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Where did we go wrong? The Truth about Historic Preservation

Updated on January 5, 2016
Penn Station
Penn Station

Penn Station: The Poster Child for Historic Preservation

In 1963, one of New York City's finest buildings was demolished to make way for a new $116M sports arena and entertainment complex. Sound familiar? Pennsylvania Station, the monumental 1910 Beaux-Arts masterpiece of architects McKim, Mead and White, was leveled, and replaced with the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

In the 1950s the rise of the automobile and the frenzy of highway building had severely threatened the viability of passenger railways. The owner of Penn Station was near financial ruin. The four blocks of land the station covered in Manhattan had become too valuable not to sell.

Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn't afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

"Farewell to Penn Station," New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963

Sweeping grandeur inside
Sweeping grandeur inside

Manhattan's Missing Treasure

Meanwhile, the owners of Madison Square Garden were also evaluating their earning potential of their old arena.

By 1960, in the eyes of Graham-Paige, it was time to replace the 1925 Garden with a modern, more flexible facility that could handle greater crowds, provide more unobstructed views, and usher in a glitzy new look to attract new audiences.

The negotiations proceeded quietly, with little hint that the demise of Penn Station was being contemplated until a New York Times article appeared in July, 1961. The plan called for the demolition of the Penn Station terminal, and its relocation beneath the new arena.

Gorgeousness of epic proportion
Gorgeousness of epic proportion

Irving Felt questions the "architectural value" of Penn Station

Irving M. Felt, Madison Square Garden Corporation president, also publicly sang the praises of the proposed development, perhaps in an attempt to dismiss "the image sometimes created of him as a greedy despoiler of his city's historical heritage."

He questioned the architectural value of Penn Station, going as far as to say that

“he believed that the gain from the new buildings and sports center would more than offset any aesthetic loss.”

But once the plans were announced, public reaction was quick and loud. Now alerted, New York's architects, artists, and writers were outraged at the prospected demise of such a significant structure.

Penn Station Aerial View

Penn Station Aerial View
Penn Station Aerial View
The ceiling
The ceiling

New York Residents are Shocked into Action

The Historic Preservation Movement is Born

Many were angered that Penn Station was being taken down to make way for commercial development.

"New Yorkers will lose one of their finest buildings, one of the few remaining from the 'golden age' at the turn of the century, for one reason and one reason only: that a comparatively small group of men wants to make money,"

wrote the news editor of Progressive Architecture on September 17, 1962.

Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for the NY Times weighed in:

"We are an impoverished society. It is a poor society indeed that can't pay for these amenities; that has no money for anything except expressways to rush people out of our dull and deteriorating cities."

Jane Jacobs leads the charge
Jane Jacobs leads the charge

AGBANY galvanizes the New York community

Five architects banded together to form the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY).

In August of 1962, after assembling a membership of 175 that included Jane Jacobs (close to victory in the battle to thwart Robert Moses and his plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, and fresh from publishing The Life and Death of Great American Cities) the group placed an ad in the NY Times which conceded that

"it may be too late to save Penn Station."

Nevertheless, the ad declared:

"it is not too late to save New York,"

and boldly

"serve notice upon present and would-be vandals that we will fight them every step of the way."

Readers were urged to demand that politicians make "the preservation of our heritage an issue in the forthcoming campaign."

Ultimately, AGBANY lost the battle to save Penn Station. The Planning Commission refused to consider the architectural and historical attributes of the building, and awarded the permits and zoning variances that paved the way for demolition. On October 28, 1963, under the gaze of picketers wearing black arm bands, demolition began.

One bright light for preservationists did however result from this episode. AGBANY had galvanised the community into realising that the preservation of significant historical sites was too important to leave to the whims of commercial developers, or to the goodwill of politicians who were not bound by law to defer to the recommendations of historical protection bodies.

Jane Jacobs, then chairperson of a civic group in Greenwich Village, at a press conference in 1961.
Jane Jacobs, then chairperson of a civic group in Greenwich Village, at a press conference in 1961.

Jane Jacobs, Urban Activitist, Mother of Preservation

Jane Jacobs, (May 4, 1916 - April 25, 2006) was an American-Canadian writer and activist with primary interest in communities, historic preservation, urban planning and decay. She is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. The book has been credited with reaching beyond planning issues to influence the spirit of the times.

Along with her well-known printed works, Jacobs is equally well-known for organizing grassroots efforts to block urban-renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighborhoods. She was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and after moving to Canada in 1968, equally influential in canceling the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of highways under construction.

The picture above is NOT Government Center, it is Scollay Square, the unfortunate area which was decimated to make Government Center.

Another trainwreck I am well acquainted with - Government Center, Boston, MA. Being a Bostonian, and studying the History of Boston at Harvard, I am painfully familiar with all the reasons why Government Center happened, and 40 years later, it remains one of the most awful public spaces in the country.

Boston itself is a superb city, with a rich and varied history. Being a seaport, it was always a haven for immigrants, and with them, came new ideas. One rather infamous place for congregating, which later became somewhat of a den of iniquity, was Scollay Square. The area was a hotbed of activity, where international seamen and merchants frequented rather bawdy taverns, took in vaudeville and burlesque shows, and other intriguing entertainment.

The decimation of Scollay Square resulted in the atrocious thing that is Government Center (look above). Built by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles between 1963 and 1968, the design for Boston City Hall and its accompanying plaza won a national competition to replace a 90-acre "urban renewal" site with today's Government Center. How ironic that nearby - but now effectively cut off thanks to the design of Government Center - is Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, birthplace of another trend in urban planning: historic preservation via the "festival marketplace."

Why is Boston still stuck with this bloody thing? First off, the new attempts at redesigning it fail to take in the concept of the community, and how it congregates, as well as its nearby neighbors.

"It proves once again that design competitions accomplish little if nothing in creating great places. What does this say about design in a city with so many prominent designers (as opposed to placemakers) - a city where all the truly successful places are older?

While some places in the Hall of Shame have at least a few redeeming characteristics, everything about City Hall Plaza and the surrounding Government Center is all wrong. Bleak, expansive, and shapeless, it has an exceedingly poor image in a city where image should be paramount." [Great Public Spaces, PPS Project for Public Spaces]

The Late, Great, Pennsylvania Station

Grand Central Station, New York City

Grand Central Station, New York City
Grand Central Station, New York City

Let's hear from you!

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    • JamesTheFrancis profile image

      JamesTheFrancis 2 years ago

      Fascinating story, especially having studied the Penn Central v. NYC case for a land use law class. It's good to know that even if the historic preservation movement lost this battle, they went on to win many more.

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      Ali_Baba 5 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed your lens, especially the pictures. I can see why tearing down Penn Station angered people enough to start the preservation movement! Keep up the good work.