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    Default The Landmarks Preservation Commission

    March 19, 2006
    Amid the Facades, Furrowed Brows
    By JEFF BYLES


    The Purchase Building as it appeared in a 1930's photograph.


    The Purchase Building, a little Art Moderne structure under the Brooklyn Bridge whose razing was recently approved.

    ON May 22, 1936, the photographer Berenice Abbott ambled along the Brooklyn waterfront, thrilling to river-wrapped vistas and old warehouses that glowered with imposing grandeur. Crossing the narrow streets on one of her celebrated sorties to shoot the surging metropolis for the federal Works Progress Administration, she turned her lens upon a sleek new structure rising at 11 Water Street, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Abutting the bridge's Brooklyn tower, the two-story Art Moderne warehouse was just a steel skeleton when Abbott photographed it. It would become the New York City Department of Purchase Storehouse, known as the Purchase Building, a low-slung work of brick and concrete ribbons. In 1977, when the building was declared part of the Fulton Ferry Historic District, preservation officials even noted its quirky boiler house, admiring its "boldly designed, tiered and faceted chimney-stack."

    Yet at a public hearing on Feb. 21, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 7 to 2 in favor of demolishing the Purchase Building to make way for Brooklyn Bridge Park.

    Like a growing number of decisions involving landmark designations, it came in the wake of a stormy dispute. At the hearing, Adrian Benepe, the city's parks commissioner, deemed the Purchase Building "a substantial barrier" to the Brooklyn park, a 1.3-mile-long waterfront area that planners have already hailed as the city's third great open space, in league with Central Park and Prospect Park. Lining up on the other side, preservationists deplored the decision, calling it "short-sighted," "a failure of imagination" and "anti-preservation."

    But beyond the particulars of the Purchase decision, some preservationists found evidence of what they saw as a more worrisome pattern. The commission's action, they contend, was the latest sign of a sea change in landmark designation in the city, the culmination of decades-long trends that have put the landmarks commission in the middle of a land-use maelstrom.

    "This vote was the low point in the history of the landmarks commission," said Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, adding: "It's disgraceful. I think the commissioners fell down on their duty, which is to preserve landmarks."

    Robert B. Tierney, the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, defended the vote to forward a favorable advisory report to park planners as "a fair outcome based on a fair and open process." Extensive study of the Fulton Ferry district, he said, convinced him and other commissioners that razing the Purchase Building was the right move, if a wrenching one. "I struggled with it," he said. "I am passionately concerned about all of the 23,000 buildings that we have under our jurisdiction. It is not with pleasure that I take a decision like this."

    Pitting the ineffable virtues of Moderne styling against the incalculable glory of a world-class waterfront is no one's idea of fun. But, as the statements by Professor Dolkart and Mr. Tierney suggest, the stakes may go far beyond the Purchase Building. Many on both sides of the preservationist fence are wondering whether, given such factors as a bubbling real estate market, a rising city population and a new role for the City Council, the landmarks commission, rightly or wrongly, is entering a new chapter in its 41-year history.

    Small Board, Vast Responsibility

    The 11-member Landmarks Preservation Commission was born in 1965 amid the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station, a traumatic alarm to the preservation community. Since its first designations later that year, this small agency has shaped the built fabric of the city perhaps more profoundly than any other public entity.

    Led today by Mr. Tierney, who served as counsel to Mayor Edward I. Koch and was appointed chairman by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003, the commission oversees a vast portfolio of landmarks stretching from the castlelike Fonthill country house in the North Bronx, built in 1852 for the actor Edwin Forrest, to the 1670's Conference House, where Benjamin Franklin and John Adams strode on the southern tip of Staten Island. Visitors to the commission's public hearings, held regularly at the agency's Municipal Building conference room, will hear remarkably refined discourse about board-and-batten siding in Clinton Hill, the nuances of bracket signs in TriBeCa, or the precise hue of bricks to clad a proposed apartment tower on the Upper West Side.

    Such civilized debate, however, belies an increasingly brass-knuckles reality.

    New York's still-hot real estate market has spawned more development than at any time in recent memory. The Bloomberg administration has embarked upon a string of rezonings to help accommodate a booming city population. Low-rise neighborhoods outside Manhattan, absorbing the brunt of new development, are desperately campaigning for historic protection. City Council members, meanwhile, are seeking a louder voice in preservation affairs. And for dramatic effect, there was the head-splitting saga over the preservation of 2 Columbus Circle, Edward Durell Stone's "lollipop" building.

    "The importance of landmarking has been recognized by more groups and in more parts of the city than ever before," said Mitchell L. Moss, professor of urban planning and policy at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "Landmarks is no longer a small peripheral entity, but is now a pivotal part of decision-making in all of the communities in New York."

    At the same time, growing stresses upon the agency have frayed nerves within preservation circles. A 2004 report by the Women's City Club of New York, endorsed by more than 60 preservation groups, called for reforms to increase the commission's openness and communications with the public. That theme was amplified at City Council hearings last year, when Councilman Bill Perkins effectively put the commission on notice: "There is a constituency out there that's concerned about these issues that may be broader, more diverse, more sophisticated, more committed, than any other constituency that is identified with any other city service or city function."

    The most frequent lament from that die-hard constituency is the contention that the 11 commissioners' staff is far too small, at 57 people. Despite a growing workload, the staff is down from 80 in 1991, though it has recently been on the rebound. Moreover, the loss of the survey department, which happened under the Dinkins administration, has meant that while once commission staff members roamed the streets checking out potential landmarks, they now rely on private preservation groups to bring prospective designations to their attention.

    That, say preservation advocates, has contributed to an atmosphere of crisis. As Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, put it: "Very few people wake up in the morning and say: 'I love my block. I want my block to stay as it is forever. And I want it to be a landmark.' " Instead, residents wait until the church goes up for sale or wreckers pop up at the house next door. "You have a situation where almost everything that comes across the transom at the commission is by its nature very, very urgent."

    Others contend that the commission has been on a starvation diet over three mayoral administrations. Its current $3.6 million budget, they say, is a pittance compared with other departmental coffers.

    In a related concern, preservation advocates cite a huge slowdown in the number of landmark designations that stretches back to at least the Koch administration.

    Today the commission aims to designate 16 individual landmarks and historic districts per year. In the 2005 fiscal year, that came to a total of 46 buildings, a trifle compared with the 2,374 designated in 1981. To be fair, designations have historically been cyclical — it takes years of painstaking work to designate a district with hundreds of buildings. And the staff devotes heroic efforts to an annual load of more than 9,000 applications to alter landmark structures. As the real estate market has grown flush with low-interest loans and as property owners rush to renovate, those applications have mounted fast and furiously.

    Acknowledging that the commission's resources are not what they were, Mr. Tierney cites trends that he calls encouraging. The staff has grown almost 20 percent over the past four years. "Is it enough?" Mr. Tierney asked. "Maybe not yet. But it's a big, big step forward."

    A Rocky Past

    As seen through the eyes of other preservationists, the picture looks almost rosy, at least compared with yesteryear.

    "These storms going on today are nothing compared to the storms that went on routinely," said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society and chairman of the commission from 1978 to 1983. Mr. Barwick battled opposition to designating landmarks in Queens and Staten Island, and "an absolute prohibition on designations in Lower Manhattan, a place most people would consider the architectural treasure house of the nation." Even the Upper East Side Historic District, today accepted as one of the city's premier landmark districts, resulted from a brutal fight against real estate interests.

    Indeed, commission hearings were rarely sedate affairs. The case for Lever House, for instance, may look simple after the fact. "At the time it was up for designation it was a terrible fight," Mr. Barwick said. "And it is certainly not easy for a commission operating today, because there's still an argument over whether some of these buildings are worthwhile." That argument played out in pitched fashion over 2 Columbus Circle, which became a cause célèbre after the commission declined even to hold a public hearing about its worthiness as a landmark.

    Regardless of such dust-ups, others call the current administration as preservation-minded as any, given Mayor Bloomberg's urbanist credentials. "I don't think anyone can say he's not a great supporter of preservation," said Sherida E. Paulsen, who preceded Mr. Tierney as chairwoman of the commission. "He's always shown a great interest in making sure the environment is of very high quality."

    And more market-oriented urban observers have long argued that regulation can go overboard. "Cities are living organisms and as living organisms they have to change," said Peter Salins, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs of the State University of New York and an expert on housing and planning policy. "There has to be the flexibility for the community to live and to breathe."

    Council Flexes Its Muscles

    That brings us to another factor in preservation calculus: resistance to the permanent protection of modern architecture like the Purchase Building, especially among members of the City Council who are empowered to approve, modify or deny landmark designations.

    Late last year, the Council caused a stir when it revoked the designation for the Cass Gilbert-designed Austin, Nichols & Company building on the Brooklyn waterfront, a 1915 structure denounced as "a piece of trash" by Simcha Felder, then chairman of the Council's landmarks committee. Although a Council overturn of a landmarks ruling is a relative rarity, that vote represented the second time in two months that the Council had rejected a decision by the commission, coming just after the 1968 Jamaica Savings Bank was stripped of its designation. One possible explanation: Neither structure fit the mode of lavish ornament and classical detailing that to the untrained eye typically says "landmark."

    But aesthetics were only part of the story. For one thing, the Austin, Nichols owners bitterly opposed the designation, hoping to add a rooftop addition for condominiums. For another, the building came up for designation at a moment when the Council was powerfully flexing its muscles vis-à-vis decisions on landmarks.

    The trend dates to about 15 years ago, when the Council became a player in the designation process after changes to the City Charter. After 2001, when term limits kicked in, a more activist group of Council members began responding more pointedly to the landmarks commission, both asking for designations and rejecting them.

    In some eyes, that's not a bad thing.

    "The commission is a group of experts with architectural expertise and historical expertise, whereas the Council is reasoning with different criteria," among them economic development imperatives, zoning considerations, and the views of their constituents, said Ms. Paulsen, the former commission chairwoman. "I think the two things do have to be part of a dialogue." (By law, the 11 commissioners, all of them appointed by the mayor for three-year terms, must include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, and one real estate agent. The commission must also include one resident of each borough.)

    Complicating matters further is that New York has added 845,000 residents since 1990, spurring demand for housing. Jumbo-sized new construction has catalyzed preservationists in neighborhoods that suddenly seem at risk. The recently designated Fieldston Historic District, for example, a 257-building swath of the North Bronx, has been hailed as a rare example of a romantic suburban community — and one that was in danger as owners tore down stately Tudors and Colonials to build enormous new homes ill-matched to their surroundings.

    Similarly vulnerable neighborhoods like Dumbo in Brooklyn, along with Flushing, Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens in Queens, are now desperately lobbying the commission for their own historic districts. Even parts of Staten Island have lately converted to the preservation gospel, spurred on by the news that during the 1990's the borough was the state's fastest-growing county.

    To that end, Mr. Tierney notes that the commission recently completed a street-by-street "windshield survey" of Staten Island, driving by every building and documenting what is expected to be a trove of landmark-worthy structures. And over the past three years, 406 buildings in the boroughs beyond Manhattan have been designated, including the Douglaston Hill Historic District in Queens. The commission is working on a stretch of more than 500 buildings in the Crown Heights North area of Brooklyn, which could be the largest district designated in more than a decade.

    With a total of 84 historic districts under the agency's belt, Mr. Tierney remains proud of the commission's work.

    "I think we've been aggressive, and I think the results show it," he said. "At a time like this, when preservation needs to be at the table, we're at the table in a major, major way."

    A Misplaced Gem

    If you follow Berenice Abbott's footsteps today, you might have a hard time finding anything to cherish about the Purchase Building. The whole property, which has recently housed a temporary city command center, strikes a barricaded note. Drab aluminum siding clads part of the facade. Hemmed in by the garden for the adjacent River Café, the structure looks awkwardly sited.

    Was it really worth fighting for? Absolutely, said Nicholas Evans-Cato, vice president of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association.

    "Even within such a small historic district as Fulton Ferry," he said, "the boundaries that were drawn at that time recognize that the Purchase Building is just as much a part of the history of the working waterfront as the Empire Stores or the Brooklyn Bridge itself." And for a warehouse once crammed full of office furniture, it has a remarkable expanse of gasp-worthy windows.

    "Why would all those file cabinets need great views of the river?" Mr. Evans-Cato wondered. "And if you put a restaurant in there, future park visitors would have had that great view, too."

    Yet even Moderne-minded architects admit that the planners have a point.

    "I love the Purchase Building, and I think it's an underappreciated gem," said Fredric M. Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Yet, he added: "The Purchase Building as a warehouse in a park just did not make sense. The context was everything. And the context of this building is that it blocks the view of a world monument, the Brooklyn Bridge."

    The verdict: Nice building. Wrong place.



    Jeff Byles is the author of "Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition."

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  2. #2
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Another site for LPC to get busy with ...

    Landmark Plea for Artist's 13th Street Studio



    CURBED
    Wednesday, July 19, 2006,
    by Joey

    The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's Andrew Berman sure is a busy guy. You'd think he'd be overloaded by the sticking it to Donald Trump thing, but that's not the only fight he's got going right now. Nope, Berman is rallying the troops in the form of a letter campaign to Landmarks boss Bob Tierney, trying to prevent the demolition of the 1903 Beaux Arts beauty at 126-28 East 13th Street, which artist Frank Stella recently sold to developers for $10 million (according to blogger Felix Salmon).

    (Note: Sale mentioned here)

    You can see the building in its current state up top, as well as the seven-story condo building proposed for the site. The Stella connection isn't the only excuse for the hopeful landmarking, of course. According to Berman's letter:
    This wonderful 1903 structure designed by Jardine Kent and Jardine was originally built as an auction mart for horses and carriages, where according to the New York Times "the Belmonts and the Vanderbilts and other families transacted their horse affairs." Later it was converted to a machine shop, and during World War II women were taught "assembly and inspection work, the reading of blueprints, and various mechanical aspects needed in defense industries."
    Berman also says "there is little time to save this building," so we should see a result in this battle fairly soon.

    · 128 E 13th Street [Kutnicki Bernstein Architects]
    · GV Society for HP [gvshp.org]


  3. #3
    Chief Antagonist Ninjahedge's Avatar
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    Ugh!

    That's AWFUL!!!

    They could at least go to the trouble of making a replacement that looked more like the crap they have in Flushing!!!!

    :P

    And as for people asking to preserve that god-awful bank in queens right next to the mall, they need a reality check.

    Sometimes just being different does not mean better. The building itself is a creative eyesore. I am not saying that the mall itself is any better, but that building does nothing for the curb it is on besides make it look like a street-corner in LA... :P
    Last edited by Ninjahedge; November 27th, 2006 at 09:44 AM.

  4. #4

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    The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's Andrew Berman sure is a busy guy. You'd think he'd be overloaded by the sticking it to Donald Trump thing, but that's not the only fight he's got going right now. Nope, Berman is rallying the troops in the form of a letter campaign to Landmarks boss Bob Tierney, trying to prevent the demolition of the 1903 Beaux Arts beauty at 126-28 East 13th Street, which artist Frank Stella recently sold to developers...
    Finally, Berman addresses himself to something worthwhile.



    Btw, what does this guy do for a living?

  5. #5

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    supposedly an architect...
    http://www.newyork-architects.com/in...ystem_id=10635
    he'd probably protest his own design.

  6. #6

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    again too late.......you know Tierney wont protect a building once it was sold for development.

    why wasnt it landmarked before?

    as well as - west 55th, west 56th, 67th and 1st church, the drake , the automat......the list grows ....sadly

  7. #7
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ablarc
    what does this guy do for a living?
    LIVES in Hell's Kitchen ...

    Here's what he was doing for breakfast one day last November ...

    NYU Furman Center

    First breakfast: Friday, November 18



    In our first breakfast, our panelists considered the extent and nature of the tension between the goal of preserving neighborhood character and the need to make housing affordable. Three speakers discussed their particular experiences with this tension:
    • Don Capoccia, of BFC Partners, who has used higher density to support affordable housing in the Madison Park, Madison Plaza and Madison Court developments in Harlem and the Schaefer’s Landing development on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn;
    • Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who has led efforts to downzone parts of the West Village;
    • Chris Kui, Executive Director, Asian Americans for Equality, and member of the New York City Planning Commission.

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    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    The (Naked) City and the Undead


    Marc Alary

    nytimes.com
    By TOM WOLFE
    November 26, 2006

    Op-Ed Contributor

    Chin up, tummy out, Aby Rosen, the 46-year-old German developer, owner of the Seagram Building and Lever House, was posing for pictures in front of 980 Madison Avenue barely one month ago when he grew so bold as to boast: “I have zero fear. Fear is not something I have.”

    Easy for you to say, braveheart! The courage-crowing tycoon knows very well that in the current battle over 980 Madison, a five-story Art Moderne building stretching from 76th Street to 77th Street, the contest is already completely snookered in his favor.

    On top of this block-long low-rise he intends to build one of his Aby Rosen jumbo glass boxes full of commercial space and condominiums, rising straight up a sheer 30 stories. His big problem — or, to be more accurate, “problem” — is that 980 Madison is in the heart of the Upper East Side Historic District, and it would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box by Aby Rosen.

    The writer Tom Wolfe and other neighbors have taken to lobbing objections in the direction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city’s official watchdog for landmarked areas. The commission has already held a hearing and could stop Aby Rosen dead in his tracks at a moment’s notice, just like that.

    But what, him worry? Like every major developer in town, he knows that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has been de facto defunct for going on 20 years. Today it is a bureau of the walking dead, tended by one Robert B. Tierney.

    Mr. Tierney and the 10 members of his commission already have a hearty, comrades-in-arms, marching-along-together history with Aby Rosen. The commission was highly instrumental last November in clearing the way for him to build a zone-busting glass box full of condominiums on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street in return for his guarantee, written into the deed, that the exterior of his Seagram Building, given landmark status in 1989, will be maintained in its original condition in perpetuity.

    Mr. Tierney gushed — insofar as one can gush in a press release — that Aby Rosen was not only ensuring “the highest level of protection” for this historic building, he was also being so kind as to favor New York with “a landmark of the future,” namely, his glass box godzilla at Lexington and 53rd.

    How generous! How civic-minded! Noblesse oblige! ... until one reminds oneself that Aby Rosen and every other owner of a landmarked building is required by law to maintain it in its original condition.

    Aby Rosen is a global success story of the 21st century, a citizen of the world. He should care about New York’s parochial steps to make historic preservation a government responsibility? That was in another century, the 20th, 1965 to be exact, after a developer had demolished that old solemn-columned classical temple of passenger train travel, Pennsylvania Station, to make way for Madison Square Garden, a coliseum where the rabble could go watch hungover Canadians on ice skates batter one another senseless.

    Never again! vowed le tout New York. The thrill of a Goo-Goo crusade thrummed through the gizzard of everyone from, eventually, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and legions of other celebrities and socialites to virtually every prominent politician, from Mayor Robert F. Wagner on down.

    Never again! The City Council gave legal muscle to a previously powerless Landmarks Preservation Commission, made up of scholars, city planners, architects, artists, landscapers, designers. This was to be an aesthetic and scholarly elite with virtually absolute discretion in deciding what buildings and historic districts should be preserved forever through landmark designation.

    Goo-Goo was an old City Hall term for believers in Good Government, by which the regulars meant idealistic lightweights whose feet seldom touched the ground. But all at once every big shot in New York seemed to have gone Goo-Goo.

    So feverish was that born-again bliss that for a decade the commission pretty much had its idealistic way. But when the commission tapped for protection the city’s other great monument to railroad travel, Grand Central Terminal, it wound up in a do-or-die lawsuit that reached the United States Supreme Court in 1978.

    Goo-Goo fever now shot up to a peak. Jackie O. herself served as the star passenger on the Landmarks Express, a private train packed with celebrities, socialites and members of the commission who headed to Washington to exhort the court to uphold New York’s landmarks law — and in so doing save the station. Mayor Edward I. Koch gave a Goo-Goo, Never Again send-off speech so moving that cynical, battle-hardened, social-cliff-climbing Manhattan matrons had to dab their eye sockets. Not even the Supreme Court justices, it seemed, could control themselves in a Camelot moment.

    They upheld the landmarks law faster than you could say Oh, Jackie, ohhhhh ...

    Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhh yes, went the landmarks commissioners. The chairman received a salary, but the commissioners got no pay for this job. Still, the psychic rewards were turning out to be awesome. You were working for a cause you believed in, and at a high and highly visible level. After all, you were now an official of the 20th century’s capital of the world, New York City, and you kept running into the very rich and very social — who were suddenly giving you aero-kisses, Euro-style, four millimeters away from each side of your face.

    The commissioners had made names for themselves professionally as scholars, architects, city planning consultants, but now they were moving up in life in a way they could have never anticipated. One evening a commissioner from the Jackie O. period is at a cocktail party — you were now being invited to an infinitely better class of parties — when a benefactress of the City Beautiful movement approaches him and asks if he would like to go over to Lincoln Center and watch Jerome Robbins rehearsing with Mikhail Baryshnikov for some ballet that’s coming up. The next thing he knows, her driver is taking the two of them over to the theater.

    “The place is dark except for the stage,” he recounted, “and there’s Jerome Robbins up there, and Baryshnikov, and Robbins is having Baryshnikov try this and try that — and the only people in the whole audience are this woman and me! Us and some Saudi prince who’s backing the show.”

    You would walk into a conference room and people would jump up and shake your hand and take your coat and show you to a seat and smile and beam, beam, beam respect — because you and your commission colleagues wielded a government power over private property second only to confiscating it via the right of eminent domain. When you made someone’s property a landmark, he retained title to it, but you confiscated his ability to exploit it by putting up something new in its place or selling it for development. In a former commissioner’s own words: “One day it dawns on you. You’re pushing around billions of dollars worth of real estate development. You’re telling the biggest developers in the world, ‘Keep moving, Jack! You can’t build there!’ ”

    Somehow you had made it inside the Walled City that Theodore Dreiser described in “Sister Carrie.” There was New York the melting pot, the boiling stew, of the eight million ... and there was the Walled City, wherein existed New York’s fabled excitement and glamour and power and blinding wealth and extravagant ease and fine slim people who introduced you to restaurants where you didn’t dare order a beer and wished you hadn’t worn a brown suit and a “colorful” necktie. Thus it came to be that turnover on the commission was exceedingly low.

    No fools, New York’s mayors got the picture soon enough. Why on earth allow so much power to remain in the hands of a bunch of arty, sentimental, cerebral, status-addicted Goo-Goos? And the name of the man who first made City Hall’s contempt obvious? Edward I. Koch! The very man who had left them sobbing Goo-Goo tears during the Camelot moment! Not the velvet-gloved sort, Mr. Koch went ballistic in what became the notorious Tung affair.

    In 1987, for good and sufficient civic and political reasons, the mayor wanted to turn Bryant Park, the badly rundown open space behind the New York Public Library, into a gloriously landscaped Tuileries Garden for Manhattan crowned with a Lucullan restaurant. But building the restaurant would mean cutting down a stand of towering old trees. The mayor wanted the commission to give this alteration its blessing.

    Enter Anthony M. Tung. Mr. Tung was only 37 but had served on the commission for eight years. One and all agreed he was probably the most erudite member the commission had ever had, a city planning consultant, a walking encyclopedia of the history, principles and practices of urban preservation, and a brilliant analyst; in short, a genius in that field.

    Mr. Tung argued that the proposed restaurant would be a landmark desecration, butchering not only many magnificent old trees but also the entire rear aspect of the library, which was every bit as innovative and historically important as the more famous Fifth Avenue front with its lions and great staircase. So eloquent was he, so utterly convincing, that the commission, chairman and all, swung around and denied Mayor Koch’s request — unanimously — and made him look like a hairy Visigoth getting ready to sack Rome.

    Impudent wretch! The mayor got word to the genius that he was fired so fast — five days later — it made the tail on the Q of Mr. Tung’s sky-high I.Q. curl.

    Getting rid of him was easy, or should have been. Landmarks commissioners were appointed for three-year terms, and it turned out that Mr. Tung and six of the other nine unpaid commissioners had never been officially reappointed. They had just kept on serving. Technically, they were expirees. This was probably the result of nothing more than bureaucratic inertia. But it was very handy! All the mayor had to do was have somebody send Mr. Tung a letter saying his term had expired, he wasn’t being reappointed, so long, thanks a million for your service, and kindly go off and be a genius by yourself. In fact, thanks to the rank odor, it took the mayor months to find a both willing and respectable candidate to take his place.

    Mr. Tung didn’t take it lying down for a moment, and the Tung affair boiled and stewed in the press for months. Still, no one seemed to realize at the time that the landmarks law, as originally conceived, was now null and void. From the Tung affair on, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s aesthetic elite was pretty much free to bestow landmark status on any property it saw fit — unless the mayor had designs on it himself.

    Barely a peep in Anthony Tung’s behalf was heard from any commissioner or the chairman, even though all of them had so bravely agreed with him at the outset. Well ... let’s face it. One has to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, doesn’t one? But we’ll get to decide on the rest, won’t we? And still be invited to all the parties?

    Talk about never again! Never again could you expect a landmarks commissioner, much less a chairman, to stand up to a mayor. And, as a corollary, never again could you expect any of them to stand up to Big Real Estate, if Big Real Estate had the mayor’s backing. As they say at City Hall, they got along by going along. It wasn’t so bad ... talking the talk with one’s fellow walking dead and walking the walking-dead walk to swell parties and events.

    As for Anthony Tung: he went off and, a genius by himself, wrote a book titled “Preserving the World’s Great Cities.” Today it is the bible of urban preservationists all over the globe, and from Mexico City to Athens to Istanbul to Kyoto and Singapore, he is one of the world’s most sought-after speakers and consultants on urban planning, most recently in New Orleans.

    The undead commission became only undeader under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. When he became mayor in 1994, New York had hit the bottom of a full-blown commercial real estate depression, and he wasn’t about to allow anyone with a weakness for silvery-tongues to become chairman. So he appointed a former campaign strategist, Jennifer J. Raab, who was introduced to the public as a highly experienced land-use lawyer.

    Translated, that meant she made her living representing landlords and developers for the big-time, high-billing-and-the-clock-is-running law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. It didn’t take long for her to enunciate the Raab Doctrine. No longer is it Us against Them, she said. From now on everyone, preservationists and developers alike, will recognize their common interest in preservation.

    With that, she bade Us lamb chops to lie down with Them lions and bestowed “preservation achievement awards” for preservation-friendly architectural designs upon the Gap — which she teasingly referred to as the “big bad corporation” by way of showing Them lions were really pussycats — and Bernard Mendik, chairman of the Real Estate Board, the lobby for landlords, developers and brokers, by natural selection the evolutionary enemies of landmarks preservation. As for the commission, it remained packed with expirees who would gladly disintegrate, if necessary, to avoid casting so much as a shadow on any of the mayor’s plans.

    Reading the tank-style tread marks of the excavation earth-movers today, one is forced to conclude that Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch are not the only mayors who would just as soon have ended the charade by mercifully putting the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the walking dead out of their misery or at least slipping them into the sleep mode the way you can a computer. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg certainly seems to qualify as another.

    Last year, as he had ever since 2003, Mayor Bloomberg made it clear that he wanted a 40-year-old white marble building the city owned at 2 Columbus Circle, designed by Edward Durell Stone for Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, replaced by a glass box proposed by the Museum of Arts and Design, to fit in with the behemoth glass box of the nearby Time Warner Center.

    Back in the 1960s, critics and the art world in general had sniggered, sneered and hooted Mr. Hartford’s gallery into oblivion after only five years. But that was 40 years ago, and art history is chronically revisionist. (Rembrandt once got cold-shouldered for two centuries.)

    Now, in 2005, the mayor was confronted by an incredible uprising of scholars, world-renowned architects, deans of art and architecture at the great universities, mega-wattage art worldlings — the greatest massing of cultural luminaries in a single cause since the anti-fascist crusades of the 1930s! — all calling upon the commission to hold a hearing, lest this historic work by a great American architect be destroyed without a second thought.

    For any owner of a magnifying glass seeking a closer look at this astral army:

    The two most eminent architectural historians in the United States, Vincent Scully and Robert A. M. Stern, dean of Yale’s school of architecture, a famous and prolific architect in his own right, and the definitive historian of New York architecture from the late 19th century to the present, co-author of the magisterial quintet, “New York 1880,” “ New York 1900,” “New York 1930,” “New York 1960,” “New York 2000”; nine deans and graduate program directors of art and architecture, including three from Columbia University, and one of the nation’s best-known urban studies scholars and theorists, Witold Rybczynski of the University of Pennsylvania; the most elite lineup of architects who ever stood shank to flank in a preservation controversy: Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Laurie Olin, Hugh Hardy and Peter Eisenman, plus Dean Stern, to single out but seven from among a host of them; the current chief architectural critic of The New York Times and two of his predecessors, one of whom called the commission’s year-after-year refusal to call a hearing “a shocking dereliction of public duty”; The Times itself, in an editorial characterizing Stone’s building as “already an architectural monument, the work of a major architect, whether the commission likes it or not” and the refusal as “an enormous mistake, one that seriously erodes [the commission’s] purpose and whatever independence it has managed to attain since it was first created”; the nation’s, New York State’s and New York City’s most highly respected preservation societies, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund; Agnes Gund, who had just stepped down as president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art; the artists Frank Stella and Chuck Close, under whose letterhead a petition signed by more than 50 artists went to Mayor Bloomberg; and three former chairmen of the landmarks commission.
    If the administration had the subpoena power to summon a jury of the most esteemed architectural and urban planning authorities in the United States to judge the case of 2 Columbus Circle — it would have summoned the very same people who are in that condensed like-a-lump-of-coal type. There are no higher authorities.

    So how did Robert Tierney respond to them?

    He didn’t! Not once! It was as simple as that!

    He stayed holed up in his bunker at 1 Centre Street, while Spokesperson said ... and said ...and said ... and said, “Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission has declined to consider this site for landmark status, and I am aware of no new information that would make it necessary to revisit the matter”...

    “Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission has declined to consider”...

    “Under two administrations and three chairmen, the commission”...

    “Under two administrations and three”...

    But, but, but how could he do that without seeming ... brain dead ... or without taking direct orders? Either way, the chairman’s refusal to call a hearing — a mere hearing, which would commit the commission to nothing — or to so much as discuss a hearing ... was as good as an official proclamation:

    Landmarking no longer exists in New York City, not even as a principle — or not above the level of the occasional parish house in Staten Island or rusticated old stone archway in eastern Queens.

    By this time last year unionized elves with air hammers had reduced 2 Columbus Circle’s white marble to rubble and set about gutting the interior.

    The chairman was marginally less blunt about staying out of the way of Big Real Estate. For two decades preservation groups had been petitioning the commission to give landmark status to the five-story Romanesque Revival-style Dakota Stable on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, the most important remaining relic of late 19th century New York’s palmy days of riding horses and traveling by horse-drawn carriage.

    This spring they learned that Big Real Estate, in the form of the Related Companies, developers of the Time Warner Center, had a contract to buy the building with the intention of demolishing it and putting up 14 stories’ worth of condominiums. (Ironically, they picked Robert Stern as the architect.) In July, Mr. Tierney indicated he was going to hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... hold a hearing ... but was somehow delayed until Oct. 17 — and wouldn’t you know it? In September the city had granted permission to alter the Dakota Stable and by Oct. 17 it had been stripped of its architectural details, and all that was left was “a stucco box.”

    Those were the chairman’s own words, “a stucco box.” Just the other day he shook his head and declared it was too late to do anything about that.

    So we will never know about Aby Rosen! Maybe the man does have “zero fear.” But he won’t be put to the test this time. In the case of 980 Madison he has one-click approval whenever They feel the time is right.

    In case he’s wondering, he should know that the table is set at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Set beautifully! Never better! Nine of the 10 current commissioners, not counting Mr. Tierney, are expirees — 90 percent! — in imminent danger of getting canned if they don’t do the right thing by Aby Rosen!

    Once upon a time, in the legendary age of Camelot, back when Jackie O. could make the entire United States Supreme Court roll over and moan, it was the landlords and developers who used to scream bloody murder at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

    Just two weeks ago close to 100 leaders of New York City preservationist groups held a “citizens emergency meeting” at the General Society Library on West 44th Street... and bayed for the blind goddess, Justice, to make Preservation the commission’s middle name. Many of them were young, young enough to envision a landmarking renaissance. Youth! The way they bayed was enough to make the hair stand up on old Aby Rosen’s arm.

    Tom Wolfe is the author, most recently, of “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”’

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  9. #9

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    ^ Needed to be said.

    Now what?

  10. #10
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    The Commissioners and those who control them / fund them laugh behind our backs

    The Developers shrug their shoulders.

  11. #11

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    A councilman needs to introduce a bill requiring members sitting on the commission to be duly appointed. If a term is expired, they need to leave or be reappointed. What's the point of terms if they're not honored?

  12. #12
    The Dude Abides
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    Interesting article. Didn't know about the Koch/Tung fiasco, which brings to mind: how many people do? And how many of us are misled into mistaking fear for incompetence?

    As someone who firmly believes in evaluating a building/buildable site on a case by case basis, the prospect of a "Big Real Estate"-favored commission is just as disturbing as a "landmark all historic buildings" one.

    I'm with ablarc on this one; the technical kinks of holding a seat need to be ironed out to avoid more situations like Tung/Bryant Park.

    Who's for appointing Stern as the next commissioner?

  13. #13

    Default can of worms

    IMO: The public is at fault.

    Question: Do Americans really care about about history and beauty? Is it an important issue for most people? Do Americans care about the public realm?

  14. #14
    Forum Veteran MidtownGuy's Avatar
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    Your right Fabrizio, the public is to blame. Americans truly care about very little except what directly affects themselves and their own family, and even about those things they generally have no clue. Attention spans last no longer than a corporate news cycle. The idea of the public realm has been under attack here for many years. New York is losing historic treasures at an alarming rate in this climate of frantic development.
    Americans are the most apathetic, uncultured, selfish and shallow people in the world. Not looking for a debate, just stating MY opinion. Ethical or artistic concerns lose almost every time to the sanctity of profit.
    Most Americans can't even be bothered to learn important news (and I'm NOT talking about what the editors at the New York Times sometimes decide to print), let alone inform themselves about anything like architecture or preservation. They're hopelessly uninformed about anything more meaningful than who won the latest television talent show. This forum and the people who frequent it are somewhat unusual. While we often sit here and talk about real issues like the preservation of our environment, both natural and built, the vast majority of other Americans are much more concerned with celebrity news, or when to go to the mall.
    As you can see, I have little hope for preservation in this climate. It's a culture of disposability, from our McMeal wrappers to our buildings.

    I went to the store a few hours ago and on my way home walked past The Drake, cloaked in a death shroud of scaffolding...the frustration is overwhelming. I come home, and read about the 1903 building on 13th Street. It provoked this rant. I'm sorry, I'm just so disgusted.
    Last edited by MidtownGuy; November 26th, 2006 at 11:48 PM.

  15. #15

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    How depressing.

    Is there an approval process for newly appointed commissioners? And what's the point of having terms if no one abides by them?

    We need to force the nine "expirees" out of office, and we need to make sure future commissioners are truly preservationist. The whole process needs to be better defined - term limits should be honored and appointees need to show qualification. It should all be procedural: when a commissioners term is up, a replacement should be appointed and an approval process should occur.

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