There Is Some History There

January 27, 2014

Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.

It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.

Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.

Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.

A Shot Across the Bow

June 28, 2013

Today’s Kellner hearing on library funding brought out dozens of critics and one defender of the Central Library Plan–none other than Tony Marx, the NYPL’s battered president.

Marx offered more lies and excuses for why the NYPL continues with its hair-brained scheme to destroy two branch libraries and remove the books in one of the world’s greatest research libraries in the name of modernization.

Tomorrow’s NYT will have a report by Robin Pogrebin, perhaps with only Marx’s remarks. Let us hope that someone notices and checks the public record for what the critics said.

It has been some time since I wrote anything on the NYPL controversy. Much has happened in the interim–most importantly the formation of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, of which I am a member.

The NYPL administration continues to prosecute its plan to remove the stacks, but forces are turning in our direction as the public becomes more aware of the larger strategy of the Bloomberg administration to sell off public library properties to wealthy developers. Brooklyn residents in particular have resisted this terrible “policy” and more an more New Yorkers are concerned about the loss of libraries, books, and treasured landmarks in their neighborhoods. Yesterday protesters gathered in front of the 42nd Street building to greet trustees entering a fundraising event.

More important, the New York State Preservation Office, and even Manhattan legislators, have begun to investigate the lies and subterfuge underlying the Central Library Plan. On June 27 the first public hearing will be held at 250 Broadway to discuss the controversy. Watch this space for more information.

Kimmelman Skewers Foster

January 30, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.

NYC Landmarks Law on Trial

January 21, 2013

Tomorrow at 2:00 PM the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will begin deliberations on the Central Library Plan. Its final decision on whether to accept this destructive scheme will hinge on whether commissioners under Robert Tierney are courageous enough to oppose Mayor Bloomberg and admit that the NYC Landmarks Law is inadequate as protection for the city’s greatest public building.

New Yorkers are largely unaware of the limitations of the law passed in the wake of the Penn Station demolition during the 1960s. Most buildings are protected only for alterations to their exterior construction; a few get additional designation for specific interiors such as the Astor Stair Hall at NYPL. Even when significant structural alterations are proposed, such as the removal of book stacks that hold up a major space, the Commission is powerless to save a building from permanent defacement. What if a law does not function as intended? Should it be amended? Ignored?

Opponents of the Central Library Plan will argue tomorrow that Commissioners should go beyond the letter of the law in order to uphold its real mandate: avoidance of disasters such as the destruction of Penn Station. Will any of these public officials stand up to moneyed interests and vote no? Watch this space and see.

At last night’s meeting of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 5, Tony Marx told me that the NYPL was following the “normal” schedule of approvals for the controversial Central Library Plan. If he is correct, New Yorkers should be very worried about the fate of their most cherished buildings. You see, by cleverly delaying its unveiling of architectural drawings of the CPL, the board of this important public institution has made it impossible for any concerned preservationist to analyze the scheme, evaluate its efficacy, or create a more rational counter proposal. It will hardly be possible for journalists to publish criticism of the plan in the short window between Christmas and final Landmarks approval on January 22. This means that the historic stacks could be under demolition by February. What will happen next time your public officials want to tear down a National Register building?

Perhaps even more troubling was the way in which Mr. Marx continued to insist that the stacks be destroyed, even after confronted with the fact that there is ample space in the Schwartzman building for an 80,000 square foot circulating library without touching them.

“They can’t be fireproofed.” “They are endangering the books because we can’t install climate control.” “Book delivery will be faster from the Bryant Park storage spaces than from the old elevator.” “A renovation will cost $50-75 million.” We have heard all this before.

The fact is, none of these statements would have been made if the NYPL had put some of the tens of millions it has received over the past two decades into an upgrade of the building systems in the stack spaces. The NYPL board made a conscious decision years ago to let the stacks deteriorate–what preservationists call “demolition by neglect.” That isn’t Tony Marx’s fault.

Compared to the outrageous price of removing the stacks, drilling over a dozen caissons into solid rock, supporting the reading room on over 1300 hydraulic jacks, and building an expensive new library underneath, the installation of fire suppression and new HVAC systems in the stack area would have been peanuts. Any technical challenge can be met if there is a will to do so, and money to pay for it. The money was available, but it wasn’t spent on the stacks, only on polishing the Danby marble outside.

As any homeowner knows, you can apply all the paint you wish to the outside, but if you don’t fix the rotten rafters, you wont have a house for long.

After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.

  • The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
  • The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
  • The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
  • The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
  • All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
  • Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
  • The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.

Icons and Aliens 2012

December 31, 2012

Alien NYPL

When John Costonis published his 1989 book on the legal aspects of historic landmarks he could not have imagined the kind of controversies that would emerge during the coming years. It is worth revisiting his prescient text in light of what is happening to the beloved New York Public Library. A new “lending library” with “state of the art” architecture and communications technology has been inserted into the very heart of one of the most venerated buildings in a great city. Though Tony Marx calls the architecture of Norman Foster’s room “world class” no one has yet seen it that way–reactions have ranged from “regional airport style” to “Barnes and Noble lobby.” The superlative building by Carrere and Hastings will be infested with something that I can only compare to Sigourney Weaver’s stomach splitting prey in a classic science fiction film.

Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic of Vanity Fair (and previously not a few other New York media mainstays) has finally written something about the Central Library Plan. Never mind that he is too late to offer any relevant criticism, but his title says much about how little he has followed the controversy since 2008. He says that Tony Marx and the library board were “surprised” that the CLP would provoke controversy–perhaps it was Goldberger who found the project’s critics more determined and persuasive than he would have liked. His lengthy narrative about the CLP mainly covers old ground. He sheds some light on the inner workings of the library board, but skims over the real issues at hand. His own view of the plan, like many of his “critical” positions, is squarely on the side of the establishment, though he tries to convince the reader otherwise.

Goldberger, contrary to much that has been written about him, is a New York animal concerned almost exclusively with maintaining his status as a member of the A-List in society–a denizen of the Hamptons and the Upper East Side who delights in being seen with every kind of elite. Vanity Fair is just where he belongs, as The New Yorker found him lightweight and barely tolerable as a writer.

After reading his piece, I could barely believe that a man so deeply entrenched in New York’s cultural history could produce a story so full of contradictions and circular reasoning. After admitting that the library board backed into a public relations disaster, he seems content to accept Marx’s view that critics were silenced when he offered to put the books back under Bryant Park. Goldberger admits sheepishly that he helped put Norman Foster on a list of possible architects for the project in 2007, but insists that he had no position on whether such a “star” architect with “critically acclaimed” new insertions into old buildings should have been chosen from his list. Moreover, he describes features of the Foster design, which has yet to be shown to the public, as if they were already in place.
Further clouding the picture, he suggests that the New York Public Library was admired for its resistance to the a kind of cultural blackmail which billionaires foisted on the Guggenheim, Whitney, MOMA, and the Met when giving huge gifts for capital projects. When Steven Schwartzman’s $100 million gift broke the library’s will in 2006, it went for the same kind of “naming opportunity” as those museums had years earlier. Why then does he then treat Marshall Rose, Neil Rudenstine, and other board members as forward-thinking heroes only a few paragraphs later? Either there was something salutary and wise about its previous stance (and its longstanding commitment to scholarship), or there wasn’t. Go figure.

This long essay expends a good deal of clever prose on the library’s history, including stories of its opening after the death of John Carrere, but it fails to consider any relevant facts about the book stacks and the nature of the library’s design. The author admits that the building is probably the greatest and most beloved cultural institution in America’s cultural capital, but refuses to accord it special status as an icon worth preserving.

Goldberger is finally so taken by the charm and charisma of Tony Marx, to whom he defers repeatedly in the piece, that he cannot give Stan Katz and Joan Scott equal space to voice their negative opinions on the CLP. When all is said and done, this essay is merely a shill for the library board’s destructive plan, and a betrayal of the values that built it in 1912. Vanity Fair will get some points for weighing in on the controversy, but it has copped out on its opportunity to expose a sham.

Near the conclusion of the essay, Goldberger lays out his position clearly: “Even leaving the exterior of the library untouched, however, has not fully calmed some historic preservationists, who have argued that the bookstack should not be altered or dismantled, since it is a key part of the original Carrère and Hastings design. There is no doubt of its historical importance, but given the difficulties with bringing the bookstack up to present-day standards of temperature and humidity control, keeping it functioning is hard to justify.” I am proud to be one of those preservationists. Saving the stacks is not only justifiable, it is imperative.

We’ve had online videos, New York Times stories, and a debate in the New York Review of Books. Now Margot Adler of NPR has entered the fray. Her piece on Morning Edition is really wonderful, because you can actually hear the sounds in the Rose Reading Room! Nothing like radio to bring a story to life.

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