New York City has gone through convulsions of building construction and destruction since it’s earliest days as an American seaport and commercial capital. Even Walt Whitman, our 19th century bard, complained about New York City’s, “pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit.” (Top photo: 1977 New York Daily News photo of Jacqueline Onassis, Brendan Gill (New Yorker writer), and New York City Mayor Robert Wagner at Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar, plotting to save Grand Central from being torn down.)
Today, New York City is in the midst of another building boom, a frenzy that has expanded into every borough but is most evident in Manhattan. Much of it is geared to what, these days, is called, “the one percent,” which not only includes condos at astronomical prices but service businesses that anchor the city’s economy. But to build something new, almost invariably on the island of Manhattan, means to tear down something old.
Happily, however, 50 years ago, in April 1965, due to the passionate push-back of New York’s enlightened political and cultural elite, men and women such as Jane Jacobs, Jackie Onassis, Robert Wagner, Ada Louise Huxtable, as well as multiple civic and citizens groups who fought to preserve the city’s architectural landmarks, an historic Landmarks Law was passed.
The law protected not only individual buildings but entire districts of architectural, historical or cultural significance. Later, important interiors and scenic landscapes were tucked under the Landmark umbrella. Since then, additions, renovations and new construction within historic districts have been subject to strict evaluation before being approved.
For those not old enough to remember the headlines and picket lines of the 1960s’ preservation movement, a splendid new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks, shows and tells the whole story. And then some. Through models, photographs, videos, blueprints, and a great deal of worthwhile text, it reaches back to 1888 and the fight to save City Hall and City Hall Park, and moves forward to cover the highlights and lowlights between the bad old days and now.
Many battles were lost, among the best known and most mourned was the battle to save McKim, Mead & White’s magnificent Pennsylvania Station. And there were many others, including the destruction of the Roxy Theater on West 50th Street, and the “stealthy demolition” of the Brokaw Mansion on East 79th Street (which convinced Mayor Wagner to sign the Landmarks Law).
But many battles were, as the exhibition labels them, “Last Minutes Saves” – wonderful architectural structures that, in many cases, have been reconfigured to more contemporary needs. They have become some of New York’s most beautiful and well-used landmarks, among them the U.S. Customs House (now a Museum), The Jefferson Market (now a Library) and the Astor Library, (now The Public Theater, bought from the city by Joe Papp for $1). And other interiors, like Radio City Music Hall, have been lovingly renovated and restored.
Ponder, for a moment, the inappropriate, sterile and truly hideous building by Marcel Breuer that was proposed to replace the majestic crown jewel of New York, Grand Central Station. Had our enlightened, activist forebears not fought for a Landmark bill, and not continued to fight the city’s real estate interests — all the way up to the Supreme Court — we would have a city devoid of character, devoid of history, devoid of diverse neighborhoods, devoid of great architecture, devoid of everything that continues to make visitors from around the world pour into New York, and marvel.
The preservation battle continues as the city tries to balance the demands of increased density and new housing with protecting and preserving its unique neighborhoods and character. Three years ago, for example, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), a real estate lobbying and trade organization, launched a campaign to dismantle the Landmarks Law and the activities of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. A grassroots group known as The Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation, sponsored a study to rebuff REBNY’s many claims and herald the benefits of the city’s Landmarks Law.
Just recently, a new “Save New York” movement has formed, to try and protect mom-and-pop neighborhood stores from being evicted and turned into more Duane Reades, CVSs, banks and other sterile chain stores that can afford insanely escalating rents. The battle to save our city and our Landmarks Law is not over. It will never be over.
In fact, as was pointed out at a recent Saving Place symposium held at the Museum in conjunction with the exhibition, only four percent of New York City is actually landmarked. Which brings us to the dizzying pace of change that is taking place in what was once the Meatpacking District, but is better known today as The High Line District.
When the High Line opened in June 2009 – only six years ago – views east and west were fairly open, and the neighborhood was still a slightly run down mix of wholesale butchers, artists, a few restaurants and middle-income residents. Today, the neighborhood is a victim of its “high line” success. Huge high-rise apartment buildings line the elevated park, and there is almost nothing left of the old low-rise neighborhood. Fancy restaurants, retail shops, condos and hotels have transformed it into an upscale boutique area for tourists and rich New Yorkers. On the one hand, it’s a great economic and real estate story – the city renewing itself and repurposing its aging infrastructure – on the other hand, it’s a tragic example of unchecked, rampant development.
Nevertheless, to my utter surprise, there is now one more reason to venture into the neighborhood: the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, best known as the architect, with Richard Rodgers, of the Pompidou Museum in Paris, and The Menil Museum in Houston. It will open to the public May 1 and there will be free admission all day May 2nd.
The building, from the street, wedged between the west side highway and the south end of the High Line, is remarkably bulky and ungainly. (Eventually, buildings to the west of the museum will be demolished and a park will be created.) I’ve been unhappily watching it rise. But on the inside, the Whitney Museum is fabulous.
The space is breathtaking: light, airy, with high ceilings and without columns, with wonderful windows and terraces east and west. To my eye, the Museum’s collection, “America Is Hard To See,” which takes up all eight floors, looks better than ever. Even the elevators, designed by Richard Artschwager, are works of art. But I will leave it to my colleague, Tamara Moscowitz, to assess the collection in its new home.
Renzo Piano was at the press opening and compared the wide-open lobby floor of his new building to “an Italian piazza,” a place that is open and welcoming to people and the city. It is a lovely, long space, with the requisite gift shop not adding a great deal of bulk. And that feeling of openness is echoed on the Museum’s higher floors. Outdoor penthouse-like “galleries” on the east side of the building, function as exterior “piazzas” and offer views that replicate the inventiveness of the High Line – which they look down on – while simultaneously offering wide open views of Manhattan, including the Empire State Building, which will salute the Whitney with a special light show, when it officially opens.
There is an indoor/outdoor Café on the eighth floor, and a new restaurant on the ground floor, “Untitled,” operated by – who else? – Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Other museum amenities include a 170-seat theater, and an education center with state-of-the-art classrooms.
To be honest, I still hate the location, and the tourist trap that the so-called Meatpacking District has become, but Renzo Piano has unquestionably turned an unpromising piece of real estate into a new, New York City Landmark. Its interior space is what every artist and museum curator dreams about.
I urge everyone to visit the new Whitney Museum. Seeing art in this building is a total pleasure.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks
Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue
April 21 – September 13, 2015
Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District
99 Gansevoort Street
Opens to the Public May 1, 2015