February 22, 2012

Honoring New York’s Landmarked Treasures

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From a simple, quaint old clock on a street corner in Manhattan to Central Park, a wide range of buildings, parks and other sites in and around New York City benefit from the New York Landmarks Law — a legislative triumph for historical preservationists that helped secure the care of cherished spaces, both public and private. A current selection of site photographs, on display in Milstein Hall Gallery until Friday, catalogues some of the city’s most famous and surprising sites that benefit from their status as landmarks. Curated by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, the exhibit celebrates both the New York City Preservation Movement and the sites that the Landmarks Law protects.

Passed in 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Law came in response to a growing concern among New Yorkers that important sites around the city were being demolished. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963 particularly galvanized preservationists to call for the legislative action, and ultimately contributed to the city’s status as a world leader in preservation, according to the exhibit.

Penn Station, which now lurks under Madison Square Garden, was once a sprawling, seven-acre indoor space — the largest indoor space in New York City — and a magnificent imposition on the local area around it. As the cost of maintaining the building became a concern and the city became more congested, arguments in favor of preservation gave way to demands to demolish the station in the early 1960s. The spirit that Penn Station’s demolition brought to the city, which precipitated in the 1965 act, contributed to the maintenance of Grand Central Station, whose iconic architectural layout is still intact today.

The law also protects Morningside Park, tucked away in Harlem behind Columbia University. The park, conceived in 1883 by Jacob Wrey Mould, gave city planners a simple solution to the problem posed by the rocky terrain along the Hudson River, which, according to the park’s website, prevented the grid’s extension to the water’s edge. After Mould died in 1886, the city hired Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux — the architects who designed Central Park (another landmark protected by the law) — to finish the plans.

In addition to a host of other protected monuments around the city, the Landmarks Law — which is administered by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission  — highlights the different phases in the evolution of the city, from the agricultural period through the Gilded Age, and into a period of global commerce.

Landmarks like the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn date back to early Dutch settlement, and reflect Dutch colonial vernacular architectural style. The Wyckoff House is one of the oldest buildings in New York State, and was bought directly from the Canarsie Indians by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director General of the Colony of New Netherland — as it was then called — and namesake of Stuyvesant High School in the city.

The oldest house in Queens, called the Bowne house, is another vestige the colonial era. Erected in 1660, the Bowne house served for many years as a haven for Quakers, who were prohibited to worship under Stuyvesant’s rule. Bowne was brought to trial and later acquitted, and the house continued to provide a religious space for Quakers and served as a bulwark for religious freedom.

In her introduction to the exhibit, Diamonstein-Spielvogel exhorts preservationists across the board to put aside recurring disputes and move unilaterally against the “detractors” who have proved “effective” in stifling preservation efforts in the past. And though she does not mention which side of the normal disputes she tends towards, nor the nature of the recent detractions against preservationists, her tone does suggest a need for another widespread effort — like the one made during the 1960s — to preserve sites within the built environment.

Original Author: Joey Anderson