First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.
Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.
Score one for the old buildings!
Now, on to New York
I was in New York late last week interviewing preservationists and I was struck by how similar preservation issues are in different places: the politics, the factions, the economics and aesthetics. I was also struck by how parochial New Yorkers can be – as I interviewed them they often counterinterviewed me to find out what was going on in Chicago. That’s New York – a world unto itself and hence a bit fishbowlic despite its mass. I don’t begrudge that – New York is a whole world every few blocks – if I were there it would be hard to see beyond the Hudson.
And New York looms large in preservation history. They gave us zoning in 1916, and their 1965 local landmarks law – while not the first – had a big influence on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and famously held up in court in the 1978 Grand Central Station case. On Saturday I had the good fortune of meeting with Dorothy Miner, a key attorney on that case, and her insights were revelatory. She was also the least parochial, keenly aware of landmarks litigation in Chicago over the years. Unlike some advocates she also was willing to count the successes over time, particularly the large historic districts on the Upper West and Upper East Sides. She was genuinely amazed that New Yorkers had chosen to regulate so much valuable real estate.
A lot of my investigation centered on Greenwich Village, still the largest district in Manhattan. This is valuable real estate. Rows of Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses were being frantically leveled for giant white brick air conditioner piles right up until the 1969 designation. “Pile” is a derisive term in architecture with a long history and the clunky step-box stacks of New York embody it perfectly. But they stopped them in the Village. The neighborhood even has its own staffed preservation organization that is adding more landmarks as well as downzoning to maintain Village character.
New York is less coherent than Chicago to my eye, and less architecturally notable, but it has great buildings and it has a lot of what most people understand a architecture: swooping stoops and swelling swags and all of that ornamental decoration that even politicians understand as architecture – the opposite of Mies, if you will.
I did visit our Chicago heroes – Mies’ Seagram Building and Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict with its restored storefronts. They fit right into the universe that is New York. Everything fits in there because it is a universe, a world unto itself, lacking nothing and keeping a heck of a lot of it.