The Eye Of The Beholder

by Don Friedman on September 6, 2016

The old General Post Office at Park Row and Broadway. The old General Post Office at Park Row and Broadway.

I agree with most of this list of the ugliest buildings in New York. Those are some ugly buildings. I’d remove 8 Spruce Street (I think it’s odd but in an appealing way) and I’d add the General Motors Building at 767 Fifth Avenue…but since this list is purely subjective, my list is no better or worse than the one in the article.

Every so often someone presents a serious proposal – more serious than the Curbed article I linked to, anyway –  to create a “to be demolished” list. My personal favorite was the X List proposed in 2004 by the president of RIBA. He wanted to add grade “X” to the existing protected grades of I, II, and III, extending the concept of protection to a negative position.

The problem with this concept is that tastes change. In 1912, the New York Times said of the “unsightly” old General Post Office, “which for a generation [had] encroached on the lower end of City Hall Park” that it “has always been an architectural eyesore…” In 1919, the Bulletin of the Merchants’ Association quoted the New York World in saying that it was “an architectural monstrosity [and] a menace to health.” In 1921, the executive committee of the New York Chamber of Commerce stated that it was “devoid of historic interest and architectural merit.”  The building was almost certainly obsolete by then as a post office and it was in a poor location to serve as the central post office for the whole city, but these days it would be difficult to find someone who thinks that having it still standing would be an aesthetic mistake.

Obviously tastes change, and I expect that some of my opinions as expressed here will be laughably wrong in a hundred years. But that is exactly my argument: when we demolish a building, the decision is irrevocable. There are often good reasons to demolish a building and what follows may make us forget what was there: few people will argue that we’d be better off with the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel than with the Empire State Building, especially given that the new Waldorf-Astoria is by now older than the old one was when it was demolished. But perceived ugliness as a reason makes me uneasy, because I am not so certain of my taste, or anyone else’s, to want that to govern.

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