Wait Wait Don’t Demo That Yet!
Much has been written about Stone Street, the well-preserved, old-timey cobble stone street in the Financial District. While it serves as a local watering hole today, a walk down this street will transport you to the 1700s, when merchant ships would dock at nearby piers and where revolutionary men like Hamilton and Washington lived, dined and orated nearby.
These streets would not necessarily have been available for us to enjoy today if it weren’t for the actions of a city agency, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The LPC can be both a bane and a benefit to architects, designers and the general public alike. At Spacesmith we have successfully completed projects in landmarked buildings such as the Empire State Building (Shreve Lamb and Harmon, 1931) and landmarked districts such as the Ladurée restaurant in the West Village.
The LPC has been imbued with the authority to preserve architectural, culturally or historically significant buildings and sites by granting them landmark or historic district status, and regulating them once they're designated. Today, they oversee approx. 35,000 historic buildings, 139 historic districts and 1,364 individual landmarks, 117 interior landmarks and 10 scenic landmarks.
If the building or the neighborhood is so significant, wouldn’t the public want to preserve it in the first place?
The LPC was created in 1965 by NYC Mayor Bobby Wagner. Why? Because in 1963 the McKim, Mead and White designed Pennsylvania Station was demolished by developers looking to put up a skyscraper and sports arena. Old Pennsylvania Station was a monumental building at almost 8 acres large. The station was widely considered to be a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts style at its completion, and McKim, Mead and White have been one of the most prolific architectural firms in the United States. The station provided natural daylight with its 100’ plus soaring ceilings, providing travelers arriving into New York City the majestic portal that the city deserved. The above ground portion of old Pennsylvania Station was unceremoniously demolished while the existing train tracks and platform remained. It is unbefitting of the city that the first impression visitors have is the rat’s nest that is Penn Station today, lined fluorescently lit corridors and low headroom.
After the demolition was complete, the public outcry gave way to the historical preservation movement, and thereby leading to the creation of the LPC. Some of their more notable, landmarked buildings is the Lever House (SOM 1952), the Seagram Building (Mies van der Rohe 1958) and US Customs House (Cass Gilbert 1907).
Notable landmarked interiors are the Rainbow Room, the lobby of the Cunard Building at 25 Broadway (Benjamin Wistar Morris, Carrere & Hastings 1919) and the Bowery Savings Bank (McKim, Mead, & White 1895). Historic districts can also be found in DUMBO and Park Slope.
City council members can nominate and propose buildings, neighborhoods or building interiors for consideration for Landmark status. Usually a lengthy review period will occur, and public and professional input is solicited before a decision is rendered by the members of the LPC. They are required to be comprised of city residents, architects and a representative of the real estate industry, among others to ensure there is a comprehensive and informed group rendering such decisions.
Once designated a landmark, the owner is now responsible to maintain the landmarked elements – perhaps it’s the entire façade or the interior masonry and tile work. Any significant changes must be filed with the city for approval before the property owner can proceed. This adds another layer of paperwork and agency review if you are the property owner looking to make any changes. If you’re looking to do work in a landmarked district you are under additional scrutiny and will require presenting your design to the LPC for additional approval. While one can look at an LPC designation and see limitations, there are also some opportunities as well. LPC regulations can guide the designer to use certain historically accurate and acceptable materials, means and methods.
So while old Pennsylvania Station is no longer around, at least we can toast its memory at the historic, and landmarked, Stone Street Historic District.
Will Wong, Associate