Past as Precedent, Present as Future
June 6, 2019 | Anthony C. Wood, Archive Project Founder & Chair
Today’s preservationists have their hands full. If they are not fighting to get a building designated, they are battling a misguided effort to disfigure one. If they are not trying to stop an effort to weaken the Landmarks Law, they are dreaming of ways to strengthen it. If they are not refuting “fake news” about the negative impacts of historic preservation, they are working to document preservation’s positive effects. With these and other demands on their hands, why should preservationists devote any time to looking backward instead of focusing on the crisis at hand? Why should they expend any energy documenting what they do instead of just doing it? The answer is simple: there is much to be learned from preservation history, and that history is being made every day.
It should be comforting to those working to save a building, striving to preserve a neighborhood, or battling an inappropriate project, to know that they are not the first New Yorkers to take on such a challenge. Sadly, many do not realize they are part of a long and honorable tradition. They do not need to reinvent the wheel or repeat the mistakes of the past. In a very real sense, preserving preservation history is stealth preservation advocacy. It is about gathering and sharing knowledge to advance preservation efforts. Preservation history is full of insights that can inform, instruct, and inspire preservationists for years to come. Whether it be suggesting strategy or tactics, helping to generate new ideas, or providing encouragement, preservation’s history is the movement’s intellectual capital. When you mine it, you can find just the gem you need.
Do you want to launch a campaign to save something?
Preservation history can show you how. The time-honored approach is to begin by identifying the resource in question and learning as much about it as possible. Use that knowledge (which will continue to grow, since research never really stops) to build a constituency of those who want to save it. Identify the appropriate tools to preserve it (designation, acquisition, zoning, adaptive reuse, etc.). Harness the energy of that ever-growing constituency to create the will (political or otherwise) that leads to action. In the 1950s, this same process ultimately led to the passage of the Landmarks Law in 1965. This same process was employed by PlaceMatters in the 1990s to advance the cause of saving cultural sites. That same process is being used today by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project in its current efforts to preserve LGBT sites.
Do you want to stop a misguided project?
The best primer is to study how previously out-gunned but not out-maneuvered New Yorkers successfully stopped such projects. A good place to begin is to study how in 1939, civic leaders and nonprofits stopped the mighty Robert Moses in his efforts to force a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge on the city. They clearly defined what was at risk. They organized a broad coalition. They used the press to make the case for what was at stake. They doggedly challenged every single permit the project required, even when they knew the deck was stacked against them. They showed up at every hearing. They hired lawyers and lobbyists. They left no stone unturned. They used every connection they had— and it worked. Or look to the early 1960s struggle against the ill-considered, 1,000 seat, two-story Huntington Hartford Café planned for the southeast corner of Central Park across from the Plaza Hotel. Unable to stop the project through any other means, a long-shot lawsuit successfully delayed the project until a new mayor was elected who immediately cancelled the project. Lessons on strategy and tactics abound in preservation’s history.
Do you need creative inspiration?
Preservation’s history can provide it. Episodes from preservation’s past have shaped subsequent advocacy efforts. The 1978 Landmark Express to Washington, D.C., designed to focus national attention on the pending United States Supreme Court decision that would determine the fate of Grand Central Terminal and New York City’s Landmarks Law, was the inspiration for the 1984 Landmarks Express II to Albany. That reenactment was part of the advocacy campaign to defeat the Flynn Walsh bill that would have undermined landmark protection for religiously-owned property across New York State. Or, for example, on June 29, 1988, over 600 New York preservationists, led by a bagpiper, restaged the famous August 1962 AGBANY (Action Group for Better Architecture in New York) picket line opposing the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, in order to dramatize opposition to a mayoral proposal to weaken the Landmarks Law.
Today’s preservationists are every bit as creative as their ancestors. The efforts to add the Stonewall Inn to the National Register of Historic Places as part of a small district avoided any issues that might arise from the 50% owner support requirement by drawing the boundaries of the district to include the surrounding streets and Christopher Park, belonging to a sympathetic owner, New York City. This strategy was both shrewd and appropriate, considering the critical role of the surrounding streets in the Stonewall riots of 1969. The long roots of this tactic were borrowed from how boundaries were drawn for the preservation of Civil War Battlefields. The creativity extends beyond district borders. In 2005, Landmark West! as part of its advocacy efforts on behalf of 2 Columbus Circle, deployed a webcam, dubbed the “ShameCam,” to monitor the ongoing threat and ultimate demolition of the building’s façade. In 2017, East New York preservationists successfully used “heart bombing” as part of their campaign to achieve landmark designation for the Empire State Dairy complex.
These and other creative contemporary preservation tactics and strategies are the history today’s preservationists are making. It needs to be documented and preserved so it, too, can inspire, inform, and instruct future generations of preservationists. As John W. Gardner noted, “History never looks like history when you are living through it.” Today’s preservationists are making history. What are they doing to document it? What are you doing to capture the preservation history you are making? Remember, it’s your story. It’s our history. It’s worth saving.