Morning in Brooklyn Heights seemed to promise a perfect New York Saturday. The spring-like weather was already drawing early risers to Brooklyn Bridge Park and Montague Street as preservation advocates arrived at St. Francis College for the Historic Districts Council’s 17th Annual Preservation Conference. After a brief session of networking over a continental breakfast the event began with an introduction by Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. Hismessage underscored one of the main themes of the day: “Private property is a public good.”
Francis Morrone, a historian and cultural journalist, introduced his presentation on the politics of preservation in New York City with a humorous look at the daunting task before him, “Covering forty years of history in forty minutes.” With that he was off, moving swiftly through the tumultuous events that shaped a metropolis once recognized as, “The most powerful city in the world by every measurement.” As he spoke he seemed to embody the physicality, passion and precision of an orchestra conductor. Laughter filled the auditorium when he described the rebranding of New York into “Luxury City” - a process that has recently involved, “Policing anything that might offend a visiting hedge fund manager.”
The founder of the graduate historic preservation program at Pratt Institute in New York City was the second speaker of the day. Eric Allison, Ph.D, had a subdued presentation style that only sharpened the emotional impact of his words. He revisited some of the city’s most heartbreaking preservation losses. Gasps could be heard around the auditorium when he shared an image of the Helen Hayes Theater in mid-demolition, as if seeing the photo again renewed the shock of losing the treasured landmark. Silence and stillness met the images that followed - Luchow’s at its peak; the Central Park Children’s Zoo in its original, whimsical state. As the presentation continued tears were furtively brushed away from behind glasses and hushed sniffles could be heard throughout the audience.
A complete history of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city agency mandated to designate and regulate New York’s historic buildings and sites, was delivered by Marjorie Pearson, Ph.D, an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant who served for 20 years as director of research at the LPC. The presentation covered what was arguably preservation’s Golden Period - those early years when impromptu meetings could take place between the preservation community and the LPC – then moved to the present, a time when “refusals to meet are frequent and demolitions take place while landmark preservation hearings are being held.” The news about the current pro-development status of the LPC was not encouraging but Ms. Pearson’s review of landmark history brought to the fore the many times that a vulnerable New York City building has been championed and then saved by the efforts of just a single advocate – a great reminder of the power of one within the preservation movement.
Part II: “Fervor and New Strategies for the Preservation Community”