Events & News

An Interview with Anthony C. Wood: Preservation Activist, Historian, and Archivist

An Interview with Anthony C. Wood: Preservation Activist, Historian, and Archivist

May 14, 2014 | by Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the Spring 2014 Newsletter

As the 50th anniversary of the passage of New York City’s Landmarks Law draws near (2015), Archive Project founder and chair Anthony C. Wood recently sat down with vice-chair Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe for an in-depth interview. The conversation touched on many aspects of Wood’s long career in New York as both a preservationist and the visionary behind the mission of the Archive Project to save the story of preservation in the City.

You came to New York from the Midwest in 1978 with a graduate degree in urban and regional planning. This raises two questions: first, how does that particular academic background inform your role as a preservationist, and second, did you view New York as a logical or even special destination, and why?

The reason for the degree is really an element of fate. My undergraduate degree is in history. I had applied to a variety of master’s programs and had received a scholarship to a program in urban and regional planning. I had just finished a summer as a Fellow at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts. Working there made me realize that I was extremely interested in how Deerfield Village had been preserved. I loved history and research, but after my time at Deerfield I realized that I wanted to become engaged with “active” history, the actual preservation of places. As a consequence, when I started my graduate studies, I put a “preservation spin” on all of my courses, writing papers with preservation themes. The best takeaway from my degree was that I had the ability as a planner to “attack” other planners!

I came to New York because urban planning programs naturally lead to cities, and in 1978 New York was the Detroit of its time. I had made a point of reading The New York Times faithfully while in grad school, and I arrived here with a bagful of clippings related to my planning and preservation interests. On a personal note, as a gay man, I also felt that I could imagine a more satisfying personal life in New York City than almost anywhere else.

The old charges of “elitism” seem to never disappear when leveled against preservationists. Edward Glaser, for example, has enjoyed a fair amount of press in his attacks against historic districting in places such as the Upper East Side, arguing that it keeps the rich richer and the poor bereft of housing. How would you respond to this?

 It’s actually sad about Glaser, because he writes about how wonderful cities are, which is great, but he doesn’t understand that preservation is so key to what makes cities wonderful. The idea that historic districting in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side is the cause of New York’s affordable housing problem is lunacy. Glaser also confuses skyscrapers with population density. As for the “elitist thing,” anybody can walk down the City’s beautiful streets and enjoy the preserved houses. These neighborhoods are a public space like Central Park and keep the City livable. People deserve beauty, and historic districting keeps the City beautiful for everyone.

Columbia University began its master’s program in historic preservation in 1964. You have been a faculty member in that program. How has this program advanced preservation in New York?

 This program was a game changer in the City and beyond. At this point, we now have a group of earlier graduates who are “eminence grises” in the City and the preservation movement, with a long history of activism and a wealth of experiential knowledge, as well as a newer generation of younger graduates who are full of enthusiasm and new ideas. The program created a cadre of like-minded people with the tools they need to be effective in preservation on many fronts. Additionally, Columbia inspired numerous other institutions across the country to create similar programs, which is creating a larger network of preservation professionals.

You have spoken of how, when you came to New York, you realized that there was no volume dedicated to the history of preservation in the City. Your book, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks, published in 2007, filled that niche. Writing that book was a major undertaking. What made you decide to be the one to write this much-needed book, and how did you go about gathering all the material and organizing it? Did you have a special game plan in attacking this project?

When I came to New York wanting to become involved in preservation activities, I felt I should read “the” book or even an article on the story of how New York City’s Landmarks Law had come into being. There was none to be found! I started to take it upon myself to seek out the origins of the Landmark Law. I managed to get a $5,000 grant to do oral histories with people who knew pieces of the story of the Landmarks Law, and I interviewed such key players as Geoffrey Platt, Harmon Goldstone, Margot Gayle, and Brendan Gill. Each oral history raised more questions, so I kept researching and had about 75% of the story, 20 years into the project! So finally I decided to commit to writing a book.

I reached out to friends who had published books and got templates of book proposals, since I was not going to write the story without the imprimatur of a real publisher—essential in my mind for getting the book into libraries. I was cautioned that there was “no money” in this topic, so I didn’t bother to try and get an agent and instead contacted publishers in the general preservation field. Initially this did not work out, but I did get good feedback on how to make the story more compelling for the general public. I had to revamp my structure and narrative to recast the book. I then found a publisher who liked the reworked proposal.

As to the actual mechanics of writing the book, I was fortunate to receive a sabbatical from the Ittleson Foundation, who was then and remains my employer. To avoid having friends and acquaintances distract me from my work while on sabbatical, I used the “cover” that I was writing the book in our house in Vermont while actually writing it in my office where all my materials were. However, I would sometimes get caught when I would run into someone in New York and they would ask me how the weather was in Vermont, and I would give them a blank stare! After the sabbatical, I was still not finished, so I came to my office early, and worked on the book from seven a.m. until ten a.m. and did not check emails or answer the phone during that block of time. I suspect that I suffer from some mild form of ADD, so I would spend 60 minutes writing, 60 minutes researching, and 60 minutes raising money and handling other administrative tasks for the book.

I had two years in which to deliver the book to the publisher. I did not know that a deadline is usually not something that writers adhere to, and I found that the publisher was quite surprised to receive my manuscript on time. I am very glad that I undertook this book project, but I have two regrets. The first is that I put so much pressure on myself to meet the deadline that it took much of the fun out of the project; the second is that I accepted the publisher’s indexer and I am not happy with the result. I am constantly augmenting the index in my desk copy.

How would you assess the general media coverage of preservation in New York? How has it expanded over the years, and are preservationists getting more of a hearing?

Because of the great changes in media, especially social media, you really can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of then versus now. In the old days, “victory” was getting a New York Times editorial; now many people don’t read newspapers and some politicians take pride in championing positions contrary to an editorial! In general, with all the “new media” there seems to be more coverage of local preservation issues and more opinions being expressed. If many multiple voices echo the same view, can they “equal” one Ada Louise Huxtable piece? One can debate that point. Today we live in a world where a smart phone can record all events, and countless individuals can tweet their opinions.  At some point there may be so much material on preservation that we will face the “garbage in, garbage out” problem.  Still, I’d prefer future historians having too much information to sort through than too little.

If you had to name the three biggest challenges and the three biggest opportunities facing preservation in New York City at this moment, what would they be?

I believe that the three biggest challenges at the moment are serious and differentiated. The first is the fact that preservation is now often taken for granted by the general public—there is an assumption that things are protected. Complacency is never a good thing for preservation. A second challenge is that preservation is often misunderstood and miscategorized, an example of this being the idea that it is a block to affordable housing, a misconception that the new administration seems to be operating under. Hence, we in preservation have a “messaging issue” to deal with.

Related to this is the threat of “devaluing the brand.” What I mean by this is that from a policy perspective, more things are “protected,” but what that means is under threat. Regulation, some would argue, is not as rigorous as it used to be, and there is increasing pressure to allow more things to happen to a landmark. A case in point involves two buildings in the Ladies Mile Historic District that are currently threatened by demolition. Years ago, developers would not have even bothered to seek permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish them. Now they are testing the limits.

The third major challenge has to do with the fracturing of the preservation movement itself, which is more severe than ever. The good news is that splintering can mean that preservation is an umbrella that covers many people; the bad news is that there is no real recognized leadership. Within preservation, there are people who dislike each other more than they dislike Donald Trump! The reason is that they never expected Trump to support their particular preservation cause but they did expect the support of their fellow preservationists. There are turf and ego battles that go on and on. Preservationists have given themselves the luxury of disliking each other and not working together on other issues because of some past disagreement. We can’t afford to have “blood feuds” when we need to present a united front on the critically important issues.

On a happier note, I see many opportunities, but I will focus on the three most significant. The first and most exciting development is the chance to capitalize on the fact that the values preservation embodies are appreciated more than ever before. There is a vital sense of the power of place. People are making choices about living in locations that reflect a quality of life that is dictated by historic environments, which are especially popular in New York. This really helps preservationists with our policy case.

Also, we have more ability through the new media to present the visual, which is so essential to the preservation message, and finally, there is an emerging generation of young preservationists who really care deeply about localities, regional food systems, and other issues that are in tune with preservation values. This contrasts dramatically with the Fifties, when preservation was out of tune with the prevailing Zeitgeist of “new and mass-produced.”

New York is a study in multiple preservation organizations. How can they keep their missions clear for the public?

Policymakers need to know the differences, but it’s true that the number of different organizations can get very confusing for outside viewers. There are building-specific groups, architectural-period groups, historic-neighborhood groups—everything from the Victorian Society to the Friends of Terra Cotta. New websites are an aid to making things clear as to what each group does, but the upside of the large numbers of organizations means that they provide many entryways into the larger preservation community. Specific groups can be “intake valves” for people to find a “core.”

Most preservationists have great personal anecdotes about famous people involved in the movement. Would you recount the phone call you received when you were working as a junior member of the MAS team from one Jacqueline Onassis?

Back in 1984, I was working late at the Municipal Art Society planning the Landmark Express II train to Albany—a trainload of preservationists heading to Albany to testify against an ill-conceived piece of legislation that would have removed properties owned by religious institutions from the protection of local landmark laws. The phone rang, and having just finished a lengthy call with a long-winded community activist, and fearing that they were calling again, I answered the call in a brisk and sharp voice. On the other end was the delicate and quiet voice of Jackie Onassis. Responding to the Society’s inquiry, she was calling to indicate that, yes, she would be riding the train with us up to Albany for the hearing but that she wasn’t planning to testify. After profusely thanking her, in what you can imagine was a much more pleasant voice, my excitement about her coming with us to Albany was tempered by the fact that we had already told the politicians and Albany press that if she came she would be testifying. The day of the trip arrived, and a wonderfully engaged and animated crowd of preservationists came on board. On the ride up, Jackie sat next to the great preservationist Fred Papert. As we were getting off the train she turned to me and said she had changed her mind and that she would testify! She delivered her testimony in that same delicate and quiet voice. The chairman of the hearing had to ask the cameramen to quit taking photos because their clicks and snapping flashes were overpowering Jackie Onassis’s voice. Everyone in the room hushed, leaned forward, and strained to hear her speak—which made her remarks even more powerful and effective. There has never been another quiet voice for preservation as loud as hers.

Ten years hence, where would you like to “see” NYPAP in term of its mission?

The ultimate goal of the Archive Project is to fundamentally change the culture of the preservation movement so that preservationists and their organizations regularly document, preserve, and celebrate their own history. Conceptually, if and when that goal is achieved, the Archive Project could declare victory and leave the field. However, since preservationists are naturally more akin to Dalmatians responding to ongoing current alarm bells than archivists, our work will be needed for many decades to come. With some luck, in a decade, the Archive Project will be able to spend less time conducting oral histories and intervening to save records, papers, and preservation paraphernalia from the dumpster, and more time and resources on educating, training, funding, and otherwise assisting preservation organizations.