The Arbiters of Urban Taste
Last April marked the fiftieth anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law. On that day in 1965, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. signed a law that helped create the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Charged with protecting selected buildings, interiors, and historic districts, the LPC and its members determine whether a building or district contributes in a significant way to the history, culture, or beauty of New York City. Once a landmark or neighborhood has been designated, all changes that affect appearance must be approved by the LPC.
New York City’s commission is the largest of its kind in the United States. In the past half century, the LPC has protected over 1,300 individual buildings, 117 interiors, and 114 neighborhood historic districts that encompass over 33,000 buildings. While landmark designations are found in all five boroughs, the lion’s share is in Manhattan, comprising a startling 25% of all properties there. (By comparison, only 4.5% of properties in Brooklyn have been designated as historic, and in the other three boroughs, landmarks total less than 1% of the whole.) In response to complaints of Manhattan’s restrictive building regulations, Landmarks Law advocates are quick to point out that the borough’s built environment is historically significant both for the city and the entire country. Real estate editor Matt Chaban has called the Commission “the keeper of the soul of the city”
Commonly cited as the impetus for historic preservation legislation is the 1963 demolition of New York City’s Penn Station. The removal of its eight acres of granite Greek columns and massive vaulted public spaces dramatically caught the attention of the public. The failure to preserve Penn Station highlights the tensions between a private owner’s rights and public responsibilities. Even if there is widespread agreement that a particular work of architecture is historically and aesthetically cherished, the burden of maintaining that structure rests entirely upon the owner of the property. Without any consensus or law on the fairness of this arrangement, the railroad exercised its right to tear down the original structure and replaced it with Madison Square Garden. In the wake of public outcry over the loss of Penn Station, preservationists turned to the work of a lawyer named Albert Bard to shift the emphasis from owners’ rights to their responsibilities to the city.
Throughout his career, Bard promoted the importance of beauty in civic life. From 1912 to 1914, he served on the Mayor’s Billboard Advertising Commission, which advised the state of New York to amend its constitution so that the legislature would have the power to enact regulations “on the ground of public beauty.” In the 1930s, he noted successful efforts to designate historic districts in New Orleans and Charleston, and he formally proposed an amendment to the New York constitution stating that the appearance, historic underpinnings, and orderliness of a state’s assets should be considered the “patrimony of the people.” Although this clause failed to be legally incorporated into the state’s governing framework, it led to Bard’s greatest triumph. In 1956 the legislature passed a bill—known as the Bard Act—that enabled localities to protect local landmarks for historical or aesthetic reasons. This act was the legal piece preservationists needed to eventually pass the 1965 Landmarks Law.
But the Bard Act had a bitter root. New York City’s constitutional foundation for passing it came from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Berman v. Parker. This case involved a plaintiff whose property in the District of Columbia was condemned, along with many others, because it was “blighted” and slated for redevelopment by the city. The plaintiff argued that his business was in good order and should not be taken from him in order to renew the neighborhood. The court ruled in favor of the city by declaring that redevelopment was a public good, of more value to the community than any individual property. While “blight” was never defined (a failure which, in the lower court’s opinion, had made the taking unconstitutional), it clearly included aesthetic as well as health, economic and even moral failings.
Berman gave cities the right to destroy ugly and “blighted” buildings and streets if they conclude that the community will benefit from the proposed changes economically, culturally or aesthetically. It was this decision, more than any other, which provided the legal mechanism for the urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s—a controversial program that destroyed the fabric of many inner city communities. On the other hand, Albert Bard used Berman’s reasoning to justify preserving designated buildings, as their architectural and artistic contributions belonged to the neighborhood the city and not just to the private owners.
Cities have the power both to destroy and to protect the built environment “for the patrimony of the people.” The problem arises when destruction happens primarily in low-income, marginalized communities, while preservation predominantly encompasses well-educated and well-resourced neighborhoods. Often poor neighborhoods contain buildings that are important to their history and culture but may lack the iconic aesthetic qualities of a landmark.
Fifty years after the LPC’s birth, local preservation commissions are still significant for cities. Without them, key aspects of neighborhoods can be irretrievably lost, with long-term impacts for the wider community. But care must always be taken to insure that there is no single aesthetic or version of cultural history that is promoted to the exclusion of others. Cities are various, as are their stories, as are their built environments.
Wendy Baucom is a recent transplant to Charlottesville from Durham, North Carolina. She has a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently volunteers at Central Virginia Restorative Justice.