Events & News

1965 to 2015 to 2065: The Last 50 and the Next 50 Years—Who and What Will Tell the Preservation Story?

May 14, 2014 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Spring 2014 Newsletter

The multi-year celebration of the 50th anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law is building steam. The NYC Landmarks50 Alliance, under the dynamic leadership of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, now involves over 120 organizations, and each of them is hosting a special activity to focus public attention on the past 50 years of preservation in New York City. Appropriately, as part of this celebration, there will be efforts to present and analyze the history of the past 50 years. Though still too fresh for a truly detached and definitive historical analysis, this will be the “first take” on telling the story of preservation over the last half-century.

How will that story be told? In great part, the answer depends on the archival material and other resources available to inform that story and make it dynamic and engaging. Appreciating what we have and what we don’t have to tell that story can help instruct us in what we should be saving and archiving now so that in 2065, when the centennial of the Landmarks Law is celebrated, the story of the second 50 years of preservation can be told with even greater thoroughness, accuracy, insight, and excitement.

What do we have to work with to tell the story of the last five decades of preservation in New York City? First, where do we stand on the basics—the Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to history? We have the public records of what the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated. Second, going deeper, do we have the basic facts for the preservation efforts behind those and other sites, e.g. chronologies of events, lists of protagonists, accounts of activities? Sadly, it is a rare occurrence when a specific episode of preservation advocacy has been dutifully documented during or shortly after the fact, when information is readily available and memories still fresh. Good examples of such efforts are the book The Fight for City and Suburban Homes and the web resource “Campaign to Preserve 2 Columbus Circle: Chronology, Bibliography, Dramatis Personae” on the Archive Project website.

This rarity proves that those engaged in today’s preservation campaigns and those who will be involved in tomorrow’s need to add the task of keeping basic accounts of their activities to their already lengthy to-do lists. Future historians will bless them for even the most rudimentary timelines of events (meetings, public hearings, press coverage, etc.) and an annotated roster of the key players. For multi-year preservation efforts (and most are) with many permutations (e.g. designation hearings, court proceedings, hardship procedures, etc.) a simple chronology will provide future historians an invaluable guide to their efforts.

Having access to the facts helps answer the basic questions of “What happened?”; “When?”; and “Who did what?” but doesn’t necessarily provide answers to such higher order questions as “What were they thinking?” To gain that level of understanding one needs access to the thoughts of the players. When it comes to capturing the mental processes of those involved in the last 50 years of preservation, the Archive Project has conducted over 60 interviews, many of which are available as transcripts on the Archive Project website.

Part of that collection is a series of oral histories with each of the past chairs of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (with the exception, sadly, of David Todd, who passed away before the project was launched). This collection provides a baseline view from that singularly important preservation perch. We also have oral histories from leaders of key civic organizations and a range of participants in a variety of preservation efforts. Many more such narratives are needed to fully tell the story of the last half century, but we have made a good start. Looking ahead, the task of capturing the voices that will tell the stories of the next half-century is one we all need to embrace.

Providing great insights, yet rarely available, are first person accounts of preservation efforts. A great example of a new entry in that category is Scott Hand’s and Otis Pratt Pearsall’s The Origins of Brooklyn Bridge Park, 1986-1988 (now available on the Archive Project’s website). This 90-page account of the earliest days of the efforts to create Brooklyn Bridge Park not only rigorously recounts the events that took place, the players in the drama, and the tenor of the times, but also provides insights into the thinking and strategy behind the scenes. Meticulously documented, this narrative is a model other preservationists should be encouraged to emulate.

Finally, what do we have to animate the preservation stories of the last 50 years? Fortunately we have photographs documenting such iconic preservation battles as the efforts to save Grand Central Terminal and St. Bartholomew’s. But how many unknown photographs of less prominent preservation efforts exist in forgotten files or dusty scrapbooks? In an old photo album of mine I recently ran across photographs of the exhibition mounted at the Municipal Art Society in the 1980s as part of the unsuccessful campaign to have a stretch of Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan designated a historic district. What photos do you have? With cameras now built into every possible device, there is no excuse for not appropriately documenting the next 50 years of preservation history, unless, of course, we forget to do so!

Over the past 50 years, there has been radio and television news coverage of key episodes in preservation history. Surely there must be existing footage somewhere of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis taking the Landmark Express Train II to Albany to testify against legislation that would have removed religious properties from the protection of New York City’s Landmarks Law. Is there a tape somewhere out there of William Warfield singing “Goin’ Home” at the City Council public hearing on the Dvorak House? What other treasures might be out there?

There is also the media generated by the campaigns themselves. Remember Tony Schwartz’s “narrowcasting” (messages targeted to the key decision-maker in a controversy and aired publicly vs. broadcasting aimed at motivating the general public) media efforts employed on behalf of the battle to save the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park? Looking to the future, with the help of technology, why shouldn’t every present and future preservation effort be extensively documented on video shot from smart phones? Today, there is almost no excuse for failing to capture significant events.

In addition to seeing the players and hearing their voices, what else can bring alive key episodes in the history of preservation? How about the sailor’s hat (referencing the iconic photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-J Day) worn by participants in the rally to save Times Square or the preservation lollipop from the Campaign to Save 2 Columbus Circle (known as the “lollipop building”)? What would we give today for one of the original placards from the August 2, 1962 picketing at Pennsylvania Station or the September 26, 1964 protest at the Brokaw Mansion? What about the architectural models for some of the proposed towers over landmarks that were defeated? What about reminders from preservation failures or salvaged elements of beloved lost sites? I have an eight-inch piece of decorative plaster from the Biltmore Hotel’s Palm Court that I picked from the wreckage while being ejected, along with Gabe Pressman, from the demolition site in August of 1981. What’s in your closet?

So what will be available to help tell the story of the next 50 years of preservation history? The answer is simple—whatever you save. What events will be brought alive on film? The events you document. Whose voices will future preservationists hear? Yours, and those that you record. What inside knowledge will we have on the preservation efforts in which you’ve been involved? The information you record through an oral history or a first person narrative. The preservation stories you help capture are the intellectual capital of the movement and in one sense belong to us all. However, unless you make the effort to document and preserve them, odds are good that their full value and their ability to inspire, inform, and instruct future preservationists will be squandered.

The New York Preservation Archive Project is committed to the work of documenting and preserving the history of preservation, but the task is too big for any one group. What is needed is a preservation-movement-wide effort to consciously document our history, both while it is being made and shortly thereafter. Together we can preserve our story as we have been preserving the buildings, neighborhoods, and cultural landscapes that tell the story of our city, state, and nation. Just as the preservation of those sites has greatly benefited society, the preservation movement stands to benefit immensely from preserving its own legacy.