Review and Comment: Snowed

January 25, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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This is not about the snowfall that finally arrived last Saturday. It is about the Landmarks Preservation Commission being too easily fooled by unimaginative building designs that vaguely echo 19th century styles. It is about a Landmarks Commission that doesn’t understand that “context” means a place in history as well as a resemblance to past examples. As Linda Collins reports, Landmarks has now approved, with slight modifications, the dismally bland 5-story apartment building replacing the former Brooklyn Eagle offices at 30 Henry Street. And, with another such possibly coming two blocks away to replace the Heights Cinema on the Orange Street corner, we may be in for another Landmarks charade.

As was pointed out in last week’s editorial here, the actual context for 30 Henry — and also for the Heights Cinema site — isn’t 19th century at all. This stretch of Henry Street is characterized by the Hotel St. George, the Cranlyn apartments, the Cadman Towers, and the Whitman Close townhouses — all examples of 20th century styles. A historic district isn’t one in which all buildings are frozen in a small segment of time. To begin with, what made the case for Brooklyn Heights as a historic district was the large number of good examples of buildings true to the best of their own particular periods. To be historically correct, any new buildings should also reflect the time they are built in. The Cranlyn apartments, for instance, at the corner of Henry and Cranberry Streets, well exemplify the Art Deco style of ca. 1930 when they were built. The Whitman Close townhouses are an interesting take on post-World War II Modernism.

The responsibility for building new in a historic district is not to erect the cheapest “contextual” imitation, but to respect both the quality and the period the new structure will represent. The Landmarks lawyer who argued at the hearing on 30 Henry that “There is nothing in the law to require a developer to build in a particular style” had it only half right. “Anything goes” is clearly not acceptable in a historic district, or the Landmarks Commission wouldn’t even need to pass on new construction there. Judgment of quality is obviously part of the commission’s mandate, and it is within its rights to require respectable, not just timidly “respectful,” architecture.  The issue of what is properly “contextual” has bedeviled preservationists for the last few decades, and there is no simple one-style solution. On that score, the lawyer had a point, but the other point is that there should be serious evaluation of such considerations as effectiveness on the site, interplay with neighbors (whether by resemblance or contrast), quality of detailing, and, yes, imagination.  

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To the argument that subjectivity is involved in all of this, the answer is that subjectivity is at the very heart of landmarking. We count on those trained in the field, with a sophisticated understanding of the history and ramifications of architectural design, to be our arbiters in these issues. The Landmarks Commission exists not to serve political or financial expediency, but to make principled and often tough calls. It failed badly in the case of 30 Henry, but let’s hope we can take pride in whatever happens on the Heights Cinema site.

Fight Over the Sky

The weekly newspaper Norden, for Swedish-speaking Finns in America (which my maternal grandparents ran in its original incarnation as Finska Amerikanaren), recently ran a lead headline that translates as “Who Shall Own the Northern Lights?” It seems Norway had taken exception to Finnish tourist advertisements touting Finland as the place to view what is more formally known by the Latin designation aurora borealis. The Norwegians were claiming that this celestial spectacle, most frequently visible in the polar regions, is truly best seen from Norway (a northern sliver of which runs over the top of Finland), giving Norway a proprietary claim.

Norden followed with a later report saying that a Finnish video of the northern lights has enjoyed more than a million hits on YouTube and the Finnish service Vimeo, and that it had more than 50,000 Facebook fans. A Finnish tourism official was quoted: “We in Finland know very well where it shows best.” Although the likelihood of northern lights was conceded to be greatest on the northwest Norwegian coast, less cloudiness and rain were claimed for the Finish Lappland interior.

And then my son Sven flew in the other day from Moscow to report hearing that Iceland now claims it is the best place to see the phenomenon. All international squabbles should be so serious!

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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