The Frick Collection’s formality is as astringent as a dry martini. We marvel at the works of great art hung within rooms of impersonal splendor. Yet the Frick is rather contrived, an elegant knockoff of a French country seat, by Thomas Hastings, of Carrère and Hastings, carefully re-proportioned to fit on a New York City block. Its horizontality and stiff front garden set it defiantly in contrast to the much larger buildings that surround it.
Does it lose its relevance if it can’t evolve and grow? This question arises now that the Frick has surrendered in its long, contentious battle to build an addition in a rear garden. Critics regarded the garden as a cultural landmark. The Frick deemed it a placeholder for long-planned growth.
The museum’s dilemmas are only one of several that have come out of recent historic-preservation battles in this the 50-year anniversary of landmark protection in New York City. These fights have been joined more feverishly than ever as great wealth exerts itself, often hubristically, to transform the city. New York magazine’s critic, Justin Davidson, called these “puny battles,” and I don’t disagree. But I want to extend his argument farther in hopes of identifying what’s at stake more clearly.
I love the Frick as do so many others. And so my first instinct was not to second guess its professed need to expand. Nevertheless, I am happy that the project won’t proceed.
The expansion architect, Davis Brody Bond, tried to disguise the bulk of the addition by stretching the 70th Street elevation deeper into the block, then extending the library across the back of the Frick—duplicating the exterior treatment of both. The Frick, however, is a masterpiece of form, proportion, material and decoration, and it was wrong of DBB to treat it as wallpaper.
The focus of much preservation ire was the 1973 garden by Russell Page installed behind the museum on land it had acquired. It’s a welcome patch of green in the concrete metropolis, but I could not convince myself that it was essential to the Frick’s architectural integrity.
But even as I write this I recoil from how small, even arcane, my argument sounds. Almost no one beyond a small coterie would likely notice the bowdlerization of the Frick once it was completed. And yet it is precisely the domestic scale and the quest for perfection both in the architecture and in the collection that defines the institution. The Frick is valued precisely because it provides such an intense, intimate experience, uncompromised. To its credit, and under a lot of pressure, it recognized its mistake.
Palace for the people—or writers?
In a review upcoming in Architectural Record, I consider Scott Sherman’s about-to-be-published book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and the Fight to Save A Public Library (Melville House). He chronicles the uphill battle preservationists and scholars waged against a plan to turn research stacks within the marble temple of the New York Public Library into a 21st-century circulating collection, paid for by the sale of two existing circulating libraries. The story of the library’s rickety and risky plan is harrowing, but bigger questions got lost: How should the library’s research function evolve with time and technology? How best to make original and irreplaceable material available? Should the library aspire to support highest-level research when it has long struggled to raise the money to do so?
Its no spoiler to reveal that the preservationists won, but the denouement is a mixed one. The stacks at the center of the controversy have been emptied (though replacement space is said to be in construction.) The spectacular Rose reading room atop the stacks, which has been a glorious refuge for writers (quite a number famous) and independent researchers for a century, has been closed since October because of a structural problem. A redesign of the existing circulating library is on tap, and the library claims it can afford to fund it, but I can’t get the math to add up.
Embalmed Four Seasons
A furor erupted over plans by developer Aby Rosen to update the Four Seasons Restaurant, on which Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson collaborated. (It’s built within Mies’s masterpiece, the Seagram Building.) Restaurants are particularly difficult to “save,” because they tend to be ephemeral. The Four Seasons has had an incredible run, but the place feels embalmed these days—and Rosen is said to be shopping for a successor.
For me, the shape and simple grandeur of the space must be preserved and adapted should a new eatery move in: The expanses of glass, the elegant floating metal-paneled ceiling plane, the Richard Lippold sculptures . . . . I’m not sure much else needs to remain. Johnson was not a talented or sensitive interior designer, though I like the elegant beaded curtains. The white Carrera-marble pool is iconic, but I’ve always found it jarring.
Many would disagree, but I think a talented and sensitive interior designer could change a great deal in updating the restaurant’s sparkle and glamour, while keeping it recognizably itself.
I’m not sure we have a choice but to trust Rosen. Would the Landmarks Preservation Commission do better? A coalition of Mies enthusiasts? It’s a restaurant. If he does a bad job, it can be undone.
Distorting landmark law intentions
Unfortunately the challenges to the city’s fabric today don’t lend themselves to the single-issue obsessives who saved the library, the Frick, and the Four Seasons. The Times recently surveyed threatened buildings in Midtown Manhattan, which made the Landmarks board appear to be callous to the preservation of many buildings of clear historic merit. Mainly small scale, the doomed also lend civility to a part of the city being overwhelmed by overscaled, lowest-common-denominator monstrosities, many perpetrated by the hotel developer Sam Chang. Midtown, being largely commercial, has few defenders, and so its rich stock of extraordinary buildings gets demolished to make way for defacement even by big-name supposedly luxury developers like Related.
Though the pace of landmark designation seems brisk, the clamor for more preservation is getting louder. Neighborhoods want to wield landmark designation as a weapon against inappropriate development, which distorts the landmark law’s intent. Landmark designation, especially for entire neighborhoods, powerfully reduces affordability by heavily restricting development options, which encourages neighborhoods (especially with lots of lawsuit-ready lawyers and press-attracting celebrities) to push for preservation to stop development and shore up property values.
Preservation can be great for disadvantaged neighborhoods, creating a congenial investment environment that can lift all boats. Let’s celebrate the recent reopening of the 1848 High Bridge, which steps across the Harlem River in grand masonry arches, linking two solid neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx. For walkers and cyclists its in the same class as the Brooklyn Bridge and the High Line.
Because housing and tax policy over-rewards speculation, however, redevelopment too often arrives as a tidal wave, leading to large-scale displacement of the people who heroically held disinvested neighborhoods together for decades. Activists and city officials are too often unwilling to engage this unsavory side of preservation. (“Saving Places,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, celebrates too much the cultural-elite roots of preservation while barely touching on contemporary preservation dilemmas.)
Preservation is one tool among several we can use to allow growth while retaining civility and diversity. If we demand responsive and innovative ways of approaching scale, context, and quality in new construction, we’ll see less junk developed to last only through its financing cycle.
Zoning could return to its roots—assuring access by every property of adequate light and air. We need to use more natural ventilation and daylighting, since both reduce consumption of fossil fuels, while creating amenity that does not come at the expense of casting neighboring properties into twilight. Transfers of development rights, abused by the builders of super-tall towers among others, deserve to be scaled back or eliminated—even though they have proved a useful tool to put cash into needy historic buildings.
Yes, some“puny” battles deserve to be fought, but preservation must become proactive and fought in a context that’s meaningful to the whole city and enlivens it.
Jeremy Hawker says
my first instinct was not to second guess [the Frick’s] professed need to expand
Is it a given nowadays that museums MUST expand? Well, whatever. But since daylight is the enemy at most of these places, why not excavate deep basements? This is what rich Londoners do in order to get a movie theatre, pool and parking spaces under the house or mansion. The Frick could have two or three more floors of galleries the size of the Carrère & Hastings building footprint.
Debra Pickrel says
Good observations, Jim. One of my personal concerns in regard to interiors is that, once updates are made to say, the “embalmed” Four Seasons, a slippery slope begins…when, where, and to what extent are alterations allowed made afterward? Could they be stopped at a certain point? When does the “embalmed” Johnson interior cease to have authentic value, paving the way for complete renovation? Take Wright’s Hoffman Auto Showroom…alterations were made years ago by Taliesin Associated Architects, changing the original space…in 2013, developers licked their chops and circumvented slow moving landmark measures, and it was gone. I happened to walk by the door the day it was being gutted–shocking to see. The building issues you cite are indeed precarious, but interiors, perhaps even more so…often hidden from public view, it’s easier to get away with their destruction.
Leo Blackman says
Hey Jim, I just finished my term as president of HDC’s board, and have been very frustrated that in this 5oth anniversary year (perhaps because we’ve all been distracted with celebratory events) REBNY has managed to completely take over the story of preservation in NYC and cast it in a negative light. They got their claws into DeBlasio the moment he won the primary, and smartly realized he would do whatever they wanted if it was framed as “encouraging affordable housing”. So the proposed up-zonings city-wide, in the Vanderbilt corridor, and the outer boros can be sold to liberals. Genius strategy, but the advocacy groups don’t have the resources to take on REBNY.
I’ve been thinking about some actual ways to manage growth and improve the quality of what gets built. I have no doubts that REBNY could get it quashed, but I’d propose:
1) Survey the whole damn city, so there are no more surprises of important buildings getting torn down before anything can be done. Put a delay on demolitions of any deemed worthy, even if the full Landmarking process has not yet happened. Also identify “buildable” sites.
2) Eliminate the plaza bonus. How can it still be around? All that it has gotten us recently is the horrible Gene Meyer/Sam Chang cheap-ass set back hotels that have destroyed every block outside of the Madison Sq North district. And they haven’t gotten us public space since the 60’s.
3) Require developers to provide an independent analysis of the impact of the new users of their proposed buildings on the surrounding neighborhoods. The foot traffic near Times Sq, Grand Central, Penn Station is insufferable. The grid was designed for 3 story buildings, and how many times denser is 1 Vanderbilt. Who has decided NYC can accommodate endless growth
4) Require a design review of every new building. I don’t think the LPC process is flawless, but why should quality architecture only occur in HDs, and the rest of the city need to suffer? There is so much crap going up, that I hate to walk around now. Developers would hate this, but they’ve run amuck, with no adult supervision for too long. My rant is over, Leo
Thanks Jeremy, Debra, Leo: these are the debates we should be having, but too often we (including media) zoom in too close, and the big issues become too diffuse to inspire the kind of passionate activism that works. I’ll keep pushing this story out to get more people involved.
Terence Riley says
Leo, I came to the same conclusion here in Miami. If the zoning code can identify every lot and structure in the city, why can’t cities develop a preservation overlay?
More reflection on current state of preservation:
Lynn Ellsworth says
Parts of your argument seem (to me) to be in the right direction, but some of it is a bit twisted. First the twisted part: please don’t parrot the Glaeser/Chakrabarti anti-preservation ideology that makes the bogus claim that historic districts harm affordablity. That is is not informed by what is going on in NYC, nor by empirical research on housing prices in this city. The research that Glaeser has done simply does not prove in any way that historic districts undermine affordability in the city. Theirs is a theoretical argument that turns out not borne out by actual data. You should modify your argument about that. They just want hyper-density and will say anything to get it.
The part of your argument that seems more compelling (to me) is pointing out the element of tragedy that occurs when preservationists focus on small, “winnable” issues while in the larger picture, the city is being ripped apart all around us. They might win a battle but they are losing the war.
I wonder if this strategic error happens because the possibility of obtaining policy reforms favorable to a human-scaled city and the preservation of neighborhood character seem overly daunting because of the power that REBNY wields. Personally, I hope preservationists do modify their strategy and address the many larger policy reforms that are needed at the intersection of zoning, preservation, and urban planning. I certainly intend to.
James Russell says
I respectfully disagree with the contention that historic districts do not affect affordability. For any owner or developer desiring to maintain economic and social diversity, the barriers to development or redevelopment are high in the form of the length and elaborateness of the process to get any but tiny projects approved. The situation is worsened in well-heeled neighborhoods where entitled owners can afford to deploy great resources in the defeat of anything they perceive as inappropriate.
Terence Riley says
Jim, I agree that we need to revisit how we think about preservation and how we go about doing it.
I also agree that the relationship between dubious landmark districts and affordable housing be further explored. Interesting article here:
Daniel Kay Hertz, “I Wonder Why We Have An Affordable Housing Shortage”, City Notes, Posted on July 22, 2014 (danielkayhertz.com).
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