The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Preserving Historic Fabric in the Midst of Redevelopment

    Preserving Historic Fabric in the Midst of Redevelopment

    New York City is home to over 36,000 landmarked properties-most of which are located in 141 historic districts and extensions - 1,398 individual landmarks, and 119 interior landmarks. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the largest preservation agency in the nation, is entrusted with safeguarding the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history. Any work proposed work on a landmarked building must be held up to strict LPC standards and regulations before obtaining approval. While these regulations may curb pervasive development, the Landmarks Preservation Commission by no means discourages new development altogether. In fact, the recently approved redevelopment of the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing is a prime example of how historic preservation and new development can happily co-exist.  

    After over 30 years of neglect and several plans for redevelopment, the RKO Keith’s Theater finally has a chance at new life thanks to Xinyuan Real Estate. In 2016 the Chinese firm purchased the historic theater with the intent to provide high-end residential housing to the underserved market of Flushing, Queens. In May, Xinyuan presented their plan to rehabilitate and preserve the 1928-built theater’s landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby within a new glass 16-floor building with 269 apartments designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

    Xinyuan plans to use the landmarked ticket lobby and grand foyer as the building entry, however the original 3,000 seat theater does not hold landmark status and will be razed. Due to the decades of neglect the historic interior has fallen into a state of critical disrepair and just about every inch of the interior will require some form of restorative work.

    At the hearing the Landmarks Preservation Committee did voice some concerns about the accessibility of the landmark. While the ticket booth would be a part of the public retail space, as presented, the public would not be permitted into the lobby of the residential building without the invitation of a resident. While security of the residents is a concern, the Commission hesitated to approve blocking off a public landmark, and suggested separating the residential entry with a series of doors.

    Despite the Commissioners’ concerns, they decided to unanimously support the project, with one condition: Staff members at the Commission would work with the developers to settle the issue of public access to the grand foyer. The approval of this major project goes to show that landmark status is not an end to the possibilities for redevelopment. 

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  • Integrating the Past into a Modern City

    Integrating the Past into a Modern City

    As the nature of cities has changed over time, so has the role that architecture has played in urban planning. Architecture is the construct which allows cities to be both beautiful and functional. But what does this mean, and how does architecture answer?

    During the nineteenth century, the urban centers in America were compared unfavorably with European cities. In Europe, cities were anchored by large cathedrals and public spaces, such as gardens and plazas, grand and ornate architecture from the past. In reaction, the City Beautiful movement arose in the US, culminating in the White City at the 1893 World's Fair. It was an attempt to instill some of the formal beauty, linear perspective, and stateliness of European grand cities onto American architecture.

    While many architects pushed back against this method of looking to the past for urban models, the movement did adapt to American spaces with planning that included parks, greenways, water elements, and other public spaces that reflected the American landscape's particular beauty. These public spaces were meant to fulfill the functions of European public plazas or formal gardens. They were areas for community, formal activity, meeting and information exchange.

    However, these new methods were not as successful as in theory. A concrete plaza with some benches and a fountain in front of a set-back Manhattan office building will never draw the social crowds that a small piazza hidden among the streets of Rome will welcome. In the same way, you will not see two pedestrians pausing for a quick chat on Fifth Avenue nearly as often as you’ll encounter this on the winding, narrow streets of Prague.  This has everything to do with scale. Modern architecture, although originally guided with the correct intentions, lost touch with the human along the way. Designers became more interested in discovering new philosophies and making bold statements than focusing on the daily interactions of the user.

    There is a reason why people still flock to old cities in Europe and historic downtown areas right in the United States. Buildings and streets were designed at a comfortable human scale, with shopfronts and other public uses built right into the street level. Work, home, and social spaces were all within walking distance of each other, creating vibrant communities. Of course, there are many modern needs that are not met in these historic models. We are a larger world with more people and active economies, leading our buildings to grow in size and diminish in ornament over the decades. We require modern technology and energy efficiency, making mechanical systems one of the most important aspects of any building designed today.

    However, there is a way we can meet modern needs while preserving the advantages of historic architecture and neighborhoods: It is through restoration and adaptive reuse of buildings and downtowns. Reusing what we already have is really the most urbanistic and environmentally conscience decision. Historic buildings can be retrofitted with mechanical systems, increased insulation value, and modern conveniences. Soaring glass and steel towers are not the only buildings well-suited for the modern world. Even in “new” cities like New York or Chicago, some of the oldest buildings are the most loved and the most successful.

    As specialists in historic preservation, restoration, and adaptive reuse, we here at Scott Henson Architects know that these historic buildings can become perfectly useable for your businesses and homes, with all of the character, history, and comfort of the past. We will always be looking for the next great thing in architecture, as in any type of design, but it is important to not forget the resources we already have. We look forward to working with you on your next project.

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