New York City

Bulldozing the Future

How New York City's 50-year-old Landmarks Preservation Act prevents tomorrow's great architecture

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Once upon a time, New York City's builders blithely turned spectacular monuments into dust. Henry James complained about Manhattan's "restless renewals," but in the old days nostalgia was for writers and poets. Developers were preoccupied with building the future.

This ethos of creative destruction allowed New York to become the world's pre-eminent city. And then, on April 19, 1965, Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the Landmarks Preservation Act. The law made it illegal to destroy any structure that the city's planning elite deem too important not to save. Today 28 percent of the buildings in Manhattan, and more than 33,000 structures citywide, may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama.

To illustrate the damage done by this law, let's imagine that the Landmarks Act had been passed not in 1965 but in 1865, when the spire of Trinity Church still towered over Lower Manhattan. Modern New York wouldn't exist.

Consider Henry Hardenbergh's original Waldorf-Astoria, an architectural masterpiece and Manhattan's leading luxury hotel. If the Landmarks Commission had been around in the Jazz Age, surely it would have protected this great structure—and then it never could have been torn down to build the Empire State Building, which occupies the exact same spot.

If the Landmarks Commission had been around to save architect Stanford White's majestic Madison Square Garden, the second of four structures with that name, Cass Gilbert's New York Life Insurance Building couldn't have replaced it. Forget about the hustle of Midtown Manhattan; the entire block between 49th and 50th Street, from Madison to Park Avenue, would still be home to Columbia University's pre-1897 campus. The old London Terrace apartment building wouldn't have cleared a path for the new London Terrace apartment building. Former Mayor Philip Hone's luxurious townhouse would still stand in the Woolworth Building's footprint. And we might still have the old Madison Square Presbyterian Church instead of the celebrated Met Life Tower.

Columbia University's campus once bordered the corner of 49th Street and Madison Avenue

The Landmarks Commission not only protects individual buildings, but also 114 districts, meaning entire neighborhoods are essentially frozen in time. Manhattan's Upper West Side became a landmark district in 1990, but what if it had earned that distinction in 1890, to preserve its Gilded Age character? Hulking apartment buildings never would have replaced the distinguished brownstones and mansions that once characterized this area. The district certainly would have been expanded one block west to include the Apthorp House, which quartered General Washington, among other colonial bigwigs, and would still stand near 90th Street and Columbus Avenue.

And yes, before landmarking plenty of great buildings were replaced by plain-Jane skyscrapers. But that's also part of how cities grow and evolve. Would New York really be better off if Temple Emanu-El still stood right off Times Square?

In 1847, native New Yorker Washington Irving reflected with nostalgia on growing up in a city that was "a mere corner" of what it had become, and that corner "all changed, pulled to pieces." The 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Preservation Act is an opportunity to mourn the opposite: all the invisible buildings that will never exist because of a misguided law. What if an earlier generation had outlawed the rise of skyscrapers and the spread of asphalt pavement? Washington Irving would still feel right at home.