- The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City
What was the defining moment in New York City’s preservation history? The destruction of Penn Station? Not necessarily.
Randall Mason in The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City lessens the historical rank of the demolition of Penn Station by demonstrating the importance of little-known St. John’s Chapel and (spoiler alert!) narrating its ultimate demise. St. John’s, designed by John and Isaac McComb and completed in 1809, was the center of a planned neighborhood east of Varick Street. The neighborhood was built by the Trinity vestry to include an urban park, a square on the model of those in London, and upscale townhouses. The chapel was demolished in 1918. Mason reveals this complicated story from every angle the archival record will allow: the nearby congregants, newspaper reporters, civic leaders, the church leaders of the Trinity vestry (who wanted to concentrate their members into a wealthier uptown parish), and others. In spite of the chapel’s evocation of Old New York, a historical association linked to its Federal style, the church could not withstand a municipal street-widening program. The fate of St. John’s Chapel is told in chapter 2 with drawings and photographs, carefully selected by Mason, that in themselves allow us to see how the arguments in favor of saving the chapel took shape over time. Supporters initially emphasized its importance as a local place of worship, but later advocates presented it as an architectural achievement.
The Once and Future New York focuses on a range of preservation issues from 1890 to 1920. Winner of the Antoinette Forrester Downing award from the Society of Architectural Historians in 2011, Mason’s book describes many forceful New Yorkers who championed heritage-related activities as integral parts of urban development. Andrew Haswell Green appears frequently in the book. (I was struck by the thought that fifty years ago, at a different historiographic moment, this book might have taken the shape of a “Great Man” history of Green, positioning him as the founding father of preservation.) Green will be familiar to historians of New York because he played important roles in the establishment of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Bronx Zoo. In 1895, Green founded the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, demonstrating his dedication to the idea of historic sites as civic, patriotic symbols. Green saw the saving of monuments as part of a larger project of improving the city’s aesthetics and moral tone: to restore a tidy colonial house on a bright parcel of land was not antithetical to urban planning; it was, rather, a necessary part of growth (6, 20). Mason concludes, therefore, that it is wrong to paint a picture of early preservationists as antiurban.
The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, as implied by its name, concerned itself with the conservation of natural (“scenic”) settings and historical landmarks. Restored natural sites, mostly in the form of parks, and preserved buildings are deeply connected by the way they invite visitors to experience civic memory, however socially constructed that memory may be. These sites are valuable insofar as they cultivate shared identity. To frame his discussion of how places create memory, Mason has developed the useful idea of memory infrastructure. Infrastructure, in this formulation, is a system of fundamental amenities that must be in place for a city to function: “Memory infrastructure was intended to perform the important cultural function of building cultural identity by fusing celebrations of the past with optimism about the future” (xxv).
Memory infrastructure seems like an especially apt description of the Bronx River Parkway, a giant among infrastructures and the subject of chapter four. The Bronx River Parkway was many things to many people: a restored natural landscape, an engineering feat, a...