- Historic Sites
To Save The World We Built
Every town you pass through has felt the impact of the modern historic-preservation movement. Now a founder of that movement discusses what is real and what is fake in preservation efforts.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
Who paid for it?
There was some federal money, but most of it came from the City of New York. You have to decide whether it is a socially and culturally desirable cost. The militant group of people that fought for its preservation thought it was a worthwhile expenditure, and I’d guess, from the way the Board of Estimate voted, the people think so too. Mayor Koch has supported a lot of expensive restorations—for example, the bridges in Central Park. There’s no point in pretending that restoration is a cheap activity. You have to think of it as a cultural activity and fund it on the same basis as you would a museum or a library.
How has your profession changed in the last few years?
The most noticeable change is the growing interest in vernacular artifacts, especially recent ones like filling stations, motels, and strip developments. From an objective point of view, this is appropriate. Undoubtedly the time will come, perhaps very quickly, when people will say, “For God’s sake, why didn’t you save a few of those filling stations when you had the chance?” These artifacts are undoubtedly significant sociologically, and they should be studied, surveyed, and described. But from an aesthetic point of view, most of the structures you see along the American highway today are stylistically corrupt beyond description. What disturbs me is that a lot of young preservationists in their enthusiasm have difficulty in discriminating between historic significance and aesthetic value. There may come a time when people will think that a White Tower hamburger stand is a beautiful artifact. I find it hard to believe. In any case, it’s entirely proper that such artifacts be evaluated as part of our historic patrimony.
But didn’t your generation have the same poor opinion of the aesthetic value of Victorian artifacts that are so widely prized today?
It did, and that’s precisely how I learned this lesson. Obviously you’re entitled to your personal standard as to what you consider valuable, beautiful, ugly, and so on, but you can’t allow your private preference to dictate your policies in the public realms.
Does preservation lead to gentrification?
In the preservation of whole historic districts such as in Savannah or Charleston, there has been a wholesale evacuation of the original population. It’s a nasty development, but don’t blame it all on historic preservation—American cities have always had gentrification in the form of prosperous neighborhoods and poor slums. Whenever the poorer areas were redeveloped, real estate values increased, rents went up, and the original population was forced out. We could avoid gentrification if we wanted to: in Bologna, Italy, everyone living in the historic district has the right to re- main there if he chooses, and every effort is made to guarantee that the ground-floor shops will be occupied by local merchants and craftsmen.
What do you think of the way the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island projects are being handled?
The way they’ve been commercialized is very bad. After all, they belong to the American people and stand on parkland. If we didn’t have a military budget of $321 billion, there might be money to pay for the restoration of these islands out of the public purse. Perhaps, after the opening, that kind of commercial exploitation will be largely over. The reception center on Ellis Island will become a straightforward museum of American immigration. It looks as if the enormous hospital complex there will be converted to a conference center by private investors with very stringent controls. In view of its huge size and poor condition, that’s probably the best deal we can get just now.
If the move to demolish McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in New York had arisen today rather than in the early sixties, would we have lost the battle?
I think we have passed the stage in our national development where that would really be conceivable.
Peter Samton, an architect, suggested that the present Pennsylvania Station be demolished and the original building reconstructed on the site. What was your reaction to that proposal?
Yes, I read that letter in The New York Times . From one point of view, of course, it is a grotesque idea. Nevertheless, the very fact that the proposal was made indicates the radical change in public opinion that has occurred in the past twenty years. A large portion of the public recognizes that the demolition of Penn Station represented an enormous loss. But landmarks cannot be replaced any more than a Rembrandt painting can. A copy will always be nothing more than a copy.