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April 7, 2009
by Matt Frassica

Event: What Is Preservation and What Is the Landmarks Commission
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.30.09
Speakers: Mark Silberman — General Counsel, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC); Anthony C. Wood — Chair, New York Preservation Archive Project; Frances Halsband, FAIA — Partner, Kliment Halsband Architects & Former LPC Commissioner
Moderator: Sherida Paulsen, FAIA — Partner, PKSB Architects, 2009 AIANY President, & Former LPC Chair
Organizers: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

The New York Botanical Garden library, Fountain of Life, and Tulip Tree Allée, designed by Robert W. Gibson, were recently awarded NYC landmark status.

Courtesy NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

The definition and history of landmarks and their designations in NYC is often unclear as it is ever evolving. In a recent panel discussion, the general counsel and several former members of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) spoke about its history and philosophy, highlighting changing ideas about preservation.

Anthony Wood, chair of the New York Preservation Archive Project, presented a capsule history of the Landmarks law. As the author of Preserving New York (Routledge, 2007), he debunked the myth that the fight to save Pennsylvania Station gave birth to the preservation movement, claiming the myth “robs us of 50 years of New York City history.” Wood emphasized the role of Albert Bard, an early advocate of preservation, who argued as early as 1913 that the city ought to make regulations based on aesthetics. It took decades of protests and legal action, however, before NY passed the Landmarks Preservation Law, which established the LPC. “The law was radical, but it was more radical in its concept than in application,” Wood said, citing the relative conservatism and gradualism with which the Commission has exercised its authority.

With this history as context, Frances Halsband, FAIA, a former LPC commissioner, examined the definition of preservation — a concept that, despite its apparent simplicity, can be difficult to apply in practice. Because individuals and communities may differ on what is worth preserving, Halsband cautioned that preservation is “an art and not a science.” It is an evolving process that reflects changing attitudes and values in the community. Unlike restoration, “preservation is primarily concerned with change,” Halsband said. “We are now preserving buildings that were last generation’s ‘threats,'” to historic areas.

Acts of preservation have as much to say about the present as the past, according to Halsband. “The best we can do is to be true to our own time.”


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