Historic Preservation at Middle Age

April 28, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Red Star Line, Filip Dujardin

Contemplating the 50th anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law—which was being formulated when Penn Station was threatened with demolition and enacted only after it was lost—it is interesting to look at the ways in which preservation and design are intrinsically linked, and the importance of the narrative.

To quote Fred Bland, BBB’s Managing Partner, “Historic preservation today has become a legitimate and accepted ingredient of enlightened urbanism… The act of preserving the best of our past is now ingrained in our culture in a way unthinkable to those warriors of the 1950s and 60s.”

The New York City Landmarks Law is 50 years old, and historic preservation as a legitimate profession has come of age. From an effort led by passionate “warriors”, we now have historic preservation professionals with masters’ degrees (the preservation program at Columbia University also just celebrated its 50th birthday). As the profession has grown up with the Landmarks Law, I have no doubt that the landmarks approval process itself has made preservation architects out of more than a few unsuspecting designers. Even the word landmark, a NOUN, is used so frequently that it has become a generally accepted verb (except by this author). To many developers, I am sure it appears everything is “landmarked”.

Courtesy of Red Star Line, Filip Dujardin

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Certainly there are still battles, for and against both designation of and changes to landmarks. There is still great need to identify and preserve landmarks and districts, and to find ways to protect and regulate landmarks of cultural or more recent significance. But overall preservation at middle age is thriving with new technologies, more widespread appreciation for the value of historic buildings and districts, sophisticated regulatory processes, and a field of architects and preservationists who have the wins and losses of major preservation battles as a backdrop to our approach today.

BBB has grown up with the preservation movement and the Landmarks Law. Founded in 1968 when the profession was still nascent, BBB’s early projects were aimed at providing housing through renovation of existing building stock. The importance of historic buildings within the urban fabric was not something BBB learned in graduate school at that time; it was an understanding and an approach to architecture ingrained through participation in the city’s growth and, indeed, preservation, from its very first years of practice.

Some of BBB’s “landmark” projects have been seminal restorations of significant buildings, like Ellis Island and Grand Central Terminal. BBB’s work dramatically revitalized these buildings, and involved major interventions to ensure the buildings would meet urgent current and unknown future needs, while sensitively restoring significant architectural details and overall historic character. New systems and circulation were introduced, and new design interventions such as stairs, entry canopies, or storefronts referenced historical features in a contemporary language.

Peter Aaron/OTTO

Grand Central Terminal, New York, NY

More recently BBB has restored the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, where restoration of interior spaces was combined with mechanical upgrades, new vertical circulation (formula one cars no longer need to be carried up the main staircase) and the creation of a large new contemporary gallery space on the third floor, which required judicious removal of historic material. In Belgium, we recently designed the Red Star Line Museum, bookending Ellis Island to tell the story of emigration from Europe to America. That project involved sensitive restoration of three buildings found essentially as ruins, integration of contemporary exhibits and museum functions, and the creation of a modern viewing tower that has added a striking new landmark to Antwerp’s skyline. The tower’s placement and contemporary design was inspired by historic research; and a great deal of material and technical research and use of computer modeling allowed us to refine its form and materiality.

Matt Flynn; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt, Beautiful Users Exhibit

Though commonly described as restorations, these projects involved major interventions and integration of new design, guided by and a strong foundation in research. In many ways, we have the Landmarks Law to thank for this approach. The approvals process created by the Law, carried out by Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) leadership, commissioners, and staff, and participated in by architects and preservation consultants, has led to a design culture that welcomes innovation and values the narrative. The narrative ties the proposed design to the history of the place; it is what allows contemporary design to meet historic fabric; and it is the outcome of 50 years of careful negotiation, public process, and the integration of historic preservation with architecture and urbanism.

Landmark designation preserves historic character but not necessarily by “freezing it in amber”, an approach which is seldom practical. Bringing new life to historic buildings naturally requires change, and it is an exciting challenge to bring innovative change sensitively and appropriately, protecting historic character while improving condition, functionality, legibility and adaptability.

A carefully examined physical, historical and cultural context can inspire an interesting and innovative design response in a historic setting. When done well, “appropriately” to use the LPC term, new design interventions draw from the history and design of a place to respect its significant features, speak its language, and become part of its story. Special characteristics are preserved; new interventions are clear, thoughtful, innovative, and respectful all at once. This can be a difficult balance to strike, but when using the original building or historic district as a guide, inspiration is readily uncovered if you know where to look.

Over the past 50 years, over 35,000 buildings have been protected by designation in New York City; thousands have been restored, revitalized or adapted to new uses; and a not insignificant number of new buildings and additions have been approved and constructed in their midst. BBB’s contribution to this legacy is also not insignificant, and I look forward to what the next 50 years will bring.