Events & News

Making the 45th Truly Memorable

Making the 45th Truly Memorable

October 14, 2009 | Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Fall 2009 Newsletter

It was 45 years ago, on September 17, 1964, that New Yorkers awoke to the shocking news that the Brokaw Mansions at East 79th and Fifth Avenue would be demolished. The announcement coincided with Mayor Wagner’s proclamation of “American Landmarks Preservation Week in New York City.” This embarrassing juxtaposition of events helped propel the draft landmarks law from the Mayor’s desk into the City Council where on December 3rd, a seven-hour public hearing moved the law a major step closer to reality.

It was also 45 years ago this holiday season that the fate of the Pyne-Davison block on Park Avenue between 68th and 69th hung in the balance while the proposed law was studied. This extraordinary block was saved at the 11th hour by the Marquesa de Cuevas, but shortly thereafter, on Friday, February 5, 1965, in “weekend stealth,” demolition commenced on the Brokaw Mansions.

If all this was happening 45 years ago, it can mean only one thing: 2010 is the 45th anniversary of our Landmarks Law, passed by the City Council on April 6, 1965 and signed by Mayor Wagner on April 19, 1965. With the stroke of his pen, the Mayor brought down the final curtain on the dramatic battle for a landmarks law and began the first act of a new drama: the implementation and application of the law!

Thirty years ago as a preservation neophyte, one of my first assignments as the Confidential Assistant to the Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the formal job title for the very junior staff person who opened the Chair’s mail and handled miscellaneous assignments) was helping organize the 15th Anniversary Celebration of the Landmarks Law. I vaguely remember it involved a reception in City Hall, special awards, potted plants and red napkins—and of course no budget. 

Now we find ourselves on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Landmarks Law and have even more reason to pay attention to it. As of this writing, NYC has 96 historic districts, 1,235 individual landmarks, 110 interior landmarks, and 10 scenic landmarks. Behind each designation is a preservation story. Some of these stories are now almost 50 years old. Have they all been captured? Also instructive are the stories of what we’ve failed to save. In addition, these years have seen important changes in preservation policy and practice that should be documented for the record. Like the 15th Anniversary Celebration of the Law, there is no dedicated budget to underwrite a grand celebration of this hallmark year. No fear! Let’s tweak some of what we would regularly do in 2010 and focus it on celebrating, capturing, and preserving the last 45 years of preservation history. If every organization devoted a program, a tour, an article, an exhibit, an awards program, a case history, or an interpretive dance on the topic, what an anniversary it could be!

For our part, NYPAP is planning to design a special website to highlight the 45th anniversary. It will be a place to post all the special anniversary events, and with some luck, it will also be a place where the historic information, stories, and photographs documenting the last 45 years of preservation history in NYC can be collected and shared. If you want to help us build such a site, your assistance is more than welcome! 

As preservationists, this is a landmark anniversary we all share. If we all contribute an ingredient into this anniversary “stone soup,” we can have a delectable and memorable celebration. as well as collaboratively document and preserve the last 45 years of preservation memories. Informed, empowered, and energized by that history, imagine what preservation accomplishments can be achieved in the next 45 years?