Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The new book Saving Place looks back on a half-century of conservation by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.
It's been 50 years since then-mayor Robert F. Wagner signed New York City's preservation law into action. Now you can celebrate the milestone anniversary with a book depicting buildings that the law helped protect.
The Museum of the City of New York's Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks, published in conjunction with an exhibition on view through September 13, takes a close-up look at a half-century of preservation in all five boroughs through 200 pages of essays and photographs.
Formed two years after the controversial 1963 demolition of McKim, Mead & White's beloved Penn Station, New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission has helped keep parts of the city's history intact despite a perpetually growing skyline.
Today, there are over 33,000 landmark properties (including scenic, interior, and individual landmarks) across the five boroughs. While there hasn't been another "Penn Station moment" since 1965, there's no guarantee it'll never happen again—especially under the watch of a flawed and financially constrained bureaucracy.
Robert A.M. Stern, the architect and Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, notes in the book's foreword that while the LPC has played a big part in what makes New York so great, it's also "frequently inconsistent, sometimes capricious, sometimes susceptible to trendiness, and quite often politically motivated."
Trends also put a building's fate at risk, as recent arguments from Goshen, New York, to Portland, Oregon, prove. Brutalist and postmodern structures—old enough to fall apart but still too young to be romanticized—struggle to find admirers. So too did Victorian buildings 50 years ago. "The art of the recent past is usually viewed with disdain," writes Stern, "so we have to be sure to hold on to as much as we can, making sure that it is still with us when it returns to fashion."
A successful preservation effort, however, often goes almost unnoticed. Ultimately, that's kind of the point. "The funny thing about the fight over landmarking is that the minute it is over and preservation carries the day, for the public, it is as though it never happened," writes Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the first executive director of New York's Landmarks Preservation Foundation. "There is no evidence of the struggle. The place is simply as it should be: complete, interesting, permanent."
Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks; $50, from Monacelli Press.