[ This post by Sam Hersh is on a topic that’s always sure to get people’s blood pumping – historic preservation. I hope you enjoy the perspective – Aaron. ]
In historic preservation battles, it seems we are often fed an oversimplified story-line of two, opposing interests. In conflict with any landmarks or preservation, business interests imagine a thriving city as a place of commerce unfettered by unnecessary red tape. On the other hand, cultural proponents see a thriving city as a place of humanity that preserves its history while providing outlets for creative pursuits. Importantly, both of these views hold at their core the belief that cities as dense nodes of human agglomeration can transform the opportunities of individuals by pooling interests and talents to create something greater than their individual parts.
It seems to me that, given the shared interests in the city as vibrant hub for human collaboration by all parties either opposing or supporting the preservation of a building or district that there should be a third, more dominant and more tempered voice in these debates – those who spend their lives thinking about cities should work to reform their mindset toward preservation. Such a mindset would look for a common ground between both the knee-jerk preservation that many interested in architecture and design have been led to support and the blind search for growth at all costs that many economic development professionals have espoused.
As quick background, I take for granted the belief that land use regulations tend to curb new construction or the amount of square footage offered by new construction, disturb the efficiency of a city’s economy, and slow growth. The true benefits of urbanity are in the economic opportunities that efficient living in compact density provides to its residents. When older buildings are torn down and replaced with more housing or commercial space in a denser pattern, this tends to be good for a city. I also believe that cities are not merely corporate entities to maximize profit and efficiency. That same human density that, since the earliest ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent, has facilitated trade of excess harvests and wares has also created some of the most culturally important artifacts in human history.
I often feel that we have been led to believe that there are only two possible views that a government can take towards preservation – business oriented and culturally oriented. I will approximate these views with the case of Chicago and New York, both of which have been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of built forms throughout the world and both of which have a bank of historically important buildings.
In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted to protect, en masse, over 300 buildings in a swath of land called the East Village Historic District. Though none of the buildings in the East Village are seminal historically or architecturally, they are attractive.
In Chicago, preservationists just came off of what should have been an easy win: The Prentice Women’s Hospital. Prentice has a shape unlike anything else in the world and is widely regarded by critics and historians as seminal in the development of modern techniques in computer-aided architecture, hospital design and central core skyscraper construction. Despite its importance and having met multiple criteria for landmark designation in Chicago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided that the economic benefits of razing the building were too great to preserve what otherwise would have been a worthy candidate for protection. (Disclaimer: I worked for Econsult Solutions at the time that they provided an economic impact study on the benefits of preservation of Prentice for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though I was not involved in that project).
It might be easy to ignore the discrepancies in these two cases with the simple explanation that the fight for hundred year old low rises in Manhattan was a fight for the aesthetically pleasing while Bertrand’s Brutalist Prentice is “hard to love.” But the differences in landmarking procedures between New York and Chicago are for more pervasive than these two cases. In 2012, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks added ten landmarks to its rolls according to its annual report. In the same year, New York’s Landmarks Commission added at least 965 buildings to its protection, according to press releases I could find on the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission website. (The bulk of these protections were in the East Village Historic District, with about 330 landmarks, and an expansion to the Park Slope Historic District, with about 600 properties added).
More than the staggering disparity in number of buildings that receive landmark status, historic buildings are treated differently in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, buildings that are deemed historic are often stripped of their facades and reconstructed over new innards in a so-called facadectomy. These facadectomies are common throughout the city from the slightly pleasant Legacy to the horrific 10 South LaSalle. In 2007 in Chicago, a landmarked building was given a facadectomy and (to add insult to injury) filled with a parking garage for a postmodern tower next door meant to ape the subtle beauty of the original. In New York, also in 2007, the landmarks commission refused to allow Norman Foster, a world-renowned architect, to build a tower above a building in a landmark district that would have kept much of the original structure intact.
While it might seem that New York’s housing shortage would have pushed city leaders to rethink landmarks and the restrictions that they place on new construction, there has been little movement in this direction. Meanwhile Chicago, with a vacancy crisis on its hands in many of its neighborhoods, fears the impact of landmarking one building (though, to be fair, in Prentice’s Streeterville neighborhood, land is increasingly scarce).
Despite Chicago’s unwillingness to put some muscles behind its landmark regulations, the city continues to boast an edge over New York in architectural heritage. Chicago arguably has more architecturally significant buildings than any city in America with a diverse collection of LeBaron Jenney and Burnham skyscrapers, Miesian blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Goldberg quirk, and S.O.M. engineering feats like the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center. Chicago is a living museum for anyone interested in the physical evolution of America’s cities over the past 150 or so years. Despite the fact that architectural tourism is one of the few categories in which Chicago presents a competitive advantage over New York, Chicago continues to sell off it’s heritage in the name of business and economic growth.
It’s easy to understand why Chicago is so landmark-averse and New York so quick to landmark. These policies are rooted in the attitudes of city elites toward business investment. It’s not necessarily New York leaders’ particular interest in preservation that leads to the disparities in preservation policy between the two cities. New York can afford to lose a bit of economic efficiency, even if that means pushing the poor ever further from their service jobs in Manhattan, because the city is in no real threat of losing its standing as a global economic center. City Elites believe that businesses will not leave the gravity of New York and thus don’t see any harm in impeding some development. Moreover, for the elites benefitting from New York’s economic gravity and the quaint neighborhoods they help landmark, the inflationary affects of landmarking are less salient than to the lower class who see their commutes lengthen, rents rise, and poverty rates grow as wage increases fail to match the rising costs of living in New York.
Chicago, meanwhile, has been fighting stagnant population growth, has massive, disconnected and crime ridden ghettos, and will always play second fiddle as an American financial center to New York. While promoting architectural tourism may be profitable in the short term, no city can survive on the tourist dollars of a few architectural patrons. Chicago city leaders know that at times they must sacrifice their past if the city is to remain competitive as a global (or Midwest) financial hub.
But some buildings are more than buildings and make a city worth visiting or living in. How do we preserve the artifacts that tell the story of a city, a nation and the world while allowing a modern city to act as more than a stagnant museum glorifying the urban achievements of the past at the cost of today’s inhabitants?
To start, if preservationists can only present one justification for the preservation of a building – that it is pretty – then the building is probably not worth saving unless private owners value the prettiness enough to save it themselves. There are plenty of pretty buildings in the world and not all of them can be saved. One way to allow for input on which buildings are worth saving might be to set a number of ‘pretty’ buildings to save and let the people of a city vote whether to remove landmark status of a given ‘pretty’ building in favor of the one in question.
In cases for which the preservation can be justified by more than a building’s aesthetic beauty, but also by historic significance, we should question whether the building is integral to the legacy preservationists wish to protect and, ostensibly, the story they hope to tell. In many cases, it seems that the building itself is saved only because it is a convenient place to tell a story. The stories of Muhammad Ali or Bill Clinton for instance do not need to be told at their childhood homes, both of which are landmarks.
Buildings that are worthy of being landmarked are those in which the story preservations wish to tell could only be told through the building. The importance of the building could be in a particular design, like Prentice. But the building’s importance can also originate in a historical event directly tied to the building. As an example, I believe that the landmarking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York is justified because the history of that building, not a person who happened to live or work in that building, changed the course of this country.
Even if we have established that a building is important in its own right, the question of how important is important enough still remains. All interactions and lives in cities are important, contributing in small parts to the vibrant and sui generis story of each place. But, to retain some level of economy to preservation measures, a good rule of thumb would be to ask whether the building has either had a large international impact that is understood at least by an educated elite in a certain field or an impact on the city that is understood by all its citizens. In this way, buildings that are important to a given field, like Prentice to engineering, or to a particular strand of history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to labor rights activists, should be preserved. Buildings that are salient in the public imagination of a city are also worth saving. In Chicago, the Water Tower may not be known by many non-natives, but it is an important piece of pre-fire engineering and a landmark to all Chicagoans and is therefore probably worthy of its landmark designation. The low-rises of the East Village of New York, however, are not worth saving. Activists at the Greenwich Village Historical Society spent years researching the buildings, saying on their website that, “research was key in our advocacy for expanding and securing today’s East Village Historic District, and the research was used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself in their documentation of the area.” In cases such as this, we should keep in mind why we want to save buildings: to reflect the history of our cities. If the history is not important enough to be relatively widely understood without extensive research, then it is most likely not worth of preservation.
Some people might say that I am calling for our cities to be gutted of their history and culture. But quite the opposite, really. I am calling for cities like Chicago to understand that some heritage is important, especially when that heritage provides an integral piece of history to help us understand a city, a country or the world. At the same time, I am calling on cities like New York to more carefully sift through the rich and multifarious physical legacy left by previous generations. For a city to remain culturally rich (not to mention affordable and economically diverse), some of the history must be moved aside to make way for new, more effective (and often higher density) uses.
Reforming our mindset towards preservation is about understanding that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition, but that through compromise we can have cities that are both growth oriented and respective of their history. Through such measures, we can hopefully make our cities more fair, efficient, and culturally exciting.
Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.