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Does the system for protecting historic buildings in New York still work?

28 August 2018

The recent controversy over the expansion of the Frick has been resolved to general satisfaction, but wider questions surrounding the preservation of historic buildings and sites in New York remain. 

Julia Vitullo-Martin

When the Frick Collection decided in around 2013 that the easiest way to obtain much-needed space would be to build a 60,000-square-foot addition in their Russell Page-designed garden, it must surely have known there would be an uproar from preservationists, landscape architects, the media, and their immediate neighbours on the Upper East Side.

Now things are calmer. This spring the Frick put forth a more modest expansion plan which, despite some serious opposition, made its way through the politically charged land-use-review process that includes input from the local community board and approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a city government agency. (Crucial as the commission is, it’s not the end of the road for the Frick, which must face the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals – and more public hearings – on three requested waivers in September.)

But what can be learned from this expensive controversy that in some ways began decades ago, in the 1970s, when the Frick was forced to postpone an expansion for economic reasons? Since 1935, the Frick has added only 700 square feet of space, a minuscule amount, even as its collection has more than doubled in size and its attendance has ballooned, thanks to booming tourism. It needs space to serve its patrons, who are often left standing in long lines outside and then excessively crowded once they gained admittance. Similarly, the museum store and café are tiny and inadequate, and the office space dark and cramped.

One of New York’s loveliest buildings, designed by Carrère and Hastings and sited amid serene gardens, the Henry Clay Frick residence houses an extraordinary art collection that includes some of the most famous paintings on the planet: Hans Holbein’s Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, grimly facing each other across the fireplace, just as Frick had placed them; a roomful of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Progress of Love panels; three gorgeous Vermeers, full-length Whistlers and Van Dycks, many Rembrandts, and much more. Although well endowed financially, the Frick is small by New York standards. Its smallness, long part of its charm, is becoming a burden.

It was the seemingly casual proposed destruction of the garden in the first plan that united preservation advocates, who developed sophisticated arguments about Page’s excellent design, together with regular New Yorkers, who saw one more green space being taken from them. Charles Birnbaum, president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, calls Page’s design a ‘master class in restrained minimalism’ that is a model of precision and beauty giving an illusion of size to a postage-stamp sized garden. Yet the new plan by Selldorf Architects is sensitive both to the building and its visitors. ‘We’re building a better Frick for the audience we have,’ says Ian Wardropper, the director of the museum. ‘Our goal is for visitors to feel nothing has changed.’ But why so much rage over so many years? One reason may be that many New Yorkers have never quite recovered emotionally from the demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s glorious Penn Station in 1963 – a shocking act of cultural vandalism made even worse by the utterly banal, inefficient Penn Station commuters must endure today. As Yale professor of architecture Vincent Scully once said of the station, ‘Through it one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.’ The one valuable outcome was the establishment in 1965, of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, initially toothless but gradually strengthened with almost every new depredation.

The demolition of Penn Station was of course followed by other traumas, actual and threatened; the latter including such recent ones as the New York Public Library’s plan to gut its classical insides with a Norman Foster-redesign of its Carrère and Hastings building. As the architecture critic Paul Goldberger puts it: ‘The Frick and the Public Library have one thing in common: both represent large prominent New York institutions that, having made big architectural mistakes, [they] have had the sense to reverse themselves.’ For such reversals, New Yorkers are grateful.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Michael Gotkin

Revised plans for the initially controversial expansion of the Frick Collection in New York were approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in June, bringing to a close a well-publicised preservation battle and seeming to satisfy both the preservation community and the Frick. Centring around saving the museum’s acclaimed Russell Page-designed garden, the fracas and its resolution may appear to be a shining example of the preservation process working as it should: a landmarked museum proposes a plan for expansion, the public reacts, and the media weighs in; the museum reconsiders, scraps the unpopular plan, and proposes a revision incorporating preservationists’ concerns, and the plan is subsequently approved. But the generally happy ending to the Frick battle ignores the huge amount of money spent on lawyers and publicists by both sides in a landmarking system that many preservationists consider to be in complete disarray; prone to the influence of not only high-powered cultural institutions and posh neighbours, but also the city’s real-estate industry.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was mandated from its inception in 1965 to safeguard buildings and places that represent the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. Implicit in the mandate is that the commission should designate properties based on architectural and cultural merit and that proposed alterations or demolitions of listed buildings should be debated at public hearings. But in recent years, the role of the city’s Preservation Commission has evolved from that role of architectural arbiter into that of a deal-maker, ready to offer unusual compromises that accommodate real-estate development in landmark listings.

Egregious cases of cherry-picking can occur in the case of individual buildings. The B.F. Goodrich Tire Company building of 1909, featuring unusual Jugendstil decorative elements and located on a coveted corner lot in Midtown, was purchased by a developer in 2010. Although long proposed as a city landmark, the Landmarks Commission kept the fate of the building in limbo; when the building owner sought demolition, the commission was compelled to act. To appease the developer, but also to uphold its mandate to protect important works of design, the commission listed only one façade of the building, while sacrificing the other – essentially dividing the building in half.

More recently, preservationists were happily surprised when the commission listed the Bergdorf Goodman store on Fifth Avenue after years of inaction. Even greater surprise ensued upon reading the actual listing, in which the commission noted that because Bergdorf Goodman had historically been situated in the context of taller neighbouring buildings, it would be appropriate for the landmark building to accommodate a tower on a portion of its site sometime in the future. Rather than list the building in its entirety, and deal with any potential alteration or demolition requests at public hearings, the commission chose to sacrifice part of the historic building in advance.

By deliberately delaying action on requests for landmark listing, the commission is able to step in at the last minute and broker compromises that, on the surface, may appear to exonerate the commission from bias. The listing of Philip Johnson’s AT&T building last month has been welcomed. But a significant and defining part of the building – the ground-floor arcade – had already been lost; another casualty of New York City’s flawed landmarks process. For years, preservationists had pleaded with the commission to list the entire building. The Landmarks Commission defended its stance by pointing out that the commission has no jurisdiction on interior spaces, though whether an originally open arcade counts as interior or exterior space is debatable. In cases such as these and many others, the shifting terrain of the landmarks review process can often strike an uncomfortable balance between the city’s preservation community and the demands of the real-estate industry.

Michael Gotkin is a landscape architect and preservation consultant in New York.

From the September issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here