On Exhibit: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks

When Andrew Dolkart was a student at Colgate University in the early 1970s, he was an avid reader of Ada Louise Huxtable’s architecture columns in The New York Times. Huxtable, the first full- time architecture critic at an American newspaper and a driving force behind the passage of New York City’s landmarks law in 1965, did not mince words.

Eve Glasberg
July 08, 2015

The architecture of the nation's capital, she once wrote, "is an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks.\" A monument that did not meet her exacting standards was "a disaster where marble has been substituted for imagination."

Dolkart, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and director of its Historic Preservation Program, was so moved by her powerful prose that it put him on his career path. Now, he has organized an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that puts Huxtable and the influence she wielded on ample display. In Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks, Dolkart and Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, trace and celebrate the impact of the city’s pioneering Landmarks Law.

On a recent tour of the exhibition led by Dolkart, he stopped in front of a black-and-white photograph of the late Huxtable and said, “There she is, regal as ever, in her pearls, holding her most powerful tool, a 19-cent Bic pen.”

Huxtable, who won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1970, was not a strict antiquarian. She believed that a blend of old and new buildings were best for New York, as she wrote in a passionate 1963 Times editorial in response to the demolition of McKim, Mead and White’s Penn Station, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

Dolkart, whose Historic Preservation Program at Columbia celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, emphasized that architectural preservation in New York did not begin with the bulldozing of Penn Station. “The story starts in the 19th century when City Hall was threatened. From the beginning, it was a tale of day-in-and-day-out, grass-roots efforts by communities that cared about their neighborhoods, not a bureaucratic, top-down approach.”

A multimedia timeline that covers the walls of the museum’s large main-floor gallery is divided into four sections: Prelude to the Law, Sparking the Law, Defending the Law and the Law in Action. Blocks of text, videos and photos – many taken by the Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan for the exhibition–animate the times through the decades when New Yorkers rallied around campaigns led by civic figures like Jacqueline Onassis, Philip Johnson and Bess Myerson, who led the effort to save Grand Central in the mid-1970s.

Today there are more than 31,000 landmark properties in New York City, most of them located in historic districts throughout the five boroughs. The number of protected sites also includes 1,347 individual landmark buildings, 117 interior landmarks and 10 scenic landmarks—including Low Memorial Library, St. Paul’s Chapel and the Casa Italiana on Columbia’s McKim, Mead and White-designed Morningside Heights campus.

“A key element to the exhibition is the investigation of the battles and losses that led to the law,” said Dolkart. “This is crucial 50 years later, since New Yorkers as a whole love the idea of landmarks and landmarking, but also take it for granted and do not realize how difficult it was to get where we are and how easy it would be to lose it.”

In the center of the gallery, installations on two long tables show how new buildings— like the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History—can meld with landmarks architecturally, and how historic structures can be restored or adapted for a new use, such as the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village, which is now a branch of the New York Public Library.

Suspended above the gallery are Baan’s sweeping aerial photographs of the New York cityscape that illustrate Dolkart’s words: “Not all buildings should be preserved. It’s the mix of old and modern that makes for a vital, living, breathing New York.”

Saving Place will be on view until September 13.