Historic Preservation

The Box Versus The Contents

by Don Friedman on March 13, 2018

This article at the New York Review of Books is both a celebration of the people who have made the old St. Denis Hotel their professional home and a depressing discussion of commercial gentrification. The building is being emptied of tenants prior to redevelopment, for the second time. Its first big change was just about 100 years ago, when it was converted from a hotel to offices.

As I’ve talked about before, saving a facade or even a building can be a less-than-complete victory if everything else about a building is gone. Yes, historic preservation is a movement about saving buildings and other structures, but ultimately the physical object matters because of the social life it contains. Adaptive reuse is the surest way to save a building from demolition, by keeping it occupied.

In this case, the building will be adaptively reused, but at the expense of the type of tenants who’ve been in the building for decades. I’m not trying to paint the new developer as evil: the issue is real estate pressure. New York’s population growth (roughly 1,500,000 from 1980 to the present) and business growth mean that the city needs more space and the push for this space has made viable projects that would not have made economic sense in the past. If people will pay $60 per square foot for office space in Greenwich Village, then it is possible to redevelop the St. Denis. The “if” portion of that statement is a recent development.

There are two ironies to the story of this particular building. The first, as pointed out in the article, is that the facade alterations of the 1920s more or less make it impossible for this historic building – over 160 years old and designed by James Renwick – to receive the protection of a landmarks designation. The second, is that its current appearance – an off-color stucco with badly-proportioned ornament – may well be improved upon as part of its renovation.

Less-Ambivalent Ambivalence

February 16, 2018

If you’re looking for a good long article on some of the difficulties in landscape preservation, you won’t do better than this, from Urban Omnibus: Under Annihilation’s Sign: Public Memory and Prospect Park’s Battle Pass. Central and western Brooklyn was the site of the Battle of Long Island in 1776, the largest set-piece battle of the […]

Read the full article →

The Hardest Thing In Preservation

February 2, 2018

Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building has been significantly altered despite the fact that it’s calendared to be reviewed for designation as a landmark. The designation being considered is, like most New York designations, for the exterior facade only; the current work has demolished a piece of the interior lobby. There is an interesting debate about preservation […]

Read the full article →

A New Publication

January 8, 2018

Gabriel Pardo Redondo of OSE and Berta de Miguel Alcalá of Vertical Access‘s – not coincidently, a married couple – have a new paper out in Loggia on preservation engineering in New York. Somehow my name ended up on it, even though Gabi and Berta did about 98 percent of the work. If you go to […]

Read the full article →

Doing The Wrong Thing Right

December 14, 2017

I’ve talked before about my ambivalence concerning the way in which the Dickey house on Greenwich Street is being preserved as part of the development of a new tower next door. Façadism does not have a good reputation in the preservation world. Since no one has asked my opinion, the work continues regardless of what […]

Read the full article →

A Long-Overdue Designation

December 12, 2017

The IRT Powerhouse has been designated as a New York City landmark. First, as the pictures may make clear, this is a huge building that is quite visible: it fills the block between 58th and 59th Streets, and between 11th and 12th Avenues. In other words, it’s 200 feet wide and about 600 feet long. […]

Read the full article →

What’s Been Lost

November 20, 2017

The green glass-walled building straight ahead is 2 Broadway. It’s as close to a generic circa-1960 office high-rise as you can get. There’s nothing about it that’s inherently bad…except….it was built on the site formerly occupied by the Produce Exchange. Here’s the Exchange, designed in the 1880s by George Post: In short, we lost a […]

Read the full article →

Something New

November 18, 2017

The idea of using LEGOs to provide temporary repairs to damaged masonry is either genius or moronic. I alternate between the two opinions.

Read the full article →

Missing One Thing

November 7, 2017

That’s a picture of demolition in progress at a 140-year-old house – a mansion, really – in Brooklyn. The bulk of the building will be demolished and/or altered into an apartment house that will look quite different. There is a need for more apartments in the city as construction of new units, particularly at the […]

Read the full article →

Three Myths About Brutalism

October 25, 2017

Neave Brown, the architect of the Alexandra Road housing estate in London (above, click to enlarge) as well as other brutalist housing projects, has recently been recognized for his work. In architectural terms, this is undiluted brutalism, with nearly all exterior surfaces as bare concrete or glass. The article at the second link above summarizes […]

Read the full article →