Ada Louise Huxtable was a renowned architecture critic who started at The New York Times in 1963. Her probing articles championed the preservation of buildings regarded as examples of historic design still imperative to the life of the city. Her arguments were leveraged by research and an in-depth understanding of architecture as an ever-relevant art form (“the art we cannot afford to ignore”). Alexandra Lange of The Nation points to the connection between Ada Louise Huxtable’s writing and its influence on the culture of preservation that eventually resulted in the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1965.
More after the break…
According to Lange, Huxtable recognized the shift of urban architectural concerns from a celebratory architecture that strives for “Roman Imperial” to the influence of real estate investment potential, “Investment Modern”. Huxtable’s outcry in opposition to the demolition of Pennsylvania Station marked the beginning of New York City’s effort to salvage the physical elements of the city that had historic significance. Her criticism raised the public awareness necessary to establish the LPC, which has since marked 27,000 sites as landmarks as of March, 2012.
Preservation is a fairly modern and deliberate concept, treating architecture as a retelling of history that continues to write the stories between the past and the present. In many ways, it is up to the public to make the distinction between the physical elements of the city that ought to be preserved and those that get recycled back into the urban fabric. The LPC was established due to growing public concern over preservation of such city elements. Although the shift is difficult to pinpoint, cities throughout the centuries have reused architecture to serve the new and developing purposes as they evolved. Courthouses became temples became churches; the concerns of preservation came down to the practicality of reusing the physical environment to serve a developing society.
What Huxtable referred to as “Investment Modern” points to the prioritization of profit over the physical city. A very recent example was the demolition of one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright designs in New York: The Hoffman Auto Showroom, a 3,600 square-foot interior retail space at 430 Park Avenue that was built in the 1950s. It was demolished early April, just as the LPC decided to take measures to preserve it. Ultimately it was under the owner’s discretion whether or not to preserve the space until it acquired its official designation, but seeing as how the space was designed to cater to an auto showroom, leasing the space to a new renter would have proven more difficult.
This particular demolition went silently. Had the public been more aware of this “small gem”, its preservation may have gone a different way. But LPC’s timing made the owners respond quickly as soon as the space was vacant of its prior occupant. Another Frank Lloyd Wright building had a much happier ending after its brush with the threat of demolition. The David and Gladys Wright House in Arizona was under threat when a pair of developers bought the property in June 2012 in hopes of redeveloping it by splitting the lot on which the house sits. Fortunately, efforts to preserve the house were already underway. Public outreach, including petitions and councils, spoke against the demolition and the issue received coverage from national news outlets. Ultimately, an anonymous benefactor helped purchase the historic property and by December the house was saved from demolition.
Like Lange implied in her article in The Nation, the threat of demolition is fueled by real estate values and investment. There are more lucrative uses for the property on which a potential landmark sits than its landmark designation. What we can still learn from Huxtable’s writing and the two recent examples is that public awareness and support is critical to the preservationist movement and can be the guiding factor in the eventual fate of a building or property.
via The Nation; Dreams Built and Broken by Alexandra Lange
Read more from this issue of The Nation here.