Option 1: Preserving the Structure

"Human experiences are written onto the environment. We etch our existence into the landscape with our lives. Then we look back to read our lives between the brick and mortar."

Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter, Reaven and Zeitlin (2006)

The impulse to preserve places grows from the desire to preserve meaningful links between the past and present. Because the landscape is physical, and therefore tangible, elements of the built environment keep the past alive in powerful ways. Preservation is as much forward-thinking as it is backward-looking; at heart, it is about what we collectively value.

If you are committed to preserving a physical structure or built landscape feature, then you are likely to mount some type of historic preservation campaign.

  • One form of preservation is purchase and caretaking of historic properties.
  • Another is the use of landmarks laws, which can confer public authority to protect historic properties for posterity. There are three levels of landmark recognition for historic properties: local, state, and federal. While each carries specific types of prestige and benefits, landmark designation by city government often provides the greatest amount of protection for the property.

To learn more about historic preservation in general, and to investigate how landmarking works in your locale, consult local, state, and national experts, and the wealth of existing information in books, pamphlets, and on the Internet. See the Resource section below as a starting point.

Continue reading to consider landmark designation for buildings whose importance lies in embodying an event, era, or memory, rather than in representing a style of architecture.

Special Challenges in Landmarking

In New York City, more landmark designations have been made on the basis of architecture and aesthetics than on broader considerations of history and culture. This is true even though the city's landmarks law is written to embrace the full spectrum of our heritage—of architecture from high design to vernacular; of history in all its complexity; and of culture in its multitude of expressions. Does the landmarks body in your locale tend to privilege aesthetics over other values? Is the place you are trying to protect notable less for its architecture than for association with, say, an event or a social movement? If your answer to both is yes, consider how this will affect your preservation campaign and prepare by taking the following steps.

1. Tell a rich, well-researched history that sets your place within citywide, statewide or national contexts. (Consult the Toolkit section Explaining Your Place)

2. Show evidence of public recognition and broad support for your place. (Consult the Toolkit sections Defining Your Project and Presenting Your Place)

3. Be specific about the architectural dimensions of the history embodied in your place.

  • How does the shape of the building, its materials, or its architectural features convey the history that needs to be remembered?
  • What aspects of the physical structure help us see and understand the aesthetic, historical, or cultural significance of the place?

Point number three—defining the architectural dimensions of the story—is usually where the main hurdles arise. But don't overlook points one and two, because you'll need them to accomplish point three.

One often-expressed concern is how the history is represented in the physicality of the building—in, say, its size, massing, location, styling, or specific features.  This question comes into play pre- and post-designation. Before designation you must prove that the significance of the history can be "read" in the building, thus making the building worth preserving. After designation, public decision-makers must rely on this information to direct their actions in regulating future changes to the building.

It can be tricky to identify the architectural dimensions to a piece of history embodied in and by a building. But the more we try it and test our thinking in public, the better we will get at it. Consider Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, pictured earlier in the Toolkit. Specific features that could be regulated include its signage, its counters, and perhaps most of all, its open-air arcade design. In the unhappy event that Nathan's were to leave its spot at the intersection of Stillwell and Surf avenues, preserving the character of its former structure would sustain cherished memories that extend back generations. Even those who knew little or nothing about Nathan's would still experience its locally distinctive mixture of physical design, light, sea air, and street life: its special "place-ness."

Another common reason for denying landmark status to a building is that it has sustained so much physical change that it no longer looks just as it did during its "period of significance," i.e., the time period being recognized as the reason for preservation. The following two examples demonstrate that buildings can be designated as landmarks for their historical significance despite changes in appearance (also called "loss of integrity") over time.

  • New York City: PS 64/El Bohio
    In New York City, in 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the former PS 64/El Bohío building on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a landmark. The two reasons cited were PS 64/El Bohío's service in the early twentieth century as an important school for immigrants, and its symbolic role as one of the most significant buildings saved by a community preservation movement. This movement took place during the 1970s and 1980s, when neighborhoods throughout New York City were being devastated by private disinvestment and public abandonment.

    When considering PS 64/El Bohío for designation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission knew that the property owner would probably strip architectural detail from the building, allowable by virtue of a prior permit. While attempting to prevent such wanton damage, the Commission decided nonetheless that the loss of this detail would not so compromise the preservation purpose as to make the designation meaningless. The designation was upheld by the New York City Council in a subsequent review.

    See Place Matters' summary of the building's history
     

  • Chicago: The Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ Building
    In Chicago, in 2006, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks designated the Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ building for having been the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At Roberts Temple, in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley held an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, who had been kidnapped and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Ms. Till wanted the world to see what her son's murderers had done to him, to witness the full horror of this racist crime. The response was overwhelming: as the research report about the site stated, "The death and funeral of Emmett Till is one of the three major catalytic events in the nationally-important civil-rights movement in 1954 and 1955; the others being the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 and Rosa Park's refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955." (Landmarks Div., Chicago Dept. of Planning & Development, 2005)

    The Commission designated Roberts Temple even though the building's interior and exterior had been extensively remodeled in the half-century since Emmett Till's funeral. The landmarks research report stated, "Despite these changes, the building retains its location, overall design, and historic association with the Emmett Till funeral." The report identified only the "exterior elevations, including rooflines, of the building" as the specific features needing protection. This approach makes the point that it is the continuing existence of the building in a recognizable form that helps us remember this important place and the history it embodies.

Resources

In the Resource section we list useful books and websites.

For additional suggestions specific to New York City, go to the database of the Neighborhood Preservation Center.