Historic Preservation

What’s Been Lost

by Don Friedman on 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 great building and got a generic office tower. There’s an issue that people involved with historic preservation are reluctant to discuss because it’s seen as weakening our field, but that is the comparison of new and old. At the foot of Broadway we lost a great building and got back nothing much, and that’s why the great building is mourned. That doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s a site with an interesting history at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. In the mid-1800s, two members of the Astor family had mansions facing the Fifth Avenue blockfront. In 1893, William Astor tore down his house and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel. The accounts of the house suggest that it was not particularly interesting in terms of its architecture. In 1897, William’s cousin John J. Astor IV tore down his mother’s house and built the 16-story Astoria Hotel, with the intent from the beginning that the two hotels would be physically and operationally integrated. The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was a success and a part of the upper-class New York social circle.

The Waldorf-Astoria was eventually doomed by the uptown movement of high society and by various functionally-obsolete aspects to its original design. It was closed and the new Waldorf-Astoria opened on Park Avenue and 50th Street in 1931. The old site at Fifth and 34th was sold to a developer who built a spec office building.

The Empire State Building is famous and beautiful, but it was built as generic office space to make money for its developers, the same as 2 Broadway.

At the 34th Street site, we lost two mansions of famous people and no one I’ve ever spoken to cares. They were replaced by the Waldorf-Astoria, which was much more interesting. We lost the old Waldorf-Astoria, and again no one I’ve spoken to cares. It was replaced by the Empire State, which is beloved. In short, New York real estate isn’t a museum, and the loss of an old building may be acceptable if it’s replaced by something of equal or better quality. The problem is that it so rarely works that way. Most of the time, what we get is what happened at the Broadway site: a beautiful and historic building is demolished for nothing worth talking about. Sometimes beautiful and historic buildings are demolished for vacant lots, or for junk that everyone involved should be embarrassed for having been present. Maybe we shouldn’t care what came before or comes after a building we’re looking at, but it’s hard not.

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.

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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 […]

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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 […]

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Road Trip: Adaptive Reuse Hotel

October 12, 2017

I’m currently at the APT conference in Ottawa, and that’s my hotel, the Metcalfe, above. It was built circa 1906 as a YMCA and has been converted to a nice boutique hotel. You can always repurpose a building if you want to.

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Better Than The Alternative, If You Squint

September 21, 2017

Richard and Anne Dickey, a wealthy couple of the era, had a house constructed for them in 1809-1810 on then-fashionable Greenwich Street. This was before rowhouses were being built in New York and long before the craze among the wealthy for ridiculously large mansions. Their house was about 40 feet by 60 feet and there […]

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A Site With Useful Information And An Unfortunate Name

September 14, 2017

Preservation engineering (or conservation engineering outside of North America) is relatively new and suffers from a number of problems common to newish subfields. The biggest problem, from my perspective anyway, is a lack of basic common information. If I want to explain to clients energy-code issues with glass curtain walls, there are any number of […]

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Code Intersectionality

September 12, 2017

There’s been some discussion in the last couple of weeks on the topic of Belgian Block paving – usually and somewhat incorrectly referred to as cobblestones – being impassable for people with mobility issues. A solution exists for this particular problem, which is to provide smoother pavement at crosswalks. This allows people in wheelchairs or […]

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The Persistence of Stubborn Buildings

September 8, 2017

One more group of old photos, this time a Brooklyn-centric exhibit at BRIC. It so happens that one of the buildings pictured, and one of the two featured in the Brownstoner article, is the headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company. We were part of the team that worked on the recent […]

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All Gone But Remembered

September 5, 2017

A good and needed piece at The Conversation on demolished buildings. The amount I know about the buildings mentioned varies; I’m by far the most familiar with the old Waldorf Astoria, even though it was torn down before my mother was born. My research into the structure of early tall buildings led me to that […]

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