Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Landmarks Law Turns 50 & Is Marked By Praise, Criticism, & Commitment

To nominate a landmark-worthy site, interior, or district, complete a Request For Evaluation form:

Mayor Robert Wagner signing the Landmarks Law, April 19, 1965, Photograph by Margot Gayle, Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project

New York City’s Landmarks Law, which falls under the jurisdiction of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), is being recognized by citywide residents as it turned 50 on April 19th. One such commemoration was the illumination of the Empire State Building in blue, gold, and white. On April 16th, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York City Council presented LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan with a proclamation to honor the Landmarks Law, the LPC, and the preservation community.

History has proven that it may take a travesty to result in some success stories. Back in 1963, hundreds of New Yorkers marched, urging the city to preserve the classic Penn Station back in 1963, but watched in awe as the wrecking ball slammed the grand ionic columns, eagles, and palatial arched interior. In 1965, the city responded to those pleas when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmarks Law, but it could not resurrect Penn Station’s glory.

Nevertheless, the LPC did not act swiftly to calendar, hear, and designate other unofficial landmarks such as Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, nicknamed “The largest roadside restaurant in the United States,” and the Singer Building, one of America’s first skyscrapers to be illuminated at night. 

Howard Johnson's not landmarked in time & demolished... all for a banal black glass office tower. Note the Trylon & Perisphere monuments, the symbol of the 1939 World's Fair in the background.
   It may be difficult to visualize a cityscape without landmarks such as Carnegie Hall and Grand Central Station, and Individual Landmarks and Historic Districts in Washington Square Park and SoHo. However, these properties and neighborhoods nearly faced demolition, if not for the heroic preservation advocacy of respectively violinist Isaac Stern, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and urban theorist and author Jane Jacobs.  

LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan explained, “Over the past 50 years, we have protected over 33,000 architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites throughout all five boroughs. I am proud to say that since I was appointed Chair, we have designated around 1,700 additional buildings.”

Referencing the Preservation Department’s excess of 13,000 work applications for landmarked properties annually, she said, “The Commission rigorously reviews these applications to find architectural solutions to meet today’s exciting challenges of sustainability, adaptive reuse, and new construction in historic districts, all while preserving the significant architectural features and character of the landmarked properties.” She then extended gratitude to her fellow Commissioners and staff members, alongside the dedication of property owners who become stewards, architects who are creative yet historically-sensitive, and preservation advocates and community groups who often play a major role in public hearings after nominating sites and districts by submitting a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form.

Many community residents feel that Forest Hills and Rego Park, which have a shared history that dates to 1906 and 1923, have long been underserved by the LPC in the name of Individual Landmarks (facades), Interior Landmarks, and Historic Districts. Forest Hills has three landmarks which are the Remsen Cemetery (designated 1981), the Ridgewood Savings Bank (designated 2000), and Engine Company 305, Hook &Ladder Company 151 (designated 2012). Rego Park has yet to receive designations. 

Engine Co. 305, Hook & Lader Co. 151, Photo by Michael Perlman
Ridgewood Savings Bank, 107-55 Queens Blvd, Photo by Michael Perlman
Remsen Cemtery, Photo by Michael Perlman
Dadras Architects, a firm led by partners Robert Dadras and Victor Dadras, are the founders of the Downtown Revitalization Group, a collaborative which specializes in the revitalization and redevelopment of main streets and neighborhood commercial corridors, as well as historic preservation, urban design, and adaptive reuse. Now they wish to assist Forest Hills and Rego Park with their preservation, revitalization, and landmarking initiatives.

The firm emphasized the need for greater public education about architecture and the landmarking process. Dadras Architects explained, "Landmarking is overwhelmingly successful in every scenario; from economically to socially to environmentally. Property values have increased, historic architecture has been restored, and new buildings nearby have been designed better." They continued, "Preservation always costs less than building anew, is greener, supports your local businesses, and enables potential grants and tax credits for restoration."

"Preservation should extend beyond the Forest Hills Gardens," stated Dadras Architects. They proposed a historic preservation weekend in Forest Hills and Rego Park, consisting of tours and educational conferences as an initial step. 

Historian Jeff Gottlieb, President of Central Queens Historical Association, leads the Downtown Forest Hills Tour at the corner of Austin St & Continental Ave, September 2010
“There is minimal awareness of the rich history of Queens,” said Linda Fisher, a Forest Hills resident and a licensed NYC tour guide. She continued, “Neighborhood history can come alive through walking tours, lectures, and oral histories by residents.” Locally, she envisions numerous landmarking candidates including the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, the Metropolitan Industrial Bank building (Bank of America), the Forest Hills Post Office, and the former Jamaica Savings Bank. 

Metropolitan Industrial Bank building, 99-01 Queens Blvd in 1952, Courtesy of Queens Chamber of Commerce
Metropolitan Industrial Bank building at 99-01 Queens Blvd in 2014, Photo by Michael Perlman

Former Jamaica Savings Bank at 89-01 Queens Boulevard, Elmhurst in 2009, Photo by Michael Perlman
A National Register of Historic Places site: Forest Hills Post Office, 106-28 Queens Blvd, Photo by Greg Godfrey  
Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, Photo by Michael Perlman
Anita Nelson, also from Forest Hills, cringes when she spots McMansions in place of landmark-worthy homes in the Cord Meyer section of Forest Hills, such as the Al Jolson house, and suggested Individual Landmarking to spare the remnants. Additionally, her wish list includes the Queens Medical Society building, Sterling National Bank, and Arbor Close and Forest Close. “With the advent of social media, it’s easier to bring these campaigns to the attention of local citizens who would like to become involved,” she said. 

Forest Close, Photo by Michael Perlman
Arbor Close, Photo by Michael Perlman
Medical Society of The County of Queens, 115-25 Queens Blvd, Photo by Michael Perlman
Sterling National Bank at 108-01 Queens Blvd in 1963, Originally Masonic Temple followed by Boulevard Bank

The Al Jolson house, a Tudor Gothic gem facing demolition in 2006
Astonished by the lack of local designations, Rego Park resident Lisa Stone said, “It is an outrage that more buildings receive landmark status in Manhattan than in Queens. I will research landmark-worthy buildings in Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Elmhurst, and lobby the LPC to assure that they swiftly earn the title they richly deserve, beginning with the Midway Theatre.”

Echoing her sentiment, architect and musician William Gati of Kew Gardens referred to the LPC’s Manhattan address. He said, “There are borough offices for City Planning, the Department of Buildings, and all major agencies, except the LPC. This lack of representation indicates a philosophy that the boroughs are not as important as Manhattan. I strongly believe Queens would be better served if we had our own LPC borough office to address specific requests.”

Edward Wendell, President of the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society, eyes Historic District status for a large section of Forest Park and the LaLance & Grojean Factory Clock Tower, and said, “I hope the 50th anniversary celebration will bring attention to the many extremely worthy locations around Queens. Each site we can secure with landmarking is one to be enjoyed for generations to come.” He questioned, “Why imagine what these places looked like or view them in old pictures?”

LaLance & Grojean Factory Clock Tower at the turn-of-the-century, Courtesy of Project Woodhaven

This feature also appears in the Forest Hills Times