New York City Preservation

by Don Friedman on May 18, 2016

It may come as a shock, but I’m a fan of analysis rather than guessing. I’ve been having a fun time reading Historic Preservation: At the Core of a Dynamic New York City, a report from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and also an article from the Architectural League, How Many Row Houses Are There In New York City?

The two pieces are on quite different topics. The Conservancy report discusses the nature and economics of preservation in local real estate though the use of statistics, while the League article describes the method of determining the number of rowhouses in the city, their spatial distribution,  and the difficulties in defining “rowhouse” as an architectural type. Not all rowhouses are landmarks – which is good for the future of the city, since rowhouses represent close to one quarter of all of the buildings in the city – but the problems in defining the type touch on the same historical development, land use, and neighborhood dynamics that the landmarking issues discuss.

I think my reading of these pieces – and in case it’s not obvious, I highly recommend reading both – is colored by James Fitch’s alternate phrase for historic preservation: curatorial management of the built world. Most of the buildings in town were built before I was born and most will be here long after I’m gone. That’s true for everyone else as well. We may own them (or pieces of them) but they are not ours. They are part of our local culture and history. In the words of the decision of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York that upheld the landmarking of Grand Central Terminal, “Stripped of its remaining historically unique structures, New York City would be indistinguishable from any other large metropolis.” And for those of us who work with the historic buildings of the city, it helps to understand how people interact with them, what people think about them, and how we define them.

By the way, the image is the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff house in Brooklyn. It’s the oldest house remaining in New York State and was the first landmark designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. I like for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it’s not exactly the image that most people in the world have of “a New York City landmark.”

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