Exhibition highlights 50-year-old NYC Landmarks Law
To mark the 50th anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law, a new exhibition looks at the architectural losses that led up to the law and how it has helped shape neighborhoods today that blend both the old and new.
“Saving Place,” which opens Tuesday at the Museum of the City of New York, highlights what is widely seen as a watershed moment in the city’s preservation movement, the 1963 demolition of the old Beaux Arts-style Pennsylvania Station to make way for Madison Square Garden.
“Nobody really believed that a building of such civic importance would be demolished,” said Meenakshi Srinivasan, an architect and chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “It really created the coalescing of all factors to come together to save buildings important to New York City’s identity.”
The law was signed by Mayor Robert Wagner on April 19, 1965, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1978 following a campaign led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to save another iconic railroad station — Grand Central.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission was given a mandate to preserve buildings and places of cultural, architectural and historical significance. Owners of properties given the designation must get permits from the commission before making restorations, alterations or additions.
In its first five years, it designated 300 to 400 buildings, over a dozen historic districts and reviewed 800 applications. Today the commission’s work is increasingly bigger. Over the last five years alone, it reviewed nearly 67,000 applications.
Famous buildings given such designation include Radio City Music Hall, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Federal Hall,Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the New York Stock Exchange, Coney Island’s Parachute Jump, the Alice Austen House in Staten Island and historic districts in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights.
The exhibition traces the trajectory of the preservation movement in New York City, from the end of the 19th century up to the present day.
Documents, photos, models and drawings also are used to chronicle the landmarks’ development and the losses of important structures in the 1950s and 1960s. Fragments from the destroyed Penn Station and other buildings also are on display.
The exhibition also looks at contemporary design in the context of historic districts and at new architecture atop historic landmarks, as in the 1920s Hearst Tower in Manhattan. A Norman Foster-designed triangular glass skyscraper was added to the top nearly 80 years later.
“The goal of the exhibition is to show the preservation movement in a contemporary slant and its relevance today,” said Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator.
Landmarking has never been about freezing the city or making the city into a museum, said Andrew Dolkart, exhibition co-curator and director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University. Rather, as the exhibition shows, preservation allows for both lively new architecture and saving the past for a dynamic future.
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