By Brian J. Pape, AIA
New York City at the Forefront
How is the maturing Historic Landmark Preservation Movement, which led the cause before the 1966 law was passed, affecting New York City? Economic and population pressures continue to threaten our historic fabric, as new, bigger buildings replace older, smaller ones. The loss of the original Penn Station focused citizens on the importance of our monumental buildings, and special historic homes.
I lived in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District soon after it was designated NYC’s first such neighborhood, and it is still a charming enclave. In the West Village, and several nearby Historic Districts, the dying riverfront economy and dismal residential amenities held off progress for a while. But with shipping piers replaced by miles of landscaped esplanade, new interest in development arose and continues to this day.
In 1966, no schools had Historic Preservation programs, and the default societal attitude seemed to be “old is out, new shows progress.” All over America, modern architecture was honored, and traditional styles ignored. Crafts of carpenters, stonecutters, and detailers were considered dying trades, and had difficulty finding young apprentices. But from that situation, Americans slowly realized that without historic fabric, the nation would soon be little more than suburban shopping malls and dead monotony.
Of course, beginnings were rough and underfunded, but passionate groups saved many threatened sites. From Williamsburg to Civil War cemeteries, civic buildings to “house museums,” the movement grew where the will was there to preserve. The National Trust was formed to unite the movement’s disparate groups, and is aptly named, for it is a trust for citizens to consider their community’s heritage and meaning. As the struggle evolved, federal and state tax credits were awarded to projects that would preserve community treasures, often for completely new uses, extending their practical lives by generations.
Fortunately, my family taught us more enduring values than the throwaway attitude so trendy in the mid-century. Sharing their appreciation for antiques, fine crafts, and skilled craftsmanship, my parents took us to shops, auctions, and flea markets, often salvaging even architectural artifacts. I went into architecture, and soon found a special reward in analyzing and restoring aging structures, seeking clues to their original materials and craftsmanship, despite whatever changes had been made, becoming a “house-whisperer.”
Because of that reputation, I was offered a vacant brick meatpacking plant at the fringe of a small downtown, which the family of owners hoped I could somehow save, despite its derelict condition. Having worked with my brother to save an old stone mill in another town, I took the chance and bought it. My research soon uncovered a surprising history—it was the town’s original and only Missouri Mule Auction Barn, supplying the finest work mules for farmers and the military. Years later, it was slowly converted to meatpacking use.
By adhering to strict preservation guidelines, restoring brick, windows, timber posts and beams, it was awarded Registration as a National Landmark. By applying for tax credits, banks were willing to lend construction funds for the increasingly more involved reconstruction. In the end, the building housed a dozen loft apartments and more than a dozen small businesses, and started the improvement of a desolate neighborhood.
An old mule barn was not an architectural gem, and its history was almost forgotten in a modern world, but it was rooted in the community, which it continues to serve in a unique way, benefitting all, even government tax creditors.
Yes, Historic Landmark Preservation has come a long way in 50 years. It is no longer the same as your grandmother’s preservation work, but it rests on the shoulders of pioneers.