Preservation, Pestilence, and Uncertain Times
August 18, 2020
By Anthony C. Wood, Archive Project Founder & Chair
In times of great upheaval, solace can come from those things and places that provide stability and continuity. Our landmarks and historic districts offer both in spades. In the current ongoing health crisis, our scenic landmarks have been particularly appreciated, o ering their natural beauty and refuge as they did after 9/11. The power of place and the importance of community are being underscored as we live through these uncertain times. As efforts and attention are appropriately focused on the health emergency and its economic aftermath, it is important that preservationists articulate the important role preservation plays in our society and make sure the values of preservation are not forgotten in the diffcult days and months ahead.
Preservation’s history has some lessons to offer us about times like these. Economic bad times and calamities have in some cases had a silver lining for preservation. When homeowners lacked the funds to upgrade their old homes, thus missing out on the asbestos and aluminum siding fads, their buildings survived the modernization that marred so many historic structures. However, although the adage that poverty is a friend of preservation has some truth to it, when carried to its extreme, economic distress can result in the loss of historic structures to abandonment and demolition. We have all seen the results of that.
Unintentionally, tragedy and bad times have helped stop ill- considered projects. Rebecca Shanor in her wonderful book, The City that Never Was, tells how the results of the failed 1910 assassination attempt on Mayor Gaynor diminished his abilities and likely contributed to the death of his plan to alleviate congestion by carving a new thoroughfare from Eighth street to Fifty-ninth street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. That scheme would have demolished hundreds of buildings including such treasures as the New York Yacht Club. For the record, his proposal was not the motivation behind the assassination attempt.
It was World War II that saved the remains of Castle Clinton from final destruction by Robert Moses. Because of the war effort, he could not get the heavy equipment needed to destroy the structure’s historic thick walls thus giving its defenders the time they needed to turn the tide and ultimately save the Castle. Another example comes from decades later. Architectural historian extraordinaire Andrew Dolkart reminds us that it was New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis that cancelled the Beame administration’s plans to demolish the Tweed Courthouse.
Times of reduced economic activity can also create opportunities to advance progressive land-use reforms because there are fewer active or proposed projects that would immediately be impacted by such changes. Is now the time to oat the notion of New York City instituting a demolition tax? What a win for the environment that would be, as well as being an added encouragement to preserve instead of destroy. In moments when the traditional opponents of pro-preservation policies remain distracted by concerns more central to their real estate interests, a pro-preservation agenda might actually have a chance of success.
On the flip side of that coin, difficult economic times will likely create pressure for other types of policy changes. Welcomed efforts to reboot economies from collapse have had mixed results for preservation. After 9/11, preservationists thought that the immediate need would be to address historic resources that were damaged due to the collapses and aftermath. They quickly realized that those damages were more limited than imagined and their energies needed to focus on the threat to historic streets and buildings posed by public and private rebuilding efforts.
As the current economic crisis continues to unfold, there will be appropriate efforts to jump-start the economy with the infusion of funds for a variety of projects. Let’s hope some will be preservation projects. However, in that desire to spur growth the existing drumbeat for reducing regulation may lead to efforts to undercut processes and procedures essential for preservation. Yes, reducing bureaucratic delay is desirable, but it should not be used to legitimize undercutting well-established and time-tested policies securing preservation as the civic good it has proven to be. It will be up to the preservation community to defend and articulate the value of preservation policies in the face of those who have long characterized them as getting in the way of economic growth. History has shown us that preservation does not need to be sacrificed for economic revival; it is an effective tool to achieve it.
Those of us who have lived through economic downturns know that there are difficult times ahead for preservation. Our work will be more important than ever, yet resources will be tighter than ever. To the best of our abilities we must continue to support our preservation organizations as they confront the economic fallout. We will be called upon to exhibit nimbleness and creativity, to do more with less, to cooperate and partner as never before. This will require an even greater combined e ort than the impressive coming together of preservation organizations that mobilized to confront the aftermath of 9/11.
The preservation community is no stranger to successfully overcoming adversity. All we need do is look to Albert Bard’s decades of efforts to lay the groundwork for our landmarks law or to those historic “David v. Goliath” victories over Robert Moses or, in more recent times, to the successful legal efforts defending the City and Suburban Homes complex. Preservation’s history time and again proves that preservationists are as resilient and as sound as the landmarks they seek to protect. Now is not the time to forget that history. Let it inspire us all to add new chapters to it.
Nor is this the time to discount preservation values because they may hinder a passion of the moment. Gregory Gilmartin recounts in Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (a must read for anyone interested in preservation history) the ill-conceived idea floated during World War I of having schoolchildren dig trenches in Central Park as part of the Liberty Loans Campaign. The Municipal Art Society strenuously opposed it as did Albert Bard who commented: “Why not advertise the war by smashing the windows in the City Hall?” When bad ideas advanced by good well-meaning people threaten preservation, they must be appropriately challenged.
As a historically undercapitalized movement that knows how to punch well above its weight, preservation has a history of success, often against the odds. At times like these that history can be a source of information, instruction and inspiration. It is to benefit both the good times and challenging times—like those we will be facing—that the New York Preservation Archive Project is dedicated to its work of documenting preserving and celebrating the history of preservation. Thanks for helping us do just that.