What makes a landmark?

The Pepsi sign in Gantry Plaza State Park, overlooking the East River in Long Island City, Queens.
The Pepsi sign in Gantry Plaza State Park, overlooking the East River in Long Island City, Queens. © BENJAMIN NORMAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES - .... by midcentury a proliferation of bad Modern architecture had caused popular sentiment to sour. The preservation movement was born from a desire to save endangered architectural treasures from the fate of a lost Pennsylvania Station but also from a growing resistance to an accelerating trend of ever greater density and height. Such concerns have gradually led the commission to designate whole neighborhoods, to tie up properties where bigger buildings might sprout and to grant landmark status to places that were not architecturally distinguished but culturally and socially meaningful and deserving of commemoration, like the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. Designating Stonewall a landmark last year was a no-brainer and a declaration of civic pride. But it also showed how, absent additional regulations, the city’s landmark law had become a catchall. As a safeguard of architecture of aesthetic significance, it clearly wasn’t intended to enshrine what looks like the current Home Depot picture window or brick veneer on the inn’s facade. The law doesn’t prevent the nail salon next to Stonewall from expanding into the inn. It doesn’t dictate use. So, this is why, if the commission designates the Pepsi-Cola sign, it will in effect be protecting the medium, but not the message. Yes, I know, what is the sign, if not the neon lettering that spells out the brand name? But technically the Pepsi name is content, which the law doesn’t enforce. Fortunately this apparent Alice in Wonderland conundrum poses no imminent threat, since Pepsi entered a while back into a binding agreement not to change the sign. A landmark designation in effect would reinforce the agreement and underscore the city’s fondness for a pop-culture artifact. ....

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is about to decide the fate of 95 properties that have been languishing, some of them for decades, on its calendar.

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.