Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks
An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York and Catalog edited by Donald Albrecht, Andrew Dolkart, and Seri Worden
Through January 3, 2016
Since the first trace of the species homo sapiens, human evolution only represents four one hundred thousandths of one percent of the earth’s age. In proportion to an 80-year life span, that means just 31 hours—less than a day and a half of the 701,280 hours lived.
With the existential threat of climate change and ecological ruination gaining traction in collective consciousness—combined with the outsized expectations of breath-holding fundamentalists for whom earth’s rapturous end can’t come soon enough—our sense of what permanence means has begun to shift. If all human culture to date is just four-dozen millennia and we’ve wreaked so much havoc already, “forever” strikes a dubious chord.
This temporal dynamic is one prism through which Saving Place and the anniversary it examines can be seen. Another is the end of the post-World War II order and with it a sense that history hasn’t ended after all, including the survival of world monuments (especially amidst the tribal strife in the Middle East) that a united (albeit Western-centric) world had deemed essentially imperishable. It turns out historic places of exceptional human accomplishment can disappear as readily as an endangered species can; the risk of disorientation resulting from the obliteration of common orthodoxies is always high.
Such sobering reflection informs this worthy stock-taking anniversary enterprise, which focuses more on the role of the preservation movement as part of the plodding, existential course of civic engagement, rather than some celebratory juggernaut tied only to the singular examples of past excellence like Grand Central Terminal or the Guggenheim Museum. Among the most valued places saved are those of daily routine that most identify as the common bonds of a vibrant community. Only with such coherence can change occur in ways that succeed—and that hold value.
Fifty years ago, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner signed into law the first landmarks designation statute in the nation with the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. With its advent came new public authority and civic duty to adjudge the aesthetic and historic value of elements of the built environment, including privately owned or nonprofit properties, whose future disposition affects the commonwealth of all citizens.
It was as controversial then as it continues today, whether held as the basis for NIMBY battles by the privileged few or the evergreen bane to developer dreams clipped by what they sometimes assert are its onerous and subjective restrictions blocking the growth and change endemic to sustained livability.
That is not an easy distinction for a metropolitan region. Since first launched by the colonizing Dutch, the bonanza of real estate development has been the golden egg of the regional economy. It is the essential cornerstone of New York commerce and the obsession of dwellers from those born and bred to those beckoned by its promise of opportunity and fresh beginnings.
This relatively recent chapter of local land use policy and its record of impact are the inspirations for Saving Place, delivered with a welcome sobriety of tone and presentation calmly sharing its results along with the means and personalities that made it happen. An underlying intent born of civic pride stays in lively focus.
Like any thorough history show, gray wins out over black and white: The movement started far before the generally shared crucible of the 1963 demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s uplifting Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station (giving way to the peerless bathos of Penn Plaza by designer and businessman, Charles Luckman, whose clients took the train users of 1968 to be some dying breed of rodents) and has learned as much from its failures and occasional compromises as from its best known victories.
The movement’s roots took hold not so much against change, but against failed progress when the exchange of present conditions for some promised social gain fell short and urban well-being emerged impoverished.
Like the l965 law, the 1978 majority ruling by the United Sates Supreme Court, written by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (upholding the City’s designation of Grand Central Terminal and thus laying to rest once and for all any lingering assertions that landmark designation was unconstitutional), is far more nuanced than its friends and foes would have New Yorkers believe.
The preservation work done, like the battles to come, are perpetually a collective work in progress. The places and leading players presented in such a context emerge more as dynamic case studies than as fixed heroics.
The commissioned photographs by Iwan Baan (whose work is characterized as usual by the vehicles, people, and quotidian activity of such places, so often absent in studies of planning and architectural design). Like the exhibit installation by Wendy Evans Joseph and her firm Studio Joseph, record individual designations are not just bright beacons of superior significance but indispensable, stabilizing place holders that bind community even when hidden in plain sight.
Saving Place respects the value of landmarks by gently reminding its audience of what we take for granted and by offering (without insisting) on a greater depth of meaning for sites both individual and district-wide.
And yet its overwhelmingly beneficial impact on all corners of today’s five boroughs, not to mention the quality and measure of visitor appeal (like it or not, tourism means jobs), cannot be denied or scoffed away as a Luddite blockade to change.
Whatever else New York may risk in 2015, a dearth or loss of dynamic change is not one of them. Saving Place shows instead how traces of the past can at best stand alongside the new for at least the relatively small measure of time that our present civilization can endure. Like the natural world, today we know that the built world also demands balance as a basis of sustenance.
The exhibit’s iconic original architectural models and array of primary artifacts are brought to the fore as the landmark’s legacy of material sensuality in historic terms both material and artisanal. The society we keep is well served by some record of past beauty that for all kinds of reasons simply cannot be replicated, and how that should be done.
These strands tie a knot of quiet reflection for the Saving Place initiative that bodes well for a landmarks movement pausing only briefly to recall the reasons its work will never end in the messy marketplace of a healthy city. Coexistence is the key; landmarking works best as one part of the overall planning process, not the bejeweled hobbyhorse of some nostalgic elite.
In a world with a foreshortened sense of permanence, the longer we can maintain this democratic equilibrium the better off we all will be.