What makes a landmark?
Late in 2014 the commission’s chairwoman, Meenakshi Srinivasan, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, announced that the slate would simply be cleared. City Hall let it be known that earlier administrations had created the backlog. It was time for a fresh start.
This thrilled the Real Estate Board of New York, which the mayor was courting. Preservationists went ballistic. Behind the scenes, I heard that some staff members at the commission were also upset. They had worked long hours over many years to research which properties deserved to make the calendar in the first place.
Of course, the bigger issue was that erasing the backlog meant dozens of potential landmarks could suddenly be demolished. In calendar limbo, at least they were temporarily preserved. New York is a dynamic metropolis, propelled by change, but it isn’t a giant Etch A Sketch.
So credit the commission, a typically opaque body with a history of mission creep, for backing off from the plan, instead promising hearings and an expedited review. As best as I can tell, this process has been unfolding. It culminates on Tuesday, when commissioners are to vote at a public meeting on which properties will be bumped from consideration or pushed for designation.
Who really owns a proposed landmark? Back in 1965, Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic for The New York Times, described the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center at 809 United Nations Plaza, designed by Alvar and Elissa Aalto, as “the most beautiful and distinguished interior New York has seen in many years.” The building’s current owner opposes the interior’s designation. Similarly, the religious authorities overseeing some of the churches on the list, like the beautiful St. Barbara’s in Brooklyn, Immaculate Conception in the Bronx and First Reformed Church in Queens, are pressed for cash and have lobbied against landmark status.
But in all of these cases, doesn’t the public also have a claim on these properties? Alvar Aalto left behind precious few works in the United States. Church buildings are more than private property. They are historically integral to neighborhoods, anchoring communities, often even after they’ve been repurposed.
I’m also worried about a few of the industrial and commercial sites on the list, among them the dormant Fire Service Pumping Station in Coney Island, a Moderne gem from the 1930s by Irwin Chanin; the 1888 Excelsior Power Company Building in Lower Manhattan by William Grinnell; and the 1904 I.R.T. Powerhouse in Manhattan. They should all become landmarks.
The powerhouse is a working Con Ed facility, and the company says it needs to be able to change and adapt as technology evolves. But the building is a Beaux-Arts glory by McKim, Mead & White with a soaring interior. It embodies New York’s boundless ambition just over a century ago. Some compromise seems in order.
Hey, here’s a thought: Keep it on the calendar.