Events & News

Preservation Bookshelf

May 19, 2016
Article from the Spring 2016 Newsletter

While it is now commonly accepted that the preservation movement in New York City evolved from more than one single demolition, the mystique of Penn Station as the impetus for New York City’s Landmarks Law lives on. The latest in the string of works immortalizing the iconic train station is Penn Station, New York, a book of photographs by Louis Stettner. One of the last living members of the avant-garde New York School of photography, which challenged many of the long-accepted fundamentals of the art form, Stettner’s Penn Station series of the late 1950s represents some of his most significant work. These photographs are gathered together for the first time in this book, creating an intimate portrait of the building and a study of the people who travelled through it.

As reported in The New York Times, it was New York City’s dynamism that led Stettner to practice his photography in Penn Station; amid the City’s hustle, Stettner found the train station a place where he could catch his breath. “Penn Station was a pause,” he said, “where people could get in touch with themselves, and a way that I could get in touch with them.” Stettner, who now lives in Paris, told the Times that he is saddened that such a dignified public space was demolished, especially since its replacement is so off-putting. “The whole thing is continually anxiety-ridden,” he said of traveling through today’s Penn Station. He likened the original 1910 structure by McKim, Mead & White to “living in an art museum; it gave grace and charm to an ordinary function of going from A to B.” Stettner says today that in 1958 the thought of losing Penn Station seemed unimaginable.

“What attracted me most was that this was a place that gave dignity to people. A place where you felt you were living in a better world. It was marble and iron and very graceful, a place with high ceilings that enforced the dignity of the human race—a place where you felt more worthy than on the street. You felt good there.”

Although Stettner and the publications to which he originally submitted this series of photographs deemed them as un-newsworthy and “just people in Penn Station,” with time, distance, and the loss of the inspiring structure, their significance has been recognized, and the series is now considered a major work of art.

While some landmarked New York City interiors are widely celebrated, others are virtually unknown. Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York by Judith Gura and Kate Wood sets out to change that situation. The first publication to present the landmarked interiors of New York City in intricate detail, and published in conjunction with the New York School of Interior Design’s 2015 exhibition Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmarks Interiors, the book is a visual celebration of the spaces that capture the rich and varied heritage of New York City.

Since a 1973 amendment to the New York City Landmarks Law first allowed the designation of interiors, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 117 interior landmarks throughout all five boroughs, preserving for future generations spaces that represent New York City’s cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history. Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York tells the vibrant stories of these spaces. They range from the soaring 1812 rotunda at City Hall to the modernist 1967 atrium of the Ford Foundation, New York City’s youngest designated interior, hailed by Ada Louise Huxtable as “one of the most romantic environments ever devised by corporate man.”

In addition to including details on these interiors’ original materials, styles, and exceptional design features, the book also focuses on the challenges to preserving them; although some interiors were unanimously accepted as worthy of landmark status, many designations were hotly contested in legal battles. The book also features the incredible restorations and adaptive reuses some of these interiors have undergone, and the preservationists, philanthropists, politicians, and designers who made these possible. Thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated, Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York is an important addition to any preservationist’s collection.

The Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Heights Association recently reissued Dover’s 1979 edition of Clay Lancaster’s Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb in honor of the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. The book, a comprehensive, illustrated, street-by-street guide to the historic houses, churches, and public buildings of the neighborhood, was instrumental in the efforts to designate the area as a historic district. It is available for purchase exclusively through the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Heights Association.

Above: Penn Station, 1957 (the first photograph taken in the series, this image of a young girl playing in circles of sunlight on the waiting room floor inspired Stettner to return to Penn Station in 1958, just five years before its demolition); Photo © Louis Stettner, 2015