Last night, a panel that included the writer Tom Wolfe discussed the subject, “Does New York’s Past Have a Future? A Report on the Preservation Movement’s History; Some Prescriptions for Its Next Century,” before an audience of about 100 at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Michael Miscione, the Manhattan borough historian; Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society; and Norman Oder, the Atlantic Yards critic, were among the faces in the crowd.

The discussion, organized by the Gotham Center for New York City History and the New York Preservation Archive Project, produced mixed reviews for the 11-member Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is entrusted with designating landmarks for protection from demolition or alteration.

A long (but thorough) summary of the speakers’ remarks is below.

Anthony C. Wood

Mr. Wood, the founder and chairman of the New York Preservation Archive Project, has spent the last two years working on a forthcoming book about the origins of New York City’s landmarks preservation law, which was adopted by the City Council and signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1965. It survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1978.

“There seems to be an extraordinary angst and growing disillusionment among many New Yorkers as we continue to lose buildings that many people think should be saved,” Mr. Wood said, adding, “Preservation’s history provides us a context and an additional perspective, a very useful lens through which to understand preservation today.”

“Our law is not a timid document,” Mr. Wood said. “However, since its passage. The implementation of the law has been characterized by timidity, and by and large, the preservation community has come to expect low expectations from the law. It has underachieved, and we have let it.”

From the beginning, the survival of the law — then as now the broadest landmarks-protection statute in the nation — was in doubt, Mr. Wood noted. Developers promised a legal challenge, and many believed that the courts would strike it down within three years. “It was an untested law with an unproven commission,” Mr. Wood said. “That explains why that commission proceeded gingerly in its early years.”

The first major test of the law came in the late 1960s, when the financially troubled Penn Central railroad, which owned Grand Central Terminal, proposed erecting a massive office tower designed by Marcel Breuer (who designed the Whitney Museum of American Art) on top of the station. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was among the prominent New Yorkers who rallied to save the terminal from the fate that befell the old Pennsylvania Station, a marble masterpiece destroyed in 1963.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wood said, “Timidity — that worry, that fear, that landmarks could be taken away at any one moment – still is part of the DNA of the preservation movement.” Mr. Wood attributed that timidity to the creation of the commission itself. He also argued that civic groups have taken a deferential position toward the commission, ceding a leadership role and leaving them with few other resources in landmarks disputes.

William J. Higgins

Mr. Higgins, a principal in Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, is a historic preservation consultant who often works with property developers and owners who are submitting plans for new construction to the landmarks commission.

Mr. Higgins laid out six “cosmic issues” that tend to dominate construction projects. It is a primer that seems to apply to more than just the preservation isssues he was discussing, but to development in general:

  1. Scale. Opponents use verbs like “hulk and loom,” while supporters use “light and airy verbs” like “float.”
  2. Precedent. Opponents “generally break into song, somewhere between Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra: ‘If they can do it here, they’ll do it everywhere.’ ” Supporters “go higher on the cultural food chain, channeling transcendentalists. No Emerson or Thoreau could be more eloquent about the absolute sacredness and uniqueness of the change being proposed.”
  3. Style. “No proposed building, especially no modern building, is just itself. It’s always like something.” Opponents will compare a building to a toilet bowl or soap dish, while advocates “head right for the great platonic shapes: ‘icon,’ ‘sculptural form.’ ”
  4. Use (Image). Opponents compare the projects to an undesired building type – “shopping malls are a particular favorite” – or raise fears that the neighborhood will be dominated by chain stores like the Gap or, more recently, Prada. Supporters cite lofty ideas like “rebirth, new life, vitality.”
  5. Design quality. Opponents will dismiss aesthetically impressive works by saying, “Nice work, but not for me,” paraphrasing Gershwin. Advocates “ascend to the futurist-visionary high road and aspire to build a landmark of the future.”
  6. Public discourse. Worsening, on both sides, Mr. Higgins argued. “The landmarks forum is sounding more and more just like another outpost of the culture wars to me,” he said, “with the opposing sides of the camp demonizing each other in order to win the battle.”

Anthony M. Tung

Mr. Tung, a former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the author of “Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis,” offered the most pessimistic account of the Bloomberg administration’s track record in preservation, and of the state of the movement generally.

“The vitality of New York has long been served by a landmarks commission of superior quality; this is becoming less true with every successive Republican administration,” Mr. Tung argued.

In the 1930s, only two dozen American municipalities had preservation ordinances, compared to 2,400 today. Yet the destruction of historic urban architecture, he argued, continues unabated. “Nothing is so beautiful or meaningful that it can’t be destroyed,” giving way to “developments of a thoughtless and numbing banality,” he said.

Mr. Tung enumerated a litany of destructive acts. In Amsterdam, of the 4,200 buildings identified in 1928 as being of prime historic value, one-quarter had been razed by the end of the century. In Rome, one-third of the historic city was leveled between 1870 and 1950, according to an estimate by the architect Spiro Kostof. In Moscow, half of the noteworthy buildings, in particular churches, were demolished between 1924 and 1950 to make way for giant housing projects.

About half of the “significant historic fabric” that existed in the world in 1900 had been destroyed a century later, he said, estimating that the proportion would rise to 75 percent by the end of this century.

Mr. Tung said that New York City “leaped to the front” of the preservation movement in the mid-1960s. It has designated roughly 24,000 landmarks, amounting to about 2.4 percent of the city’s area. Eighteen percent of Manhattan is protected under the landmarks law, although much of that is taken up by Central, Riverside and Fort Tryon Parks.

In its first 29 years, the landmarks commission designated an average of 652 properties a year, compared with 183 a year under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Mr. Tung asserted. 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, he said.

Julia Vitullo-Martin

Dr. Vitullo-Martin — a political scientist, former city official and director of the Center for Rethinking Development at the conservative Manhattan Institute — was more sympathetic to the Bloomberg administration, but she also raised cause for alarm.

“In a postindustrial age, a city’s face becomes its fortune,” she said, quoting a friend. “Both of those parts of the sentence are true. It really matters today, in a way it didn’t in the early 20th and in the 19th centuries, that a city is beautiful.”

Chicago, which until the early 70s “routinely tore down its landmarks and ripped the heart out of its historic neighborhoods,” is today the country’s most beautiful postindustrial city, she said, with a mayor, Richard M. Daley, who “asserts Chicago’s beauty in his economic development policies.”

“A city’s story today determines its fate,” Dr. Vitullo-Martin said, invoking the idea of “story-cities” put forth by Jack London — “cities whose stories are so familiar, powerful and renowned that people who have never been to the city feel they know and admire it.”

Wealth matters, Dr. Vitullo-Martin said, arguing that two or three decades ago, “No one predicted that New York and London would become so phenomenally wealthy and that the economic demand for these cities would be virtually without limit.”

London now has the most expensive residential real estate of any city in the world, and yet is “relatively undeveloped,” with few soaring skyscrapers and “huge amounts of land in East London,” beyond the Docklands. New York lacks space to grow, she said, adding that Mr. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC effort and his vision of New York City in 2030 call for exploiting the remaining space that can be developed.

“I think preservations should really embrace that because insofar as development can be directed toward underused property, there’s some hope for releasing the pressure on other property,” she said.

Dr. Vitullo-Martin called arguments over use of historic properties “one of the most bitter, divisive and unproductive fights” in the preservation movement. “It has to break your heart when you see a church turned into a sleazy nightclub,” adding, however, “To save buildings, you need an economic use and that’s all there is to it.”

Tastes are often unpredictable, she said, noting that many preservationists are now calling for saving the Modernist skyscrapers that were widely seen as ugly in the 1950s and 60s. She noted, critically, the recent effort to have the Silver Towers in Greenwich Village designated as a landmark because they represent I. M. Pei’s first use of the superblock – a largely discredited idea championed by Robert Moses and urban planners.

“The superblock truly is one of the worst ideas of the 21st century, and to list, as a reason for preservation, that this was an example of a famous architect’s first use of a truly bad idea, is itself a truly bad idea,” she said, drawing laughs.

Tom Wolfe

Mr. Wolfe, an ardent preservationist, aimed fierce criticism at the Bloomberg-era 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.”

Mr. Wolfe described the landmarks law of 1965 as “what politicians call one of the great goo-goo moments in New York politics,” using the somewhat derisive nickname for good-government efforts.

Mr. Wolfe described the Grand Central fight (“Can you imagine a 60-story building as ugly as the Whitney over the top of Grand Central?”) and recalled Mr. Tung’s role in resisting a plan by the Koch administration to cut down “an entire allée of beautiful, ancient trees” to build a restaurant at the rear of the New York Public Library, in Bryant Park.

Mr. Wolfe asserted that the landmarks commission’s role was diminished under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg. He was particularly incensed at the current commission’s refusal to consider designating 2 Columbus Circle, often called the “lollipop building,” as a landmark.

The building, by Edward Durell Stone, was built in 1964 to house the art collection of the supermarket magnate Huntington Hartford, but was seen by some as an eyesore. Last year, builders began to radically alter the building to be the future home of the Museum of Arts and Design, over the objections of a panoply of groups, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the World Monuments Fund.

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, Mr. Wolfe said, but it was like “talking at the wall, talking at the sea, talking at the waves.”

“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,” Mr. Wolfe said.


In response to questions from Mike Wallace, the historian who moderated the panel, and from the audience, the speakers touched on a variety of subjects.

Mr. Wood described a “sea-change” in the attitudes of ordinary residents toward their historic neighborhoods. “Thirty years ago, you couldn’t get the people of Queens to be interested in a historic district with perhaps six people being the exception to that,” he said, adding that neighborhoods all over the city today “are clamoring to have their communities protected.” He added, “The challenge is they are not particularly well-organized. There is not the leadership the way there used to be.”

Mr. Higgins said that the real estate market “is like fire – fire can make things and fire can utterly destroy things.” The dynamic property market in New York City is a comparative blessing, he said, given how the loss of industry and jobs has ravaged so many other urban centers.