Land Use

How New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act Bulldozed the Future

The 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Act is an opportunity to mourn all the invisible buildings that will never exist because of a misguided law.

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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 preeminent city. And then on April 19, 1965, which is fifty years ago this Sunday, 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 almost a third of the buildings in Manhattan, and more than 33,000 structures citywide, may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. 

Mayor Robert F. Wagner signs the Landmarks Preservation Act. April 19, 1965. |||

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, which was 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—this entire block would still be home to Columbia University's pre-1897 campus. The old London Terrace wouldn't have cleared a path for the new London Terrace, instead of the Woolworth Building, Philip Hone's luxurious townhouse would still stand in the building's footprint, right next to the old American Hotel, and we might still have this old Madison Square Presbyterian Church instead of the celebrated Met Life Tower

The old Madison Square Garden being demolished in 1925. |||

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? These hulking apartment buildings never would have replaced the distinguished brownstones and mansions that once occupied these blocks. 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 right here near 90th Street and Columbus Avenue.

Before landmarking, sure there were plenty of great buildings replaced by plain Jane skyscrapers, but that's also part of how cities grow and evolve. For example, would New York really be better off if Temple Emanu-el still stood right off Times Square?

Temple Emanu-el on 43rd Street and 5th Avenue, which was demolished in 1927.

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." This 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 spread of asphalt pavement? Washington Irving would still feel right at home.

Video written and produced by Jim Epstein.

3 minutes and 30 seconds.

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