Advocates Love Their Landmarks

Event: Preservation in Context: Communities and their Landmarked Districts
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.18.09
Speakers: Simeon Bankoff — Executive Director, Historic Districts Council; Lo van der Valk — President, Carnegie Hill Neighbors; Julia Schoeck — President, Douglaston/Little Neck Historical Society; Thomas van den Bout, AIA — President, Brooklyn Heights Association; Sean Sweeney — Director, SoHo Alliance
Moderator: Sherida Paulsen, FAIA — 2009 AIANY President
Organizers: AIANY; NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission; Center for Architecture Foundation; in partnership with the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation, as a program of the ContextContrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts, 1967-2009 exhibition, on view at the Center for Architecture through January 23, 2010.
Sponsors: Benjamin Moore & Co.; Buro Happold Consulting Engineers; Studio Daniel Libeskind; Syska Hennessy Group; Trespa


The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and former Andrew Carnegie Museum.

Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

“What are we doing as a city and as a commission to preserve these districts?” asked Sherida Paulsen, FAIA, 2009 AIANY president, in regard to New York City’s oldest neighborhoods. When it comes to preservation in the city, community organizations advocate for the best interest of their historically landmarked communities. At a recent discussion, representatives from some of these communities discussed how development is affecting their districts and the steps they are taking to uphold their communities’ historic integrity.

The Historic Districts Council (HDC) was founded in 1971 by the Municipal Art Society as a coalition of community groups from the city’s designated historic districts. The advocacy process, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director for the HDC, includes people who are trying to come to a conclusion of what is “appropriate.” It’s based on both the public and the owners to make the decision. The problems and solutions are very different for each district.

In Brooklyn Heights, most new development consists of fine-grain changes, such as changes to slopes and cornices. Occasionally a building will be torn down in an “insensitive way,” stated Thomas van den Bout, AIA, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, but most construction is “undoing things that were bad to begin with.”

Advocates of the Upper East Side worry about drastic and expensive additions to historic buildings. Referring to Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects’ addition to the Guggenheim, Lo van der Valk, president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, said that someone should have told Frank Lloyd Wright, “If you don’t fill your lot, someone else will.”

Dealing with the new development in the historic districts is a case-by-case practice. Some districts, such as the South Street Seaport, don’t have community advocacies. But if a violation is made in a district that does, anything from warnings to stop orders may be issued. However, the number of people who argue against the “appropriateness” of a project is very small, said Julia Schoek, president or the Douglaston/Little Neck Historical Society. Ultimately, according to Paulsen, it comes down to the fact that “people care about the buildings and they care about the architecture.”