Events & News

Celebrating Preservation Anniversaries: Much More Than a Piece of Cake!

May 14, 2011 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Spring 2011 Newsletter

Recently, New York City’s preservation community has been celebrating a swirl of anniversaries! Whether it is the 45th anniversary of the passage of New York’s Landmarks Law, the 40th anniversary of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), Landmark West!’s 25th Anniversary, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s (GVSHP) 30th birthday, the 25th anniversary of the New York Landmark Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association’s 50th , or the 20th anniversary of NYC’s oldest children’s education preservation program (GVSHP’s History and Historic Preservation), New York preservationists have wonderfully demonstrated that anniversaries have gone far beyond merely cutting a cake.

To avoid any unnecessary controversy and to set the record straight, I have no objection to birthday cakes. In fact the cake at the recent Historic Districts Council celebration was particularly delicious! I’m a believer that every anniversary celebration should include at least one cake. Indeed I have vague memories of a staff meeting decades ago where the merits and engineering possibilities of creating a three dimensional cake of a great landmark for some important anniversary were extensively debated. My point is that anniversaries create a special opportunity to do so much more than eat cake (even if it is in the shape of Grand Central Terminal). If we don’t fully use these celebratory opportunities we are missing the boat.

Beyond cakes and wonderful parties, anniversaries provide the perfect opportunity to document the past, reflect on where we’ve been, imagine where we might be going, aggregate and amplify our accomplishments, and advance the mission of preservation organizations. Anniversaries are a particularly wonderful opportunity to advance the still too limited practice of documenting our own past. Kudos to Landmark West for successfully completing its ambitious project of filming interviews with a variety of New York civic and preservation leaders who were asked for their impressions of the group’s first 25 years of work. The interviews have been edited into a compelling short video, and the longer interviews will become part of an archival collection. As part of its anniversary, the Historic Districts Council has been conducting phone interviews with many of its past leaders. Here at the Archive Project, we are using the 45th Anniversary of the Landmarks Law as the occasion to conduct in-depth oral histories with all the living past chairs of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Anniversaries are a natural time to take a break from the present, think about how we got to where we are and mull over where we might need to be going. The recent Fitch Forum 2011: 45 Years of Preservation Law, provided an opportunity for some 200+ preservationists to spend a day thinking about how landmark law has developed over the last 45 years as well as what the future holds for landmarks laws in general, and New York City’s law in particular. HDC’s preservation conference: “Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Forty Years of Preserving NYC Neighborhoods” offered a similar opportunity for both reflection and projection. Landmark West! used its anniversary year to engage in a formal organizational strategic planning process.

The list goes on. This is the 20th Anniversary of GVSHP’s children’s education program. It has served over 15,000 kids. This is also the 25th Anniversary of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program. In the past quarter century, the program has given away over $6.7 million in grants, leveraging almost half a billion dollars ($497 million to be exact) of work on historic religious properties across New York State. These are impressive numbers. Although preservation still lacks many of these types of hard numbers and real data, by just taking the time to stop, count, and tell the world what we’ve done, we can greatly advance our cause.

Taken seriously and developed to the fullest, anniversaries can dramatically advance preservation’s mission. They provide the perfect hook to align stars with preservation—whether it be Malcolm Gladwell at GVSHP’s 30th, or Robert Caro et. al. at Landmark West’s 25th. Anniversaries can be used to unveil exciting new programs such as HDC’s new “Six to Celebrate” and its new Preservation Action Fund. Landmark West! used its birthday to launch an iPhone app and fill the till, successfully raising $500,000 to help secure its future.

There is really no excuse for not turning preservation anniversaries into occasions to advance our cause. One thing about anniversaries is that you can see them coming. You can plan for and around them. If you aren’t doing more than baking a cake for your anniversary you are losing a special opportunity to capture your history, document your achievements, celebrate your accomplishments, advance your cause, and plan your future.

In a fundamental way the Archive Project is in the anniversary business. Think of us as the Hallmark store for preservationists. Though we don’t have any great cake recipes, we can suggest lots of ways you can use your anniversary to celebrate your past and inspire your future. All we ask is that you save us a piece of cake.

Above: Toasting 40 years of the Historic Districts Council; Courtesy of Gramercy Park Photo