The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Ornate Cornices Disappearing in Washington Heights

    The lion's heads that once graced the cornice of 4195 Broadway. (Courtesy Trish Mayo) The lion's heads that once graced the cornice of 4195 Broadway, now in a dumpster. (Courtesy Trish Mayo) When the attention of real estate speculators diverts, sometimes old neighborhoods have time to acquire a majestic patina. The Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan has been neglected for some time, but is now getting a fair share of spillover interest from Columbia’s Manhattanville project and the university’s nearby hospital campus. In 2009, the Audubon Park Historic District was created to protect the area just behind Audubon Terrace, home to the Hispanic Society and the Academy of Arts and Letters. But just north of the district, years of landlord neglect has unwittingly preserved row after row of early 20th century apartment buildings festooned with ornate cornices. But the cornices are now in danger of disappearing.  

    The decorative cornices of Washington Heights are dissapearing. Most of the decorative cornice at 4181 Broadway (right) was replaced with concrete, and the cornice at 4195 was replaced entirely with corrugated metal.
    Provided you look up, there are still vistas in Washington Heights that recall the area’s heyday. In the early part of the last century a striving middle class made up of German Jews, Irish, and Greeks walked beneath striped fabric awnings perched at apartment windows, all topped with fanciful cornices.
    More dumpster lions.
    Most know that when Robert Moses plowed through the Bronx to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, neighborhoods were severed and died a slow death. But little attention is paid to the Cross Bronx’s connection to the George Washington Bridge, which severed Washington Heights too, providing easy access for suburbanites to swoop in and out of the neighborhood to buy drugs. Eventually, like the South Bronx, the area regained its footing. Now, the Pier Luigi Nervi-designed Port Authority Bus Terminal at the base of the bridge is set to undergo a $285 million restoration. And Starbucks, the ever present harbinger of gentrification, is just a few blocks north.
    Planned renovation of the Nevi-designed GW Bridge Bus Terminal. (Courtesy STV Inc.)Planned renovation of the Nervi-designed GW Bridge Bus Terminal. (Courtesy STV Inc.)
    But just as Washington Heights begins its reemergence, several building owners are stripping away the architectural features that make the area unique. Just next door to the bus terminal sits 4195 Broadway at the corner of 178th Street. Two weeks ago, the decorative lion heads that once reigned atop the 1920 edifice were stripped, thrown into a dumpster and replaced with corrugated metal. It’s indicative of a neighborhood trend. Over the past several years the cornices of Washington Heights are finally getting much needed maintenance attention. But instead of restoring them, many building owners are ripping them off and replacing them with steel, aluminum, and concrete.
    The metal replacement. The metal replacement.
    Photographer Trish Mayo noticed the latest affront on a bus ride home from the library. The shapes in a dumpster registered as something familiar to her. She got off the bus to investigate. Mayo said the dumpster was almost full with terracotta lion heads taken from 4195. The dumpster has since been carted away. “I think that after so many years of neglect the decorative details have become a safety hazarded and it’s just cheaper to destroy all the beauty that’s in these buildings,” she said.

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  • Preservation Nation

    Photo: © Jorge Salcedo
    The leafy streets of Boston’s landmarked Back Bay neighborhood.

    Is landmarking a shield or a sword in the fight against overdevelopment?

    By Ben Adler
    Among urbanists in America, the advent of landmark-preservation laws in the 1960s is usually viewed as an inspiring time in urban planning: Concerned communities, academics, and fans of architecture banded together to protect beloved old buildings from the grand plans of rich developers and powerful politicians. And, remarkably enough, the Davids usually defeated the Goliaths. But have they acquired too much power? So say a growing contingent of critics who believe preservation has gotten out of hand. They include left-leaning economic policy wonks, architects, and architectural critics. Landmarking is under attack on two fronts: architectural and economic. Critics in the first category are not opposed to landmarking, but worry that architecturally undistinguished buildings and neighborhoods are winning landmark status for political or sentimental reasons. The result, they say, is a public that embraces architectural nostalgia rather than innovation. At the same time, some economists and policy experts maintain that cities are limiting their economic potential by constraining the supply of new housing and commercial development through too much landmarking. The outcome: Most desirable cities are too expensive for middle-class families. This past year, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, in his book Triumph of the City, attacked landmarking, along with such restrictions as zoning that limits density or requires parking lots. Glaeser points to the case of a proposed 30-story addition, designed by Norman Foster, at 980 Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, that was rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission even though it would have kept the original 1950 limestone gallery building as well. “The cost of restricted development is that protected areas become more expensive and exclusive,” writes Glaeser. Legions of urban policy bloggers around the country agree. The aesthetic critique of landmarking is also gaining currency. Rem Koolhaas mounted an exhibition at New York’s New Museum last spring that was a broadside against landmarking. “[Koolhaas] paints a picture of an army of well-meaning but clueless preservationists who, in their zeal to protect the world’s architectural legacies, end up debasing them by creating tasteful scenery for docile consumers while airbrushing out the most difficult chapters of history,” reported the New York Times. These issues may be most extreme in New York, where the razing of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 still stings. But similar controversies have erupted in older cities across the country. What the Washington City Paper calls “the weaponization of preservation” includes the efforts of the Tenleytown Historical Society to prevent American University from expanding its campus by pushing landmark status for an entire block to protect the fairly banal 1904 Immaculata Seminary. In Boston, tradition often trumps the new. “The South End is very restrictive about what you can do to your buildings, in many cases with very good reason,” says architect and preservation expert David Fixler. Yet people can be prevented from making changes just “to keep things the way they are.” Sometimes officials require new construction be designed in an architecturally contextual manner, even when the building is an inherently modern structure. In San Francisco, on the other hand, the Historic Preservation Commission has responded to criticism that Modernism is underappreciated by seeking protection of such undistinguished modern buildings as the 1959 North Beach Branch Library. Critics and defenders of landmarking tend to agree on one key point: that the drive to landmark buildings of questionable significance is caused by a larger problem of communities feeling powerless to stop unwanted development. “Preservation has become an all-functioning tool for all sorts of operations,” says Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic. “It’s being used to prevent or to determine the direction of development because city planners are so disempowered, rather than because these buildings or districts are by any objective standards worth preserving.” Yet preserving historic buildings is important for cultural and even economic reasons. In the 1980s, New York City theater owners near Times Square were tempted to sell their buildings to developers who would put up office towers in their place. An economist like Glaeser might applaud such market efficiency. But New York’s historic theaters are part of the city’s identity. When the city landmarked the theaters, it allowed owners to sell development rights to adjacent parcels. Today, Times Square has tall office buildings as well as a vibrant theater district. “Tens of millions of dollars go into Broadway, and it’s a major economic engine for the city,” notes Simeon Bankoff of New York’s Historic Districts Council. “They’re only there because they’re landmarked.” Preservationists believe that central cities are economically successful because of landmark laws, not in spite of then. What Glaeser and others fail to appreciate is that there is excess demand to live in Manhattan or San Francisco precisely because of the architectural quality of the built environment. Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.

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