Altering Landmarks: History Informs Design Decisions

Event: Landmarks Preservation Commission Process: Designation and Regulation
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.20.09
Speakers: Sarah Carroll — Director of Preservation, Landmarks Preservation Commission; Elise Quasebarth — Principal, Higgins Quasebarth & Partners
Organizer: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

Architects often view the process of filing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) as an arduous one. Sarah Carroll, director of preservation for the LPC and Elise Quasebarth, principal of preservation consultant Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, presented what every architect working on a landmarked project should know, offering examples of successful renovations and additions.

The LPC includes 11 commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor. By law, at least three of these must be architects in addition to a historian, a city planner or landscape architect, a realtor, and a resident of each of the five boroughs. Landmarks in the city fall under four categories, and they include: 1,230 individual landmarks; 110 interior landmarks, which must be publicly accessible spaces; 95 historic districts plus 13 extensions; and 10 scenic city-owned landmarks. To make modifications to a landmark, architects must apply for the appropriate permit, filing with the LPC first before filing with the NYC Department of Building (DoB). The more complete the application, Carroll explained, the smoother the filing process becomes.

What architects don’t often realize is that scheduling a public hearing is typically a four- to six-week process, Carroll explained. Before a hearing can be scheduled, the architect must present the project to the local community board. Carroll offered some reassurance: projects aren’t usually denied outright at LPC public hearings; designers usually can revise the design to comply.

Quasebarth offered suggestions for architects who are building a case for an LPC application. While a tax photo — a historical photo of a building or space — is a good start, other sources of information include old maps, which can convey traffic patterns and previous block configurations, as well as old DoB filings. She suggested simply walking around the neighborhood to better understand the context. “It is important to understand the story and the specifics of the place you are working in,” she stated.

One example of this was when a client wanted to convert the Met Life Building to residences and change the double-hung windows to single-pane windows. Research revealed that a “modernization” project in the 1960s fitted the building with single-pane windows, so the LPC approved the return to this aesthetic.

The crystalline addition to the roof of the new Diane von Furstenberg Headquarters in the Meatpacking District, designed by WORKac, was deemed appropriate for its context given the pattern of quirky roof additions in the neighborhood. Likewise, the controversial design for Hearst Magazine Tower, by Foster + Partners, relied on precedents such as the Merchant Exchange Building and the firm’s expansion of the Reichstag in Berlin. The design was ultimately approved since the original Hearst building was constructed as a base, but never expanded due to the financial crisis in the 1930s.

While navigating the LPC filing process can be tricky, architects should focus on preparing a solid argument for the proposed changes that is based on historical precedents and a lot of research. When in doubt, ask questions: “Communication is key,” Carroll explained; she encourages architects to maintain an open dialogue with LPC staff. “They are there to help you through the process.”