A House Divided

August 15, 2016

Today’s New York Times featured a familiar human interest story about neighborhood revitalization and the efforts of a building owner to bring a derelict structure back to life after years of neglect. In Brooklyn Heights, a well-gentrified and upscale part of New York’s hippest borough, the eyesore is an 1872 mansion at 100 Clark Street.

Once a stately Victorian with a mansard roof and elaborate moldings, the building was not only carved up into apartments inside; it also lost its roof and most of its door and window details over the years. Owner Margaret Streicker Porres had to spend six years just sorting through legal and planning problems before she could even consider a restoration or replacement.

She and her architect, Tom van de Bout, eventually elected to bring the building back to its original appearance, at a cost exceeding that of building new. Their task will be made more difficult because there is only one known photograph of the original building. Some details will have to be extrapolated from other houses, invented, and filled in where they can’t be seen in the photo. I’ve done this kind of work before, and it is a challenge, though not one a competent architect couldn’t handle.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has strict standards for “reconstructions” like this one. Though the majority of the construction will be new, and will include some materials not in the original building, they will insist on an exterior that matches historical elements to the letter. The neighborhood will benefit from a kind of healing–a beloved and familiar family member will rejoin the clan. Amenities inside will be modern, up to date, and luxurious.

Yet there are still some architects and critics who consider this approach anachronistic and even harmful. The newspaper quotes Taz Loomans, a Portland architect: “They go against progress, and they don’t reflect our society’s evolution.” That was a common refrain fifty years ago, before the historic preservation movement proved its power and effectiveness in bringing new life to old neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be persuasive in today’s world, where sustainability demands that we reuse every building that retains its sound materials and historic characteristics.

Progress is no longer a justification for waste, destruction, or replacement of human made artifacts of any kind. We’ve learned that “evolution” doesn’t mean throwing away old material; Darwin recognized that living things retain the armature of previous generations even as they make small improvements in their ability to pass on their genes. We can put our house, our planet, in order by following the real model of organic adaptation, not by insisting on “new” architecture in every context.

 

Dal ponte degli Alpini

July 15, 2016

I just returned from a marvelous trip to Italy, where I sang, ate, and toured some of my favorite historic places. Of course while there I missed some of the horrific violence occurring in this country. I viewed the Euro Cup finals with some French and Spanish choir members in Verona, and shared some of their disappointment. I got a sense of how Europe is faring now that Britain is leaving the EU, and saw an economy in the doldrums. The people, of course, were spirited and friendly as always.

One of my favorite memories is a view I sketched from Palladio’s wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa, in the foothills of the Veneto. The river Brenta winds north into the Alps from this picturesque town, known for its distinctive brandy. Visitors are largely unaware that Bassano was the site of violence and destruction not just after World War II, when the bridge was last destroyed and rebuilt, but also in World War I and during the Napoleonic wars. The “ponte degli Alpini” is named for the Italian troops who defended the town in these conflicts, elite winter fighters who often engaged the enemy on skiis.

Following the massacre in Nice, another resort town, I couldn’t help thinking about the ironies that are always present when Americans visit the Old World. Whereas our violence resides with individuals who seem always to find others to hate and kill with readily accessible guns, Europe is a different story. There the violence is related to places, territories and centuries old ethnic conflicts. An old bridge in Mostar is not simply a way across a river, but also a symbol of divisions between Serbs, Croats, Christians and Muslims.

As I looked across the bridge in Bassano, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of history, of struggle, bearing on its sagging timbers. They say it’s time to rebuild it again after only half a century.

In 2014 the voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to ensure permanent funding of the New Jersey Historic Trust and other agencies charged with preserving the state’s cultural heritage. New Jersey has one of the nation’s most robust funding programs for both environmental and building conservation, both of which pour millions into the state’s economy.

Last fall Governor Chris Christie (remember him in the Trump photo?), denied funding for the NJ Trust’s capital grants, approved in the spring of 2015. Applicants lost needed funding for projects that were underway. It was a devastating blow to our building industry.

This month in stealth move the governor vetoed the Preserve NJ Act, despite two votes in the state legislature to approve it, and of course the public vote two years ago. In New Jersey the governor’s powers are far reaching, so Christie has used them for many nefarious purposes in the past. This bold veto was particularly egregious and galling.

It is high time the people of New Jersey acted to impeach this corrupt and destructive leader. Let’s say NO to Chris Christie once and for all.

Denise Scott Brown

May 11, 2016

In a week and a half the American Institute of Architects will meet in Philadelphia for a historic convention. Though there will be silly presentations by Starchitects like Rem Koolhaas, and a talk by Kevin Spacey, the real star of the show will be a woman nearing her 87th birthday. At long last, Denise Scott Brown will receive the Gold Medal that she has richly deserved for decades.

I was fortunate to spend my apprenticeship under Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, during the 1970s. She was then the most influential female in the profession–both a planner and an architect–who had written extraordinary books and articles that changed the nature of design. Strangely, after practicing with her husband for decades, she faded from the limelight during the past two decades or so.

It is puzzling to me that Zaha Hadid, a woman of middling accomplishment compared to Denise, would be hailed as a pioneer following her untimely death. How did a brash, arrogant, iconoclast like Hadid overshadow a thoughtful, powerful intellectual like Scott Brown? I think that history will forget the former and eventually celebrate the latter.

As Denise receives her honor from the largest group of architects in the world, we should take a moment to recall her gigantic impact. She fought for women in the profession during the 1950s, after the example of her mother, an architect in South Africa. She studied with the great Jane Drew in London. She taught beside Louis I. Kahn and Romaldo Giurgola at Penn, and influenced planners around the world. She wrote a number of seminal articles and was the leading force in the production of Learning From Las Vegas. Perhaps most important, she integrated historic preservation into the planning process, proving its economic impact in Miami Beach, Galveston, and Philadelphia.

I trust that when she steps on the dais to receive her medal, the world takes notice. She is a true hero and giant in our profession.

Palmyra has been saved. Syrian government forces re-took the city from ISIS this week and experts have said that damage was not as extensive as feared: 80% of the city’s monuments and artifacts are intact. Questions are arising concerning what to do about the damaged treasures.

 

The New York Times reported today that one of the city’s triumphal arches, destroyed by the militants, may be rebuilt soon. A digital file compiled from photos of the monument was recently sent to Italy, where a CNC carving robot is cutting new pieces out of Egyptian marble. Yes, the technology is now available to reproduce giant stone buildings using 3-D computer “drawings” created from photos, which are fed into a huge carving machine. Presto: a new Roman masterpiece.

 

Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the ancient city, but he said: “debates about authenticity, priorities, and motivation” would likely emerge among his colleagues. The city has been damaged by conflicts many times during its centuries of decline, and what we see today is a collage of efforts by past residents to conserve its best buildings from further decay. They did not have the means to instantly re-create a lost arch or sculpture using digital tools.

 

Indeed, the prospect of re-building artifacts destroyed or damaged by war became a hot topic among conservationists  throughout the globe, as “cultural cleansing” tactics increased in conflicts from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Today there are conferences dedicated to the “authenticity” debate. What is the value of an ancient triumphal arch or temple if most of its “fabric” is brand new?

 

To a historian or archaeologist the monument accrues value by virtue of its age, rarity, and the information it can provide regarding the actions of its original creators. Once the traces of those actions are gone it becomes a mere specter, losing its “aura” or “authenticity.” However, those who have lived among the ruins, and protected them, have other reasons to value the work, including tourism, cultural identity, and nostalgia. Without a “whole” artifact their allegiance to preservation vanishes.

 

In a world overwhelmed by digital information and simulacra (copies), debates about authenticity are everywhere. Terms such as “new old” are regularly used to describe efforts to reproduce historic buildings in modern settings. Like “digital archaeology” the term is an obvious oxymoron to many historians.

 

To the downtrodden, war-weary residents of Palmyra, any solution that recovers a piece of culture is a balm to suffering and loss. A professor in far-away Boston is privileged and removed from the fray. If digital miracles may bring back a loved one (albeit a statue), so much the better. Let Pygmalion carve away.

 

Another victory for preservationists has many of my Save NYPL colleagues thinking that even the 42nd Street Library may be safe from developers. Charles Warren sent word that a fight led by Robert Hiller resulted in a withdrawal of plans to convert the wonderful First Church of Christ Scientist (1902, Carrère & Hastings) into residential condominiums. Mr. Hiller, a lawyer who also helped fight the Central Library Plan, remarked that “no church should become condominiums.” He is right. Churches become anchors to neighborhoods when they are around for as long as this one. The story is worth reading: http://newyorkyimby.com/2016/03/church-conversion-condo-project-abandoned-at-361-central-park-west.html

95 Landmarks in Limbo

February 18, 2016

Michael Kimmelman has been catholic in his writing about architecture, urbanism, and preservation during his tenure as a critic for the New York Times–bravo to him for taking on so many issues that other writers would have avoided. In today’s paper he wades into a longstanding controversy surrounding the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 95 potential new landmarks that have been “uncalendared” for years.

Let’s explain what that means. A building that is nominated for landmark status is generally researched by the staff at LPC to determine its eligibility. If deemed worthy, it is generally put on the “calendar” of cases to be heard by the full Landmarks Commission at a future hearing. Many buildings and districts linger for months before being considered by the commission. During the Bloomberg administration, notoriously anti-preservation, potential landmarks that were controversial were “held” by the LPC staff. When Bill DeBlasio took office, his new commissioner promised to do something about the landmarks in limbo.

As was well-known to preservationists in the city, 95 of these gems were to be reconsidered by a revitalized LPC. However the new chairman recently deemed them too stale to look at and announced his intention to simply toss out the nominations completely. That, as Kimmelman noted, pleased the Real Estate Board but made preservationists “apoplectic.” So the LPC demurred and agreed to reconsider its decision. I’m happy about that because the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library is on the list, and I helped put it there.

Will the commission do right by its mandate to look at these cases on the merits? Kimmelman weighs the potential outcomes in his entertaining column in today’s Arts section. I’m not betting on 95 for 95.

 

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The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.

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The Last Kirkbride Hospital

October 15, 2015

GreystoneThe attached photo, by my colleague Barry Thomson, shows the remaining portion of Greystone Hospital, one of the most significant mental hospitals ever built. The state of New Jersey, under Chris Christie, failed in its duty to preserve a national landmark.

LPC Saves the Frick

June 5, 2015

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was hamstrung for most of the Bloomberg administration, allowing demolitions in key neighborhoods and permitting the NYPL to embark on its ill-fated Central Library Plan. Robert Tierney became a hatchet man for the mayor, who favored development over conservation.

Bill De Blasio has given the agency more room to work, and the results are favorable so far. The best news to date came today with a decision by the Frick Collection to abandon its silly plan to demolish the Russell Page garden and erect a monstrous addition on its narrow site.

Michael Kimelmann writes in today’s Times that counter-proposals by opponents’ architects proved that the museum could achieve its goals with only a modest expansion. His criticism illuminates an issue that frequently occurs when large institutions come to the LPC: how to dissuade applicants from “supersizing” their buildings. Since bigger seems to be better these days, almost everybody wants more space on the crowded island of Manhattan.

Positive reviews of the new Whitney suggest that some museums may be right to look for real estate elsewhere in the city. Going underground is another proven strategy–the Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia has expanded twice by digging more sub-basements. Avery will also achieve its aim of housing all of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by using multiple locations–at MOMA, on campus, and off site.

Let’s bring the LPC back into the dialogue between development interests and conservation, so that New York’s cultural institutions have a partner (not an adversary) in solving some of their very real space problems.

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