Digging Into Our Ever-Expanding Preservation History Database
By Rachel Ericksen, 2021 Reisinger Scholar
Where does one turn to learn about preservation history that is specific to New York City?
The Archive Project’s online Preservation History Database. Over the past nine months I have had the privilege of leading an effort to expand the database by conducting research and writing entries with a team that focuses on the people and places integral to the history of the preservation movement in New York City. By focusing on expanding the breadth of entries to include more sites located in the five boroughs and more people representative of the full story of preservation, our efforts reflect a thread that ties these seemingly random entries together. The saving of places has always been brought about by passionate people who use their own special skills to rise to the occasion as preservation leaders, not only for the sake of buildings but also the communities they anchor.
For each of the bolded entries mentioned below, please find the full entries, along with many more, at our website, www.nypap.org.
Take, for example, the work done by Thom Bess, a court reporter who wanted to do something about the decaying state of the buildings in the Longwood neighborhood of the Southwest Bronx. Working with Marilyn
Smith in the 1970s and early 1980s, he rallied the community—literally ringing on every doorbell—to raise awareness and build an engaged community of citizens integral to the establishment of the neighborhood as the Longwood Historic District and the founding of the Longwood Historic District Community Association.
Other preservation leaders focused on the power of their pens to advocate for saving places meaningful to their communities. Mary Ann Haick DiNapoli was a historian of the South Ferry Arab American community in Brooklyn. Her research and writings were integral to the landmarking
of St. George’s Syrian Melkite Catholic Church and provided historical context for other designation efforts in what was once Manhattan’s Little Syria. Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Marianne Moore wrote a rallying cry in the 1960s to save the Camperdown Elm, a famed tree called out in the 1975 scenic landmark designation report for Prospect Park.
Sometimes, the call to be a preservation leader stems from fighting the forces who wish to come in and disrupt or disregard the physical fabric of one’s community. As stated by the late Linda Mariano, a leader in the
preservation of the industrial heritage of the Gowanus Canal and its environs, “There is no other way to say it, it’s a fight. It’s a fight for how you feel about where you live, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”
The physical sites added to the database over the past few months
offer their own insights into the history of preservation efforts. Even at the dawn of landmarking in New York City, people were advocating
not only for the grand sites, but for sites that tell the full story of the
people and eras of the City. Those stories emerge at the Brooklyn
Naval Hospital, where generations of New Yorkers serving their country during times of war and peace were treated. They radiate out from the
vernacular Wyckoff House from the 1600s, where a former indentured
laborer showcased his success. It holds the distinction of being the City’s first designated individual landmark. Queens, this sense of story is embodied in Kingsland Homestead, a house moved twice by preservationists to maintain the borough’s only 18th century home. These
stories epitomize how people drive the preservation of place.
In the process of continuing to build out the database, I have learned that preservation is about community, whether it is a community that rallies to save a space it finds meaningful or about communities preserving important stories that once inhabited a building, street, or neighborhood. Ultimately, the act of preservation formally links the tangible and intangible elements that make up a place—the fabric of the built environment and the
community-generated stories—and stitches them into a permanent bond, a bond that functions to engage and inspire those wandering in, through, and past such places. To me, this is where preservation’s magic lies, both as a passion and as a profession. Thank you to Pat Reisinger for supporting this position, to Executive Director Brad Vogel for his support and encouragement, and to many Archive Project members for their insights into these people and places.