Celebrating Decades of Preservation!
May 14, 2013
Article from the Spring 2013 Newsletter
On April 19, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Law will turn 50! When Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmarks Law in 1965 (shown above, photo by Margot Gayle), New York began working under a legal framework to protect its important architectural, historical, and cultural heritage, and a new era of historic preservation began. The 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law is an opportunity to remind New Yorkers and the wider world that the law preserves more than bricks and mortar and that our memories and experiences are connected to our physical surroundings.
To commemorate this historic milestone, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel—writer, activist, preservationist, and television interviewer and producer—has guided the formation and launch of the NYC Landmarks50 Advisory Committee. Over the next two years, this committee will work to broaden appreciation of and commitment to New York City’s landmarks through a series of events held throughout the five boroughs. “There is hardly a neighborhood, or a New Yorker, not touched by New York City’s preservation movement, which so reflects the great diversity of our City. We are committed to developing future preservationists who will take responsibility for protecting our history, and the continuity of the New York Cityscape,” said Committee Chair Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “The Landmarks50 Advisory Committee is an all-voluntary effort that brings together committed individuals and institutions from the public and private sectors to inform and engage the public about the importance of historic preservation, which has ensured that the iconic landmarks of New York continue to be maintained and celebrated throughout the world.”
The New York Preservation Archive is a founding member and financial supporter of the NYC Landmarks50 Advisory Committee. Other committee members include the Central Park Conservancy, the Municipal Art Society, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Districts Council, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Apollo Theater, Jujamcyn Theatres, the Rockwell Group, the Rubin Museum of Art, Sotheby’s, and many more. To get involved, share ideas, and volunteer your time, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
While anticipation builds for the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law, two vital preservation advocacy organizations are celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year: the Preservation League of New York State and the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The activism, fundraising, and technical work of these organizations have been critical in saving countless historic buildings and districts, thereby helping to sustain the economy, environment, and scenic beauty of communities in the five boroughs and throughout the entire state.
These anniversaries come amid a flurry of other landmarks related birthdays in recent years, including the 25th anniversary of Landmark West! in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the Historic Districts Council in 2011, and the 30th anniversary of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts last year. These anniversaries are a reminder that many institutions of the preservation movement have reached middle age. It is time to take stock, examine where the movement has been, how it can continue to grow and prosper in the future, and how we can educate a new generation of New Yorkers about the importance of preservation.
The Preservation League of New York State (PLNYS) was incorporated in 1974 in response to a meeting of like-minded preservationists from across the state in Rensselaerville, New York, in June 1973. This gathering agreed that a statewide organization was needed to provide a unified voice to advocate for historic preservation, offer technical assistance, and promote preservation ethics and practices. For the past four decades, PLNYS has provided assistance and grants to help build the capacity of local groups throughout the state; it has educated New Yorkers on historic preservation through workshops, seminars, and presentations; and it has advanced public policy at state, local, and national levels. Furthermore, it was instrumental in passing the State Historic Preservation Act in 1980. In recent years, assistance from PLNYS has built support for new historic districts in Manhattan. And since 1999, the “Seven to Save” program, which gives endangered properties increased visibility and triggers enhanced technical, legal, grant, and media services from PLNYS, helped preserve the state’s most endangered historic structures and neighborhoods.
For its 40th anniversary, PLNYS is increasing its visibility and advocacy work to engage and energize its constituents and become more action-oriented. The organization is redesigning its website and has begun an “action alerts” email list to notify supporters of urgent state and federal issues. PLNYS is also planning a series of “Partnerships in Preservation” events around the state to highlight the work that the organization does in cooperation with local groups, and will also be planning special events and tours to mark the anniversary.
Today, money-driven arguments are often used to justify relegating preservation to the back burner, but a challenging economic environment is nothing that preservationists haven’t faced before. The New York Landmarks Conservancy (NYLC) was founded in 1973 in a City wracked by a fiscal crisis, yet the organization immediately got to work saving treasured landmarks that give New York its unique sense of place and attract tourism and investment. Thanks to the foresight, creativity, and perseverance of NYLC and preservation advocates, the Customs House on Bowling Green, the Fraunces Tavern block, Pier A, Astor Row, and countless other landmarks were saved from demolition. These buildings now contribute to the social and economic life of the city in tangible and intangible ways that would be impossible to replicate.
Today, the Conservancy continues its work with a range of targeted grant, loan, and technical assistance programs that have contributed more than $40 million to help maintain and restore historic properties. This in turn has helped trigger a total of $1 billion of funding for restoration projects. The Sacred Sites program which celebrated its own 25th anniversary in 2011, is one of the nation’s only programs to provide landmark-designated religious properties with financial and technical assistance (and the only such statewide program). The NYLC’s Historic Properties Fund, which turned 30 in 2012, is one of the nation’s largest private revolving-loan funds for historic preservation. After Hurricane Sandy struck, the organization offered $164,000 in assistance to landmark-designated buildings damaged by the storm. Previously, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Conservancy teamed up with the Preservation League of New York State and other organizations to save threatened properties in Lower Manhattan.
On January 24th—officially declared New York Landmarks Conservancy Day by Mayor Michael Bloomberg—the NYLC kicked off its 40th anniversary year with a reception at the Customs House on Bowling Green, one of the first buildings the Conservancy helped to save. The organization’s 40th anniversary gala will be held on November 14th, and a range of talks, tours, and special events will be held to celebrate New York’s architectural legacy throughout the year.
The stories of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York Landmarks Conservancy are a reminder that governmental agencies, while necessary, are not sufficient to preserve landmarks; a strong civic sector of preservationists helps hold politicians’ feet to the fire, coordinate preservation advocacy, and provide resources for preservation projects. Political and financial support for preservation is never guaranteed. In the years to come, public support for preservation must be sustained; landmarks that have already been designated must be repaired, restored, and maintained; and many deserving places await landmark designation and appropriate reuse. Anniversaries, be they an organization’s or a law’s, are an opportunity to both celebrate the past and reflect on the work that remains to be done to secure New York’s heritage in the next few decades and beyond.