CRM Journal

Book Review

Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks

By Anthony C. Wood. New York: Routledge [Taylor & Francis Group], 2008. 422 pp., illustrations; cloth, $44.95.


The New York City Landmarks Law, one of the strongest in the country, was enacted in 1965. Its affirmation in 1978 by the Supreme Court in the Grand Central decision strengthened preservation laws throughout the country. Anthony Wood tells the riveting tale of how the Landmarks Law came into being.

The book is illustrated with evocative historic photos and images of the period and profusely footnoted. The author describes the decades of effort behind the creation of the law. He depicts the seminal roles of civic organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and now-forgotten civic leaders such as Albert Bard and George McAneny. The New York City preservation movement, as well as that of the nation, stands on the shoulders of the great preservationists of the late 19th and early 20th century.

While the author is focused on the passage of the Landmarks Law, his view is broad as he paints a vivid picture of preservation and civic activism during the first half of the 20th century. He maintains that these early preservation efforts, in particular those of the civic groups concerned with the aesthetics of the city, ultimately led to the passage of the Landmarks Law. This law, passed in 1965, incorporates the regulation of aesthetics, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1950s. The law states that it is a public necessity to protect properties and landscapes of special historical or aesthetic interest. Wood demystifies the popular story: New Yorkers were so horrified by the destruction of Penn Station in 1963 that, two years later, the law was passed. In reality the demolition of Penn Station was related to the New York City Landmarks Law in the way the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was to the start of World War I.

The star of the book is Albert Sprague Bard, the attorney and civic activist who caused the state enabling legislation to be passed, clearing the way for a landmarks law. For more than half a century he served on the boards and led most of the arts-oriented civic organizations in New York City. He worked on passage of aesthetic regulation for decades before the Bard Act became law in 1956. The Bard Act was an amendment to the General City Laws of New York State that provided for the regulation of places, buildings, structures, works of art, and other objects that have a special historical or aesthetic interest or value. This legislation enabled the New York City Landmarks Law to be passed. The language in the city landmarks law defining a landmark by historical and aesthetic considerations is similar to the Bard Act. Bard himself died at 96 in 1963, the year demolition of Penn Station began and two years before passage of the Landmarks Law.

Robert Moses is a central figure in this story, as a catalyst. The powerful city planner was active in the city from the 1930s through the 1960s as City Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. He used these agencies to change the face of the city by pushing through, with great political skill, the construction of parks and transportation corridors. His projects, such as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, caused major demolition of neighborhoods and historic properties. This eventually caused the adoption of strong preservation agendas among the civic organizations.

One notable fight was over Castle Clinton in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. Robert Moses initially proposed a large bridge to connect Lower Manhattan with Brooklyn and his new Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The civic organizations opposed, caused a delay and the project was rejected by the War Department in 1941. A tunnel was substituted and eventually constructed instead. Moses insisted that Castle Clinton be demolished for the tunnel construction. Some preservationists maintained this was out of spite for losing the bridge. He demolished the upper part of the structure, an aquarium designed by McKim, Mead & White, but the 8-to-12-foot masonry walls of the fort were too difficult to knock down with the limited equipment and manpower available during the war. Moses built a high construction fence around the fort and maintained it was largely razed. The project stopped during the war but started up again in 1945. Preservationists delayed the demolition until 1950, when the National Park Service accepted Castle Clinton as a monument. This was one of Robert Moses' few defeats.

After World War II, development caused the demolition of many beloved landmarks, like St Nicholas Church on Fifth Avenue and the Brokaw Mansion. The fights to save these buildings were unsuccessful, although the 19th-century buildings on Washington Square North in Greenwich Village were mostly preserved. Grand Central Station was threatened in the 1950s but survived. When the plans were released for the demolition of Penn Station, the building was not well maintained and was in poor condition. The civic organizations thought it was another false alarm, like Grand Central. When it was clear that the demolition would take place, there were calls for its preservation and the members of the Fine Arts Federation, the Municipal Art Society and others picketed in front of the building. Demolition began in 1963 and took three years. After the demolition of other major buildings, this was the last straw. The public was finally outraged and there was pressure and support for a landmarks law.

The tools developed to preserve Castle Clinton were used to establish landmarks regulation and they are familiar to the field. The civic groups developed lists of the most important buildings to protect, much like the endangered lists today. They held exhibitions, walking tours, and demonstrations, raised funds, lobbied politicians, drafted legislation, and wrote articles and letters to the newspapers. By the 1950s, the Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights communities formed their own groups to explore preserving their neighborhoods. These became the first historic districts designated under the Landmarks Law. The cast of characters from earlier in the century were joined by people who became towering figures in preservation, such as Jane Jacobs, Margot Gayle, Giorgio Cavaglieri, Harmon Goldstone, and many others. Today, there are nearly 25,000 properties protected by the Landmarks Law, although this is a small fraction (less than 5 percent) of the buildings in the city.

The author has been a preservation activist in New York City for three decades and has been involved with the organizations he chronicles, such as the Municipal Art Society and the National Trust. He helped establish the New York Preservation Archive Project, which documents New York City preservation efforts. His book chronicles the story of a major world city's efforts to preserve its cultural heritage, through fascinating stories populated by colorful and consequential characters.

Mary Dierickx
New York, New York