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New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1962 to designate and regulate the upkeep of historically and architecturally significant sites and districts in New York City.

Location: Municipal Building, 9th floor, 1 Centre Street, New York, NY 10007  |  Google Maps
People: Kent Barwick, Michael Bloomberg, William Brennan, William Conklin, Rudolph Giuliani, Ed Koch, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Witold Rybczynski, Vincent Scully, Robert A. M. Stern, Anthony Tung, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Tom Wolfe
Places: 2 Columbus Circle, Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse, Brooklyn Heights, Bryant Park, Central Park, Guggenheim Museum, Grand Central Terminal, Jamaica Savings Bank, Pennsylvania Station, Wyckoff House, Rizzoli and Coty Buildings 
Public Policy: New York City Landmarks Law, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978)
Above: Mayor Robert F. Wagner signing the New York City Landmarks Law on April 19, 1965; Courtesy of Margot Gayle

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is the New York City agency responsible for identifying and designating the City’s landmarks and the buildings in the City’s historic districts. The commission also regulates changes to designated buildings. The commission was established for “the purpose of safeguarding the buildings and places that represent New York City’s cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history,” in order to “stabilize and improve property values; foster civic pride; protect and enhance the City’s attractions to tourists; strengthen the economy of the City; promote the use of historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the City.”1

June 19, 1961: Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. creates the Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance to help advise him on a strategy toward protecting the city's landmarks2

April 21, 1962: Mayor Wagner appoints the first Landmarks Preservation Commission on the recommendation of the Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance

April 19, 1965: The Landmarks Preservation Commission is officially created when Mayor Robert Wagner signs the New York City Landmarks Law

June 1965: Wagner inducts the first eleven members of the LPC3

September 21, 1965: The Landmarks Preservation Commission's first hearing occurs; the first landmark is the Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, parts of which date to 16524

November 23, 1965: The Landmarks Preservation Commission designates Brooklyn Heights as the City's first historic district

1978: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the City's landmarks law after the commission denies a developer permission to build a 55-story tower above Grand Central Terminal5

November 4, 1987: Five Broadway theaters are granted landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, almost doubling in one afternoon the number of buildings designated in the theater district.6 The session amounted to the biggest single step in the effort to create landmarks out of Broadway's legitimate theaters since the process began in 1981.7

December 1987: Amid a highly public dispute over a plan to build a restaurant in Bryant Park, a designated landmark, the Koch administration refuses to reappoint Anthony Tung, a landmarks commissioner who opposed the plan.8

August 1990: The Landmarks Preservation Commission votes unanimously to designate the Guggenheim Museum a landmark.9 The museum is the first landmark to receive designation under the new City Charter, which means the City Council would receive the final vote on the commission's decision later in the year.10

2005: Incensing preservationists and landmarks commissioners alike, the City Council overturns two landmark designations: the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Jamaica Savings Bank on Queens Boulevard.11

The history of the Landmarks Preservation Commission begins four years before its inception. On June 19, 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner created the Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance. Its aim was to study and review New York City landmarks worthy of protection and draft legislation to protect them. At the Committee's suggestion, Wagner appointed a Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 21, 1962. Only months after its creation, the commission started to officially designate lists of buildings as landmarks.12 By 1963 the commission was evolving into a more formal city agency, but until the Landmarks Law passed in April 1965, it was relatively powerless, especially compared to later incarnations.13

The Landmarks Law, which officially created the commission and gave it its power in April 1965, was enacted in response to fears that important physical elements of the City's history were being lost despite the fact that these buildings could be reused. Events such as the demolition of Pennsylvania Station increased public awareness of the need to protect the City's architectural, historical, and cultural heritage.

The City Council's committee report that accompanied the 1965 Landmarks bill laid bare the mounting concern which ultimately helped lead to the commission's creation:

"Testimony discloses that the City has been and is undergoing the loss and destruction of its architectural heritage at an alarming rate, especially so in the last 8-10 years...The public, through individuals, groups, press, organizations and others, has strongly protested such loss and destruction and has widely argued that measures be taken immediately to prevent further loss and destruction."14

The commission is comprised of eleven commissioners appointed by the Mayor for three-year terms. Among the eleven there must be at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, and one realtor. Additionally, there must be at least one resident on the commission from each New York City borough. Ten commissioners serve part-time and receive no salary, while the chair is a full-time, paid position.

The LPC is divided into six departments: Archaeology, Enforcement, Environmental Review Coordination, the Historic Preservation Grant Program, Preservation, and Research.15 The commission designates three types of landmarks: individual (exterior) landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks. Scenic landmarks must be situated on city-owned property. Central Park is one example of a scenic landmark. The Commission may also designate areas of the City as historic districts. An historic district is an area of the City that represents at least one period or style of architecture typical of one or more eras in the City’s history. Whether or not an area has a “sense of place” is often a key factor in designating an historic district.16

Anthony C. Wood writes of the commission's early years:

"Often out of the limelight since its creation, the commission had been hard at work. As the demolition of Pennsylvania Station had starkly demonstrated, without legal power, the commission was in no position to forcefully intervene to save threatened buildings. At this point, its task was to lay the groundwork for such a future time, systematically identifying the buildings and places worthy of preservation and working to shape a new law that would protect them. In the process of doing both, the commission would help build a constituency that would proactively protect landmarks and ultimately support the new law."17

Despite calls for more precise definitions that would spell out in detail what constitutes a landmark or historic district, the committee "maintained the approach of providing broad conceptual definitions letting the commission make those determinations through its work. By not predetermining landmarks by particular style or building type, the legislation maintained the flexibility that has come to serve the law so well. The council did add one concrete requirement to landmark eligibility - that buildings needed to be '30 years or older.'"18

The Landmarks Preservation Commission quickly became part of the development process as a major political and cultural force, influencing development of land in New York City.19 Although it is one of the smallest New York City agencies, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is the largest municipal preservation agency in the United States.20 Robert Wagner later reflected that, "creating the Landmarks Commission was probably the best thing I ever did while I was Mayor" and that "it was the most lasting contribution from my administration."21

In terms of the numbers of landmarked buildings, by the Landmarks Preservation Commission's 25th anniversary in 1990, it had designated 856 individual landmarks, 79 interiors, and 9 parks or other outdoor places as landmarks, while declaring 52 neighborhoods with more than 15,000 buildings as historic districts.22

Anthony Tung, a former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, asserted that in its first 29 years, the landmarks commission designated an average of 652 properties a year, compared with 183 a year under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.23 New Orleans, which passed protections for many of its historic buildings after Hurricane Katrina inundated the city in 2005, now has a proportionally higher preservation rate than New York, Tung added.24

As of 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has granted landmark status to 1,355 individual landmarks, 117 interior landmarks, 138 historic districts (and historic district extensions), and 10 scenic landmarks in all five boroughs.25 Through the work and guidance of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, owners of about three percent of the City's total buildings cannot alter or demolish their properties without permission from the landmarks panel.26 In all, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated over 35,000 properties in its first 50 years of operation.27

One of the most prominent decisions in which the Commission was involved was the preservation of New York City's Grand Central Terminal with the assistance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.28 In 1978, the United States Supreme Court upheld the law in Penn Central Transportation Co., et al. v. New York City, et al., stopping the Penn Central Railroad from constructing an office tower atop the landmark terminal.29 After the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission rejected Penn Central's proposals for new use of the Grand Central Terminal, Penn Central filed a suit with the New York Court of Appeals against the City. In the suit they claimed the City's enactment of the Landmark Law was a regulatory taking under the Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment. Because Penn Central felt the City had taken their land and air rights away, they were looking to receive just compensation for the City's actions. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that Penn Central was not due just compensation on the grounds that the City had not taken the use of the property out of the hands of Penn Central. It was determined that Penn Central could maintain previous use of the site without any damaging effects. Penn Central appealed the ruling, which led to the Supreme Court Case.30 Historic structures "enhance the quality of life for all," Justice William Brennan writes in his ruling. "Not only do these buildings and their workmanship represent the lessons of the past and embody precious features of our heritage, they serve as examples of quality for today."31

Over time, the LPC’s role continued to evolve. As the commission verged on two decades of preservation work, questions about its changing nature and role in New York swirled. In the mid-1980s, many felt it was time that the commission's role be redefined, or, at the very least, re-evaluated.

A June 1987 New York magazine article describes the commission as bearing "little resemblance to the one that was spawned by the destruction of the great station."32 A New York Times piece from December of the same year also described a commission not only changed but also at a crossroads. It asked: "Will the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission run out of landmarks to designate? Or will it be swamped first by its regulatory duties? Should residents of historic districts have more of a say in administering their areas?"33 The statistics for the decade serve only to back up the article's concern. In 1982, the Landmarks Commission had a staff of 40 and a budget of about $1 million to handle 500 applications for alterations of landmark properties.34 In 1987, the number of applications rose to between 2,000 and 3,000, but the staff had only grown by ten, and the budget by a modest $500,000.35

Real questioning of the commission and its role in New York began in 1985, after the Rizzoli and Coty buildings on Fifth Avenue were designated as landmarks. Since both buildings had been targeted by developers Mayor Ed Koch called for a review of the commission's practices. Planners and architects had been steadily more upset by what many considered to be the commissioners' unpredictable behavior in designating buildings of disputed quality and blocking alterations to existing landmarks.36 The resulting report was critical of some aspects of the commission's activities. Though it recommended a major increase in the agency's budget, cyclical moratoriums on designation were also proposed. Critics believed the latter would establish intermittent open seasons on demolition.37 No formal action was immediately taken on the reports, but New York magazine reported there were those who insist it was designed to bring the commission to heel in cases where designation might hold up major development projects.38 The soaring real estate values in the late 1980s certainly did not do a lot to allay speculation among landmark preservation conspiracy theorists.

But for some, redefining the commission seemed like the natural thing to do. William Conklin, chairman of the advisory group, said he believed that since many of the commission's initial goals had been reached, it was time to view the commission's role in a new way.

"When the landmarks law was written, it was a desperate, stop-the-destruction movement," Conklin said. "It is time to realize that the 19th- and 20th-century buildings we preserve will last through the 21st century. Their disposition and long-term use is something the original framers didn't have to worry about."39 Kent Barwick, who was chairman of the commission from 1978 to 1983, said that the climate had grown more amenable to landmark designations because the "political leadership's perception of what the people want has changed."40

In more recent decades criticism has been leveled at the LPC. In 1996, the commission declined to hold a public hearing on 2 Columbus Circle. Despite lawsuits and protests beginning in 2002, the commission refused to revisit the decision. In October of 2005, the building was sold to the Museum of Arts and Design and work began to revamp the facade and interiors.41

Among those astonished at the commission's steadfastness in not moving to reconsider was the author Tom Wolfe, who voiced his opinion about the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “My quarrel in this whole area is not with there being certain buildings that just have to be landmarks,” he said. “It’s more with the politics of the situation and the cynicism of the current situation."42 Wolfe said he thought the commission’s role was diminished under Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg. He said the commission’s refusal to consider designating 2 Columbus Circle as a landmark, particularly incensed him. The architectural historians Vincent Scully and Robert A. M. Stern, the urban theorist Witold Rybczynski, and others called for the landmarks commission to at least hold a hearing, Wolfe said, but it was like “talking at the wall, talking at the sea, talking at the waves."43 “Now if that lineup is not sufficiently strong opinion to save a building in New York City, this city’s finished when it comes to preservation,” Wolfe said.44

In addition, in his May 2009 thesis, James Cocks charts what he perceives to be an acute case of racial bias on the part of the Landmarks Preservation Commission when it comes to designating landmarks. He writes that "when looking at the overall costs and benefits of historic designation, the rich are most likely to experience a net benefit, and the poor are most likely to see a net loss. The overall effects are complicated, however, and lingering institutional racism may reinforce un-equal costs and benefits across racial lines. Restrictive zoning, including historic district zoning, may be used to increase exclusivity for the rich and displace the poor. The poor may not be able to afford expensive repairs, and therefore may be impelled to leave a neighborhood following designation."45

  1. About the Landmarks Preservation Commission: History Of The LPC & The Landmarks Law,” NYC: Landmarks Preservation Commission. Article retrieved 26 March 2016
  2. 
 David Dunlap, “Harmon Goldstone Dies at 89; Led New York Landmarks Commission,” The New York Times, 23 February 2001.
  3. 
 “Mayor Inducts 11 Members Of Landmark Commission,” The New York Times, 30 June 1965.
  4. 
 Jeff Byles, “Preservation Twists and Turns,” The New York Times, 19 March 2006.
  5. 
Paul Goldberger, “Office Tower Above Grand Central Barred by State Court of Appeals,” The New York Times, 24 June 1977.
  6. 
 David Dunlap, “5 More Broadway Theaters Classified as Landmarks,” The New York Times, 5 November 1987.
  7. 
Ibid.
  8. 
 David Dunlap, “Landmarks Panel Declines to Endorse Bryant Park Restaurant Plan,” The New York Times, 13 December 1987.
  9. 
 David Dunlap, “Guggenheim Museum Is Designated a Landmark,” The New York Times, 19 August 1990.
  10. 
Ibid.
  11. 
 Jeff Byles, “Preservation Twists and Turns,” The New York Times, 19 March 2006.
  12. 
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 326.
  13. 
Ibid, page 333.
  14. 
 Ibid, page 362.
  15. 
 “About the Landmarks Preservation Commission: Departments And Staff,” NYC: Landmarks Preservation Commission. Article retrieved 26 March 2016
  16. 
 “Propose a Landmark: Landmark Types & Criteria,” NYC: Landmarks Preservation Commission. Article retrieved 26 March 2016
  17. 
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 26.
  18. 
 “City Room: Answers About Preserving New York’s Neighborhoods, Part 3,” The New York Times, 27 March 2009
  19. 
 Carter Wiseman, “Cityscape: Landmarks Crossroads,” New York Magazine, 1 June 1987.
  20. 
 “About the Landmarks Preservation Commission: History Of The LPC & The Landmarks Law,” NYC: Landmarks Preservation Commission. Article retrieved 26 March 2016
  21. 
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 362.
  22. 
 Paul Goldberger, “Architecture View; A Commission That Has Itself Become a Landmark,” The New York Times, 15 April 1990.
  23. 
 Sewell Chan, “The Future of New York’s Past,” The New York Times, 15 May 2007.
  24. 
Ibid.
  25. 
 The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Press Release, “Former Melkite Catholic Church and Public Elementary School in Manhattan Given Landmark Status,” 14 July 2009.
  26. 
 David Dunlap, “Change on the Horizon for Landmarks,” The New York Times, 29 April 1990.
  27. 
 James Cocks, “Preserving Racism: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Columbia University, May 2009.
  28. 
Toby von Meistersinger, “Some Grand Central Secrets Revealed,” Gothamist, 7 March 2008.
  29. 
Paul Goldberger, “Office Tower Above Grand Central Barred by State Court of Appeals,” The New York Times, 24 June 1977.
  30. 
Lois Weiss, “Air rights case headed for Supreme Ct. review,” Real Estate Weekly, 4 May 1994.
  31. 
 Jeff Byles, “Amid the Facades, Furrowed Brows,” The New York Times, 19 March 2006.
  32. 
 Carter Wiseman, “Cityscape: Landmarks Crossroads,” New York Magazine, 1 June 1987.
  33. 
David Dunlap, “Advisory Group to Determine Future of Landmarks Board,”  The New York Times, 27 December 1987.
  34. 
 Carter Wiseman, “Cityscape: Landmarks Crossroads,” The New York Magazine, 1 June 1987.
  35. 
Ibid.
  36. 
 Ibid.
  37. 
 Ibid.
  38. 
 Ibid.
  39. 
 David Dunlap, “Advisory Group to Determine Future of Landmarks Board,” The New York Times, 27 December 1987.
  40. 
 David Dunlap, “Change on the Horizon for Landmarks,” The New York Times, 29 April 1990.
  41. 
Jeff Byles, “Preservation Twists and Turns,” The New York Times, 19 March 2006.
  42. 
 Sewell Chan, “The Future of New York’s Past,” The New York Times, 15 May 2007.
  43. 
Ibid.
  44. 
 Ibid.
  45. James Cocks, “Preserving Racism: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Columbia University, May 2009.