Preservation has evolved from a rarified special interest to an institution — an ethos — entrenched in our culture. But has it become too conservative, even elitist?
New York’s historic preservation community has been in celebratory mode this year, marking a half-century since the passage of the city’s Landmarks Law. Observances will go national next year, with the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The Museum of the City of New York is honoring the occasion with a splendid exhibition, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” curated by Donald Albrecht and Andrew Scott Dolkart, which is accompanied by a handsome catalogue and a series of smart public programs.
Earlier this year I attended a panel discussion at the museum on “The Politics of Preservation.” There panelist Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, cut through the generally congratulatory mood by declaring that historic preservation in New York is “under siege,” facing its gravest threats since 1978, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the city’s landmarks ordinance in the famous Grand Central Terminal case. To which my response was: Really? Can this be true? Or is this just the latest posture of a movement that seems always to be in need of a crisis?
In fact it would seem that historic preservation is today stronger than ever. The past half century has seen the movement evolve and mature from a rarified special interest on shaky legal and political ground to an institution — an ethos — firmly entrenched in our culture. In New York City, for instance, large parts of every borough are protected by historic district designation, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission has unquestioned authority to prevent building owners and developers from making “inappropriate” alterations to landmark structures or intrusions into historic districts. But no; according to Breen, I am wrong. […]