished text. According to “A Decades-Long Study is Finally Published,” a recent account in the New York Times by Eve Kahn, “His friends and colleagues retrieved his archives and founded the Richard Nickel Committee to keep researching Sullivan and his office partner, Dankmar Adler.”  Thanks to the efforts of that committee, The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan by Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind with John Vinci and Ward Miller was published by the Richard Nickel Committee with the University of Chicago Press in November of 2010. I imagine this is only one of a very few books whose two lead authors died years before its completion and publication.

If there was an award given for the most outstanding archival act of the year (decade?) it would have to go to the Richard Nickel Committee.  If anything proves the value of archives and their power to both document the past and inspire the future, this has got to be it.  What could better make the case for the importance of saving the papers and photographs of preservationists? Not only did they bring forth this publication, upon its completion they donated their archive to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago.  That archive consisted of over 15,000 negatives, Nickel’s personal library of books, historic research files and photographs.  It will be known as the Richard Nickel Archive.  Passing on this treasure to a permanent collecting institution was exactly the right thing to do.

This reflects the same approach followed at the New York Preservation Archive Project.  Our goal is to get important preservation material into the hands of permanent collecting institutions.  In emergencies we will take possession of threatened material and then over time find it a permanent home with the appropriate collecting institution.

In 2008 I gave a talk on the history of preservation in New York City at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in conjunction with their exhibition on the history of preservation in Chicago, “Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great architectural Heritage,” named after the text on the placard carried by Richard Nickel in 1961 at the protest to save the Garrick Theater.  The struggle to save the Garrick did not go unnoticed in New York City.  It was followed in the New York Times and in 1963 when Chicago passed its preservation ordinance, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote about that new legislation noting that its passage was “The result of the Garrick tragedy…”

Photo via

At the exhibit I picked up my Richard Nickel lapel button (and also got the idea to create the similar one for Albert Bard that I’m seen sporting at special preservation events) and also got so inspired by the Richard Nickel story that I made a pilgrimage to his house 1810 West Cortland Street.

Nickel’s building is near St. Mary of the Angels Church (whose salvation is a major preservation story in itself).  Nickel loving worked on his little building and did so for several years, it was more a preservation project than a home.  He never really moved in but lavished excessive attention (down to focusing on such details as the hardware) for what he called “a modest building in a bourgeois neighborhood.”  (For more on that and all things Nickel, turn to They All Fall Dow). Appropriately, yet without some controversy,  Chicago recently designated this building as a landmark because of its association with Richard Nickel.

Nickel is a preservation martyr and the Richard Nickel Committee is an inspiration for all of us who believe in the importance of documenting, preserving, and celebrating preservation’s own story.  Viva Richard Nickel, the Richard Nickel Archive, and those that secured his archive for the benefit of all!!


The Open Source Revolution: Could It Work for Preservation?

One of the many compelling lessons to be learned from the history of preservation is the importance of communication and organization to the success of preservation efforts.  Without communications it is hard to identify and remain connected to preservationists and if you are unable to identify and communicate with those who care about preservation, how can you organize to accomplish anything?  Thanks to technology, the way causes and social movements (and preservation is indeed one or perhaps both of these) communicate and organize is rapidly changing.  Those changes need to be part of preservation’s future.  That future, however, is not years away, that future is now.

Preservation has much to learn from the larger conversation that is taking place on the co-joined subjects of new ways of communicating and new ways of organizing.  For those of you who have yet to follow this conversation, I’d recommend you read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations and Getting to Maybe How the World is Changed by Westley, Zimmerman and Patton. Also of interest is the debate that has grown around Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2, 2010 New Yorker piece: “Small Change:  Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”  To follow that debate, read Ben Brandzel’s November 15, 2010 piece in the Nation: “What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change.”  In addition, just listen to all the news reports from the Middle East exploring and speculating on the role of social media in the revolutions spreading in that region.

The issue is more profound than whether one’s organization should have a facebook page or whether preservationists should take up tweeting. There are larger strategic questions to be examined. One new entry in the literature that nicely pulls together the subjects of communication and organizing is Jared Duval’s recently published Next Generation Democracy: What the Open Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics and Change. It is engaging, easy to read, and full of food for thought for preservation advocates.

The open source approach—which abandons traditional command and control tactics- builds on the notion that many creative minds addressing a problem, advancing a campaign, taking on a challenge, is potentially a better way to achieve change. Of course, these individual creative minds are not in isolation but linked, thanks to new technology and new ways of communicating.

As the claimyourgeneration website explains: “Originally coined by computer programmers to describe the trend of sharing source code, open source can be more widely understood as a philosophy that promotes open access to source material of an end product. Open source tends to shirk centralized, hierarchical power structures and instead focuses on the value of collaborative and shared, accumulative knowledge.  The appeal of open source lies in its synergistic capabilities; by sharing knowledge and resources with others, we end up with a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.”  Wisely they go on to point out the concept is nothing new in human behavior but what is new is its application to “tackling wide-scale social problems.” Duval shows how this approach has helped advance the work of those addressing climate change and other issues.

Duval presents the following insight from Jane Wei-Skillern (professor of social entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School) and Sonia Marcianno (NYU’s Stern School of business): “Most social issues dwarf even the most well resourced, well managed nonprofit.  And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations.  Instead, they must build capacity outside of their organizations.  This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; on being a node, not a hub.”

Duval advances the case that “networked, on-the-ground organizing is now proving more effective than the isolated-non-profit or-issue model that defined a previous generation.”   As you may have guessed, Duval is a millennial, and as such offers useful perspective into that generation, as well as into the tools and methodologies they are particularly adapt at using.

Reading the book is a very good investment of your time. It is a paperback, only 270 pages, and is jargon free and reader friendly. Likely, it will challenge the way you think about advancing social change. Imagine the implications of this open source thinking for the preservation movement.  Could it be used to make the preservation movement more successful?  Can it be employed to help reinvent some of our preservation organizations?  Is it a way to finally engage the larger public in preservation advocacy? Is it a way to get us out of the box in which we seemed to be trapped?

Whether open source thinking is the elixir preservation needs, all preservation advocates will benefit from learning about it and  being inspired by it.


Stabilizing Preservation’s Foundation

Guest blog by Ben Baccash, Principal
Benjamin Baccash Historic Preservation Services

On Tuesday evening, the New York Preservation Archive Project and the Historic Districts Council cosponsored
an event which included a panel discussion on the past and future of historic districts in New
York City. The panel, moderated by preservation consultant Seri Worden, included longtime
preservationist Otis Pratt Pearsall, Sherida Paulsen, a former Chair of the Landmarks Preservation
Commission, Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, and Jeffrey
Kroessler, a preservationist from Queens.

Otis Pratt Pearsall. Photo by Ben Baccash.

The panel discussion began by addressing Triumph of the City, a recently published anti-preservation
work of Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard University. In his book, which has received a
remarkable amount of press in all media, Glaeser specifically attacks historic districts as obstacles to
achieving a successful and vibrant city. When asked how to address this claim, Otis Pearsall said
Glaeser’s derisive point of view was mere “puffery” and suggested it shouldn’t be acknowledged at all.
Pearsall described historic districting as a revitalizing force and a tool of economic stabilization and
development, a persuasive description from someone who has witnessed the birth and evolution of
historic districting first hand.

Otis Pearsall was a driving force behind the creation of New York City’s first historic district, Brooklyn
Heights, which was designated in 1965, the same year that the Landmarks Law was enacted. At the time,
Pearsall has suggested that it was extremely unlikely, if even a remote possibility, that more than a few
historic districts would ever be designated. However, under the leadership of Beverly Moss Spatt, a
trained planner who chaired the Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1974 to 1978, the number of
historic districts increased rapidly. This growth continued and today, New York City has 118 historic
districts and extensions, the most recent being the Addisleigh Park Historic District in Queens. The
proliferation of historic districts is a testament to their beneficial role to the urban environment. But sheer
numbers and the words of preservation stalwarts like Otis Pearsall, even if seemingly self-evident truths,
are not enough to compete with resounding words of Glaeser, who recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s
“The Daily Show”, a news commentary program on Comedy Central which attracts over one million
viewers nightly.

As suggested by Simeon Bankoff, to compete with Glaeser’s voice, we need to first broaden the
discussion of preservation in New York City beyond the Landmarks Preservation Commission, individual
landmarks, and historic districts. The panel riffed on this idea, proposing that preservation and its basic
benefits need more study and explanation. This gets at the heart of how to address Glaeser and his book,
which is of the utmost importance to both maintain preservation’s active presence in the discourse and as
a matter of its self-preservation.

Panel on the future of historic districts sponsored by the New York Preservation Archive Project and the Historic Districts Council at the World Monuments Fund. From left to right, Otis Pratt Pearsall, Sherida Paulsen, Simeon Bannkoff, Jeffrey Kroessler and Seri Worden. Photo by Ben Baccash.

We need to conduct research to stabilize the foundation of the preservation field. We need to explain,
methodically, how and why preservation benefits the economic base, sustainable future, psychic
experience, and overall quality of life of the city and its residents. To do this, we need to gather
preservation data, analyze and synthesize it formally, distill and articulate it so as to be accessible by the
public, and, most importantly, market its main findings, virally. Internet campaigns, billboards, full page
newspaper ads, or whatever other rogue marketing method or combination therein that we choose, we
need to infuse the public’s beliefs with the passion and to-be proven benefits of historic preservation. The
future of the field depends on it.