Should modernist buildings be saved?

More structures from 50s and 60s eligible for landmarking, but some oppose preservation

Mar.March 31, 2008 11:05 AM

A building does not necessarily have to be “huggable” to merit preservation. That’s how Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, makes the case that certain modernist buildings deserve landmarking consideration — even if some see them more as eyesores than as architectural treasures.

“The Seagram building, the Lever House — some of these buildings are not as huggable as the older Beaux-Arts structures,” Breen said, referring to two iconic 1950s office buildings on Park Avenue. “But you have to look at their importance in the architectural continuum, and how well-designed it is for what it is. Different periods of buildings go in and out of style. You don’t not save a building because it’s not pretty.”

Since in New York, buildings must wait for at least a generation to become eligible for landmark status (a minimum of 30 years is required), a new wave of not-so-huggable buildings is coming up for consideration. For instance, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, an aluminum-and-glass slab dating to 1961, was recommended for landmarking just last month.

On various wish lists for preservation are 50s- and 60s-era buildings that include: the former Look Magazine building at 488 Madison, which was designed by Emery Roth & Sons and erected in 1950; the Donnell Library Center at 20 West 53rd Street, designed by Edgar I. Williams in 1955; the Port Authority terminal at Washington Bridge Station, which was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi in 1963; and the Henry L. Moses Research Institute at Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx, designed by Philip Johnson in 1965.

This crop of buildings’ importance, or lack of importance, to the city’s landscape has become a subject for fierce debate. Adding urgency to the matter is that some of the structures are in the line of fire for developers, who want to demolish them and erect shinier replacements.

The architect Robert A.M. Stern said the city’s modernist buildings are, in a way, victims of the deeply-seeded resentment that dates back to their construction.

“The preservation community was slow in paying attention to modernist buildings,” Stern told The Real Deal. “The preservation movement started to grow when modernist buildings were replacing traditional buildings, and the modernist buildings got pushed to the side because people were angry about them.”

The O’Toole building at 36 Seventh Avenue (designed by architect Albert Ledner, who also designed the Maritime Hotel) and 2 Columbus Circle are the poster children in this round of debate. St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers, which owns the O’Toole building, has asked for permission to demolish it despite the fact that it is located in the Greenwich Village Historic District. It argues that the O’Toole is an aging facility and that the new 21-story tower it wants to build will allow it to provide more advanced, high-tech medical services.

Meanwhile, 2 Columbus Circle, commonly known as the Lollipop building, is undergoing renovation to house the Museum of Arts and Design after not making the landmark cut.

The Silver Towers housing complex, designed in 1966 by architect I.M. Pei and bounded by Bleecker and Houston streets and by LaGuardia Place, has also recently come under the landmarking microscope.

New York University, which owns two of the 32-story buildings, had wanted to build new buildings in between the towers. But the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has been lobbying the city to landmark the entire block, including the towers.

NYU, in a reversal of its previous position, recently announced its backing of that effort.

“This would be the first postwar urban renewal superblock to be considered for landmarking anywhere in the country,” the executive director of the preservation society, Andrew Berman, said. “There are not too many developments in that mold that would be considered for designation.”

After the New York Times published a story about the possible Silver Towers landmarking, responses on the paper’s Web site ran the gamut.

“The nature of aesthetics is that something of the recent past is almost inherently rejected to look to the future,” said John Jurayj, co-chair of the Modern Architecture Working Group, a preservationist committee. “There is a 10- to 20-year memory lapse that occurs in culture, but the Landmarks Commission needs to step up to the plate and not be part of that.”

“The Silver Towers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are a good example of Pei’s work,” Breen said. “It’s not all about like or dislike. Five or 10 years from now, everyone’s eye will have changed again.”

Preservationists worry that many modern structures worthy of landmarking will be overlooked as mundane parts of the urban landscape.

“There are many vernacular, modern buildings that are not by popular architects — those are some of the most endangered because they’ve become what we’re used to looking at,” said Nina Rappaport, chair of the New York tri-state chapter of Docomomo, a group devoted to the documentation and conservation of buildings from the modernist movement — a mission statement that was abbreviated to give it its name.

The group recently coordinated a survey of Midtown modernism.

But while Rappaport and others said not enough modernist buildings are being protected, Michael Slattery, a senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that if too many buildings are preserved, the city’s progress will stall. And, he said, the city suffers when preservation is used as a weapon to block new development.

“We need to acknowledge the value that preservation may have in terms of the
city’s architecture and history, but we need to balance that,” he said. “Too often, buildings of questionable merit are being proposed for landmark designation more to stop new development.”

Slattery said 2 Columbus Circle is “an example of a questionable building that could help to transform and revitalize Columbus Circle. I think the renovations were the right outcome, but it was a very contentious and problematic process.”

Of the buildings that preservationists are debating at the moment, the Donnell
Library seems to be the most endangered. Plans call for razing the building and replacing it with a hotel, though the library, which cannot afford necessary renovations, will occupy space on the first and basement floors.

Working in favor of many modernist buildings is that many of them are still structurally viable and lend themselves easily to restoration.

“Modern buildings are very versatile in terms of preservation,” said Jurayj. “Even if these buildings are altered, they are very easy to restore; all the techniques exist within contemporary architecture’s practice.”

Restoration “has a lot to do with maintenance, or lack of,” added Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “In some cases, there was a use of a new technology in the building that was still being perfected. They used specialty materials, and no one was sure how they were going to age.”

The Lever House at 390 Park Avenue, built in 1951, was already in shabby condition when it was landmarked in 1982. Water seepage, rust and damaged windows were among its problems. But according to Jurayj, its restoration in the late 1990s has rendered it “better as a restored structure than it was before.”

In a city where development is omnipresent, preserving some of these buildings is no small challenge.

“Modernism can be a convenient scapegoat; people can say a building is past its prime, a white elephant. But we have to bring along the idea that preservation is as valid a purpose as any other development,” said Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West!, a nonprofit that focuses on Upper West Side preservation.

The debate, of course, is likely to continue into future generations because there is no guarantee that today’s new office towers and apartment buildings will be seen as pretty 30 years from now.

“Preservation is not a popularity vote,” Jurayj said. “It should be a question of
curating for the future the best, most important, and most historically and architecturally interesting buildings.”

Stern put it this way: “A mix of buildings is part of what makes a place rich and deep in meaning. Landmarks don’t freeze a city in amber.”

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