May 4, 2012

In New York City, the Discussion on Historic Preservation Begins at Penn Station

Waiting for a train at New York's Penn Station, the city's massive transportation hub underneath the behemoth of Madison Square Garden, involves a certain ritual, not altogether pleasant. Nearing their time for departure, passengers gather around the big boards that announce the track numbers. Typically, they don't know the track until 15 minutes or so before, and when the board unveils the location, a mass of people, almost like a swarm of bees, heads toward the appointed gate. While waiting in a state of anxious anticipation, there's little to do, other than contemplating another cup of coffee at one of the interchangeable food chains that crowd the mundane mall.

While looking at the train boards, little of the surrounding structure attracts the eye, nothing beautiful of architectural distinction. A few weeks ago, while I was engaged in this ritual of both boredom and anticipation, I was standing off to the side of the waiting room when I happened to glance at a framed black and white picture affixed to one of the building's support columns. It was a picture of the old Pennsylvania Station, one of the greatest Beaux Arts buildings ever built in New York, designed by McKim, Mead and White and finished in 1910. Seeing a picture of the beautiful old building inside this much lesser one added insult to injury, a psychic pang to the wait.

If I were waiting for a train in the old Penn Station, one well maintained and repurposed for a new generation, I would be happy to stay there and not hurry off to the gate.

On Wednesday evening, May 2, 2012, at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WNYC (44 Charlton), Partners in Preservation, the initiative to engage community involvement in selecting 40 historic sites for funding, sponsored a discussion about current debates in preservation. Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen moderated the discussion, titled "Preservation in New York: The Evolving Conversation." His guests included Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund; Paul Goldberger, the preeminent architecture critic; and David Mohney, a Professor and Dean Emeritus at the College of Design at the University of Kentucky.

Anderson began the discussion by talking about the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, only 52 years old in 1962, and he showed contrasting images of the soaring Beaux Arts masterpiece and the contemporary scene of ennui described here. Characterizing the structure's demolition as the "final straw" of the city's hurried modernization, Anderson explained that the event spurred the formation of the preservation movement and the city's own Landmarks Preservation Commission shortly after. (Indeed, the commission's webpage acknowledges this: "Events like the demolition of the architecturally distinguished Pennsylvania Station in 1963 increased public awareness of the need to protect the city's architectural, historical, and cultural heritage.") Now 52 years later, Anderson noted, it's a fitting time to assess the current state of historic preservation.

Topics of the evening's discussion, broadcast live on the web and now available on tape here, included the power of community groups in saving landmarks; the pressing need for preservation studies in the architecture profession; a backlash, as exemplified by architect Rem Koolhaas's theorizations; and the assessment of modernist buildings, including those defined as Brutalist, as worthy of preservation. Bonnie Burnham pointed out that New York City is "almost unique" among cities in having a process for historical preservation. Still, many historic sites are often underfunded, she noted, including five sites of the forty in the Partners in Preservation's NYC initiative that belong to the federal government.

One of the most well received comments of the night came when Goldberger evoked the popular preservationist intonation, attributed to Washington D.C. architect Carl Elefante: "The greenest building is the one that's already there."

The collective trauma brought about by the actual demolition of Penn Station, beginning in the fall of 1963, set in motion a new preservationist spirit in New York City and beyond. The story of Penn Station continues to reverberate in the city’s collective consciousness to this day. Episode 2 of Season 3 of Mad Men, titled “Love Among the Ruins,” highlighted the storm of protest surrounding the moment. The story informs contemporary conversations about the ultimate updating of the current Penn Station and the potential for converting the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station.

Look for the next Partners in Preservation presentation at The Greene Space on May 16 at 7 p.m. Representatives of the 40 sites will present their individual tales in a Story Slam. Event page.

Be sure to visit some of the sites on Open House weekend, May 5-6, 2012. All sites will be offering special events, so today is an excellent time to plan visits.

Walking Off the Big Apple is serving as a blog ambassador for the Partners In Preservation initiative. Look for special in-depth coverage of several of these sites in the coming days. You are encouraged to participate by voting once a day through May 21, 2012 for your favorite on the list. The four projects receiving the most public votes will have their grant requests fully funded, and the rest will be distributed among the remaining sites. Visit the website Partners In Preservation to cast your vote.

Partners In Preservation Announce the 40 Historic NYC Sites in Community-Based Funding Initiative.
Bye Bye Penn Station: Mad Men Takes on an Epic Battle (2009)

Image of Pennsylvania Station from the Library of Congress: (top) Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection; Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer; LC-USW3-007028-D DLC (b&w film neg.); Track level and concourses, Penn. [Pennsylvania] Station, New York, N.Y. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. LC-D4-71936 DLC (b&w glass neg.); Across the waiting room, from the loggia, Penn[sylvania] Station, New York, N.Y. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. LC-D4-71929 DLC (b&w glass neg.)

Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation to help promote their initiative and to raise awareness of select historical sites in all the five boroughs. While I am being compensated for my time, all opinions expressed here are strictly my own.

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