Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks
Let's face it: legal history is not exactly an action genre. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks. I was pleasantly surprised on all counts, however. First, unlike any legal history I've ever seen, it is a beautiful book: peppered with archival photos on hefty paper stock and with a layout and font meant to please the reader's eye. Second, it comes alive with the stories of hardy individuals and organizations who struggled to save the neighborhoods and buildings they loved, leading up to the 1965 passage of the New York Landmarks Law.
Over the course of twelve chapters and an epilogue, Anthony Wood debunks the popular myth that New Yorkers discovered [End Page 119] preservation when the demolition crews began deconstructing Pennsylvania Station in October 1963. Wood traces the evolution of thought that began with the City Beautiful movement in the early twentieth century and led through many dead ends and false starts to the eventual passage of the Landmarks Law.
The author, a longtime preservationist and teacher—and formerly on the staff of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission—takes pains to limit his scope to the legal battles leading to the Landmarks Law, stating that the book "does not attempt to be a history of New York's preservation movement" (xviii). In fact, however, this telling of the sixty-year history that led up to the passage of the law reveals much about the emergence of the preservation movement, using New York City as a microcosm of the rest of the nation. Employing vast archival material, including not only the records of several important civic organizations but also oral histories he conducted himself with early leaders in the fight for preservation, Wood gives us more than the History of the Law, or the History of the Movement: he tells us a History of the People, and that's the kind of history preservationists need but so often don't write. Military men study the lives and strategies of military leaders in history; politicians read biographies of statesmen of old; yet preservationists—including me—tend to read and write about architecture, urban planning, and builders. Of course, we need those books, but neglecting the stories of other preservationists leads to an amnesia that weakens the field, forcing us to reinvent tactics each time we face a preservation issue.
One of the preservationists whose story Wood tells is Albert Bard. Bard pops up in almost every chapter of the book, his ninety-six– year life dedicated to preserving the beauty and history of New York City. Wood's detailed character study of Bard gives preservation organizations today a ready-made list of qualities to look for in job applicants: he was smart, personable, persistent, and willing to work behind the scenes and give others the credit; he took a long-term view of every issue; tended a network of contacts; and understood the value and necessity of public relations while also being forceful enough to go to the courts if necessary. Most important of all, he was passionate about New York City and its architecture. Bard became interested in the government regulation of beauty during the City Beautiful Movement. His interest in preservation went hand-in-hand with his concern with aesthetics: public beauty, including great architecture, should be preserved. Two sticky constitutional issues stood in the way: first, could the government deny demolition permits without giving compensation to the owner? Second, if the denial of a permit was considered a "taking," how could fair compensation be established? (109). After decades of struggling with these questions, his Bard Act, passed by the state legislature in 1956, became the enabling legislation for New York's Landmark Law.
Another story that weaves through Preserving New York is the sometimes tempestuous relationship between the "aesthetics" and the "historians." This relationship—which seems to have developed not only in New York but around the country in the early decades of the twentieth century—was most tangibly expressed in New York by the Municipal Art Society and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Wood notes that the two groups had similar but subtly divergent interests and pursued their goals in different ways that still persist today: those interested primarily in aesthetics sought to create new regulatory structures in government to control beauty, while those for whom history was most important tended to create individual sites of memory, usually house museums that they administered themselves. The tension between the descendants of these two groups is expressed today in the combination of historic significance and architectural significance in the National Register of Historic Places. Those of us who work with the National Register know that it is much easier to convince the public of the worthiness of a "pretty" building than it is of a vernacular place that is associated with an important event or historical trend.
The early idea to create and publicize lists of historic or architecturally important buildings to promote their preservation also works its way through the book, beginning with the work of architectural historian Talbot Hamlin in 1941, and culminating with the first New York Landmarks in 1963. This list-making impulse, of course, has found its most formal incarnation in the National Register, sometimes scorned as "merely honorary" and lacking teeth. But Wood shows that this simple tool played a pivotal role in generating public interest and educating large numbers of early neighborhood leaders about the importance of their architectural heritage. Knowing this history, perhaps preservationists today would do well to focus their energies on bolstering the influence and prestige of the National Register.
Wood's two chapters telling the story of the neighborhoods that became early advocates for preservation, the Village and Brooklyn Heights, combined with his thoughtful epilogue, raise significant questions for preservationists to consider. Noting that "many preservation activists perceive that New York City is again facing a true landmark crisis" (375), Wood asks whether the existing preservation law structure is enough to deal with predicted population growth and the return of the Robert Moses–like "master builder" (376). He bemoans the caution and "timidity" that has continued to characterize the Landmarks Commission even after the Landmarks Law has been strongly upheld in court. And he notes that "sites of cultural and historical significance" (that is, not "pretty buildings") have been the most heavily affected by this reticence (377). Most significantly, Wood asks the question that perhaps many of us have been thinking but have been too afraid to ask: "Has the almost singular focus on the use of the law . . . led preservationists to rely too heavily on it at the cost of developing alternative [End Page 120] preservation tools? . . . [Has it] limited horizons, frozen creativity, and arrested creative development?" (383). Preservationists cannot afford to ignore the implications of these questions. Too often our most promising young preservationists, instead of advocating openly for preservation to the public, are muzzled by their government employers. We must adapt our methods as the world changes around us.
In the mid-twentieth century, citizens banded together in large numbers to fight for their heritage, for their neighborhoods, and for beauty in their daily lives. They won the right to have their views become part of the planning process. But like every law, the Landmarks Law requires political will and citizen participation to be effective. To think of that law or the national preservation act as a culmination of the story, a tidy final note, is a mistake. The story continues today, and if it seems that it is not turning out as planned, perhaps we have only to look at ourselves and the society we have helped create to find the reasons. Anthony Wood's Preserving New York helps us realize again that preservation is about passionate people, not about laws—it should be required reading for all of us who care about preserving our history. [End Page 121]
Jennifer Baughn is the chief architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. She oversees architectural surveys, research, and educational outreach around the state for the SHPO. She has documented over eight hundred historic schools in the state, and after Hurricane Katrina she led damage assessment and volunteer outreach teams in the historic districts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.