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GVSHP Panel Discussion: Preservation After the 1963 Demolition of Penn Station

Last night, GVSHP and our co-sponsor, New York Preservation Archive Project, hosted a panel discussion on the subject of the preservation movement following the demolition of the old Penn Station. The original Penn Station, built by the renowned architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White in 1910, stood for over fifty years as a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and a monument to New York’s aspirations as a world capitol.  In 1963 the station was demolished, a loss that was bitterly protested.  The demolition prompted deep self-reflection on the part of our city, and was soon followed by the passage of New York City’s Landmarks Law.

Interior of the old Penn Station

The panel examined how the preservation effort in New York has evolved since then, with a focus on each mayoral administration. Panelists were: Prof. Franny Eberhart, a director of the Historic Districts Council and Vice-Chair of the Historic House Trust; Anthony Robins, preservationist and author;  and Tony Wood, author and founder of the New York Preservation Archive Project. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, served as moderator.

Mr. Wood is widely regarded  – and praised by his co-panelists – for his expertise in the history of preservation. He began the evening with an overview of the preservation movement, and divided the post-Penn-Station era into 3 periods: the Wagner-Lindsay-Beame administrations, the Koch-Dinkins administrations, and the Giuliani-Bloomberg administrations. He spoke about the changing attitudes toward preservation during those times, some positive and some negative. He pointed out that in earlier years, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was chaired by persons with knowledge of preservation, through experience and education. In later years the LPC was chaired by persons whose expertise was not preservation, but rather management.

Panelists l. to r. Franny Eberhart (at podium), Tony Wood, Tony Robins (seated)

Mr. Robins, who worked at the Landmarks Preservation Commission for many years, shared an insider’s view with the audience. During his tenure at LPC he saw many changes and much growth. We learned that for many years in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a generation gap within LPC: most staff members were in their 20’s, while management personnel were in their 40’s, but the Commissioners were older still, 60’s and 70’s. He pointed out that while preservation as a discipline grew, more entry-level positions were given to people with advance degrees in preservation, while the people they reported to were actually less educated. One of the problems with this imbalance was that some buildings that were proposed for landmarking may have only been 30 years old, and this did not seem old enough to the Commissioners.

Lalique window at Henri Bendel

Professor Franny Eberhart spoke to the audience from a different perspective still. She began her involvement in preservation as a volunteer, trying to save the Church of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She discovered her passion for this work, and eventually pursued her degree in Historic Preservation. She spoke about the victory of saving the Beaux Arts town houses at 712-716 Fifth Avenue, which had been scheduled for demolition to make way for a new tower. Ultimately the tower was constructed behind the townhouses, one of which today is the flagship store of Henri Bendel, complete with Lalique windows.

Mr. Berman then posed questions to the panel such as which mayors were considered better for preservation and which were worse, how has the LPC grown, and what would the panelist like to see happen next. Their answers made for a lively discourse!

For more information about GVSHP public programs, please see our website at http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/events/index.htm


Demolition of Penn Station source: nydailynews.com

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