← Back

The Little-Known Commission Behind the City Beautiful


The new 51 Astor Place, widely criticized as out of context, has caused many to wonder what “they” were thinking.

Have you ever walked by an unattractive building and thought – or maybe heard an innocent ask – “How could they allow that to be built?”

Well, unfortunate edifices are allowed to be built because usually there is no “they” – no arbiter of aesthetics for as-of-right new construction outside of landmarked areas (beyond a few designated “special districts,” which may have some loose design guidelines for new construction).  But otherwise, if the proposed structure passes muster by the Department of Buildings — if it conforms with the zoning and the building code — it can be built.

There is one area in which there is a “they,” however, and that is for construction and art installation on city-owned land and in city-owned buildings. A little-known city agency, the Public Design Commission, approves public works from roofs to park benches before they are realized.

The group was established in 1898 as the Art Commission, but was renamed the Design Commission six years ago. For a century now, it has done its work out of a most artful location: the third story of City Hall, where its offices encircle the oculus of the rotunda. Just last week, Mayor de Blasio appointed a new chair, architect Faith Rose, who previously led the Design Excellence program at the city’s Department of Design and Construction.

In May, the Design Commission approved a conservation plan for this 1894 sculpture of Peter Cooper, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to protect it as work is being done in Cooper Square.

As Off the Grid was unable to obtain input from Ms. Rose, we’ll quote the website:

The Design Commission reviews permanent works of art, architecture and landscape architecture proposed on or over City-owned property. Projects include construction, renovation or restoration of buildings, such as museums and libraries; creation or rehabilitation of parks and playgrounds; installation of lighting and other streetscape elements; and design, installation and conservation of artwork.

The Design Commission is composed of 11 members, who serve pro bono, and includes an architect, landscape architect, painter and sculptor as well as representatives of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. The Commission holds monthly public hearings in its offices on the third floor of City Hall, where it has resided since 1914.

The Commission also acts as caretaker and curator of the City’s public art collection and maintains an extensive archive documenting the history of New York City’s public works.

If you’re interested in the Commission’s doings, you can watch hearings or view minutes here, and see images from the extensive archives here.


One response to “The Little-Known Commission Behind the City Beautiful

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *