Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A new book hopes to remind readers to look beyond buildings’ facades.
Interiors are landmarks, too.
After many demolitions took place across New York City—most notably McKim, Mead and White’s Penn Station in 1964—then-mayor Robert Wagner created the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965. Since then, the commission has been helping the five boroughs better maintain their history—a counterbalance to developers and architects eager to add their mark to the always-changing skyline.
But the authors of a new book would like to remind us that while the magic of New York’s architecture is often experienced from the street, many rewarding moments—as was the case for the old Penn Station—are behind its doors.
Judith Gura and Kate Wood’s Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York ($60, Monacelli Press) uses the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law to tell the stories of the city’s greatest buildings from the inside.
Starting with City Hall (built in 1811) and finishing with the Ford Foundation Building (completed in 1967), the book showcases 47 of New York’s 117 public interiors that are designated as landmarks. The history and design behind each interior is explained alongside stunning photography, mostly by Larry Lederman.
Interior Landmarks grew out of Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmark Interiors, an exhibit last spring at the New York School of Interior Design. Both the book and the show contemplate the challenges behind preserving these spaces without losing the integrity of the original design or limiting public access.
It’s the kind of struggle most often seen today in modernist buildings. Earlier this year, the Landmarks Commission rejected some of the proposed changes to the Four Seasons restaurant (opened in 1959), one of the spaces featured in Gura and Wood’s book. Current owner Aby Rosen is eager to bring in new chefs and a new concept into the restaurant—only the second ever landmarked in New York—once the Four Seasons’ lease expires in 2016.
The tower itself is a modernist masterpiece, housed inside the Seagram building designed by Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. The iconic restaurant garnered a number of testimonials opposing alterations in a May 19th Landmarks hearing. “When I listen to the testimony,” LPC chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, said at the time, “I hear that this landmark is elevated to a level where any kind of intervention would be not in the name of preservation.” And, she continued, “There’s no rationale. The space could function perfectly well without these changes, so why do it?”
Although The New York Times referred to the LPC desicion as a “setback” for Rosen, he proceeded to tell the New Yorker a month later, “We can change everything. We got from Landmarks basically every approval that we wanted.”
A living, breathing city can neither afford to exist as a museum nor lose its past. And in a city that changes as fast as New York, Interior Landmarks is a reminder that a fight for the right balance is never done and always necessary.
Top image (left to right): Tweed Courthouse (photo courtesy: Larry Lederman), Four Seasons Restaurant (photo courtesy: Larry Lederman), Empire State Building (photo courtesy: Empire State Realty Trust)