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Preservation Before Penn Station’s Demolition

Architect Philip Johnson and Aline Saarinen, among many others, march in protest of the impending demolition of Penn Station.

Common lore has it that the demolition of Penn Station fifty years ago was the impetus behind the modern preservation movement in New York, but in fact, preservation efforts in Greenwich Village and elsewhere had begun long before. This coming Tuesday, April 30, GVSHP will present a conversation with scholars Franny Eberhart, Jon Ritter, and Tony Wood about preservation in New York before the demolition of Penn Station.  So what are some of the early preservation battles that influenced the debate on preservation in Greenwich Village? In light of our upcoming program, we here at Off the Grid will spend some time reviewing three important sites.

Last car through Washington Square Park, 1958. Tankel Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

1935 Redesign of Washington Square Park: Robert Moses would face many battles from the residents of Greenwich Village. Perhaps his first was a 1935 plan to redesign Washington Square Park. Besides changes to the design of the plantings, the most controversial change was circuiting traffic around the park, a change that would have required widening the streets around the park. The Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square was formed to voice dissent and offer alternative plans. The committee was particularly organized and won support of NYU students, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This was a victory for preservationists, as would be the final closing to traffic in Washington Square Park over twenty years later.

“Doorway of 61 Washington Square Park” New York Bound Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 1945.

Demolition of Genius Row and NYU Law School: One of the earliest preservation battles in New York, the demolition of genius row on Washington Square South by a private developer in 1948 spurred activism by a number of community residents wanting to protect residences that had long been a boarding house for writers, artists and musicians, including Willa Cather and Stephen Crane. This battle is often discussed in conjunction with the construction of the NYU Law School building, which was taking place at the same time and saw the destruction of residences on the entire block between the park and West 3th Street and MacDougal Street and Sullivan Street. When the developer of the former Genius Row rescinded his plan to build the apartment building and sold the property to New York University, Village activists who feared New York University’s buildings would overtake the Village were further inflamed. Past Off the Grid posts offer more information on the Genius Row and NYU Law School controversies.

Demolition of the Rhinelander Houses: In 1944, the Rhinelander Real Estate Company sold a large part of their estate, including the Rhinelander houses along Washington Square North built in 1840 for William C. Rhinelander and Mary Rogers Rhinelander. A 19-story apartment building was planned for the lot. This sale marked very early preservation efforts by the Greenwich Village community. According to the New York Preservation Archive Project (a co-sponsor of Tuesday evening’s program), “the Washington Square Committee formed to preserve the historic Rhinelander Houses and the beauty and atmosphere of the Square.” Groups from across the city and even the nation rallied for the preservation of the Rhinelander buildings, but in the end, the City Planning Commission allowed demolition for the creation of the large apartment house known today as Two 5th Avenue.

Want to learn more? Join us Tuesday evening for GVSHP’s talk Preservation before the Demolition of Penn Station. More information and RSVP information can be found on the GVSHP website.

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