Preservation: Protecting Modern Buildings Can be a Hard Sell

Event: Changing Perspectives on Preservation: A Panel Discussion
Location: The Municipal Art Society, 11.29.07
Speakers: Hilary Ballon, Ph.D. — Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University & Associate Vice Chancellor, NYU Abu Dhabi; Thomas Mellins — Curator of Special Projects, Museum of the City of New York; Anthony Wood — Executive Director, Ittleson Foundation, Professor of Historic Preservation, Columbia University, and Founder/Chair, New York Preservation Archive Project
Moderator: Frank E. Sanchis — Senior Vice President, Municipal Art Society
Organizer: Municipal Art Society

Grand Central

Grand Central Station is one of the Municipal Art Society’s successful campaigns.

Courtesy Municipal Art Society

“I can’t think of any building we’re sorry we’ve saved, but I can say that about the ones we didn’t,” said Anthony Wood, founder and chair of the New York Preservation Archive Project. This is an apt statement to make in the gallery of the Urban Center, housed in McKim, Mead & White’s 1884 Henry Villard House, saved by the fledgling Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in the early 1970s. In a discussion exploring the theme of changing perspectives on preservation, new challenges and arguments are arising with contemporary times, especially when it comes to preserving Modern icons.

The Municipal Art Society (MAS), which has offices in the Henry Villard House, champions the preservation of the earliest city buildings through the Modernist era. In general, it urges the LPC to protect buildings prior to major rezoning and redevelopment projects, and advocates for the City Council to increase the LPC’s budget to allow an increase in the landmark designation rate and efficiency with which permits are processed.

Protecting Modern buildings can be a “hard sell,” even for preservationists. “We’re destroying Paul Rudolph’s across the country,” said Hilary Ballon, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, underscoring the concern for protecting Modern buildings. The fate of Edward Durell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle, for example, remains a sore point for many preservationists because the issue never went through a public hearing. Some buildings are fraught with outdated technical problems. Sustainability issues emerge, as some preservationists believe “the best green building is one that already exists,” according to Frank Sanchis, MAS’s senior vice president.

Traditional preservationists carry baggage against Modern buildings, according to Thomas Mellins, curator of special projects at the Museum of the City of New York, and it will be up to the next generation to provide the impetus to save them. “The price of preservation is constant vigilance,” said Mellins.