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The Long Road To Our Landmarks Law

On April 19, 1965, New York City passed its landmarks law. While credit for passage of this law is often attributed to the demolition of Penn Station, the tragic loss of that beautiful Beaux Arts monument was just another straw on the proverbial camel’s back. The ability to protect our important built history which came into being in 1965 had roots in the late 19th century. Historic preservation began with women’s parties in house museums; civic leaders, planners, and residents of our own Greenwich Village later took the cause into their own hands. These preservation foremothers and fathers saw the rapid changes tearing through our city caused by industrialization, automobiles, and billboards, and they turned to legislation, zoning, and public rallies to create the New York City landmarks law.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner signs the New York City Landmarks Law, April 19, 1965.Photo: Margot Gayle/NY Preservation Archive Project

Two of the men given the greatest credit for the success of the cause of historic preservation in New York City are Albert Bard and George McAneny. George McAneny was a city planner, preservation advocate, and Manhattan Borough President from 1910 to 1913. McAneny fought to preserve Fifth Avenue, extend Seventh Avenue through Greenwich Avenue, and helped create the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He also worked hard in the effort to preserve City Hall, the Battery, and Castle Clinton. In the 1940s, alongside civic activists, McAneny spoke out against the demolition of the now landmarked federal rowhouses that line Washington Square Park. McAneny served as the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society president, which preserved scenic sites, papers, and buildings of historic significance.

Albert Bard, a lawyer and civic activist, was inspired by the beauty of our city, but disheartened by the growing number of billboards that were impinging upon it. To this end, in 1913, he drafted the “Patrimony of the People Clause,” which asserted that government had the right to interfere with private property based on aesthetics and civic good. Though this amendment did not pass, it opened up public discourse surrounding historic preservation. Bard’s determined, legal, and preservation-orientated mind would lead him to draft the Bard Act of 1954. This act was the enabling legislation necessary for the City, and other municipalities within New York State, to pass their landmarks legislation. 

Last car through Washington Square Park, 1958. Tankel Collection, Village Preservation

Besides these men, as we have highlighted, women were an essential part of the cause for preservation in our city. The women who worked on Save the Village strove tirelessly to preserve the character of the area surrounding Washington Square Park, and the park itself, in the face of proposed urban renewal plans. Like George McAneny and Albert Bard, the proponents of Save the Village directly fought against Robert Moses, and his plans to connect Fifth Avenue with his planned Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park. Jane Jacobs, one of the most widely known preservationists, famously fought for the pedestrianization of Washington Square Park. Doris Diether, a Save the Village campaign leader, worked to rezone the aroubd Washington Square Park. This rezoning was necessary to protect the height and character of the neighborhood before a landmarks law existed. 

Brokaw Mansion, NYC-Architecture

A combination of hard work and good timing gave New York City a mayor who was positively inclined towards preservation in many key ways at the crucial moment in the early 1960s. In 1962, Mayor Wagner formed the Mayor’s Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance. This committee had no legal authority. However, they identified historic structures that they believed should be preserved, and were supposed to be notified of any work to said structures before major construction or demolitions. In 1963, the committee could not stop the demolition of Penn Station, despite broad support. Its demolition prompted Geoffrey Platt to draft the legislation that would give a public landmarks preservation commission real power. In 1964 it was announced that the beautiful and historic Brokaw Mansion on the corner of East 79th St and 5th Avenue facing Central Park, was to be demolished, despite an enormous public outcry. The New York Times ran an article entitled “The Rape of the Brokaw Mansions.” Directly following, Mayor Wager signed in the Landmarks Law on April 19, 1965. 

To read more about the many preservationists who moved us closer to having a landmarks law, click here. To read the designation reports for the historic districts and individual landmarks in our neighborhoods, click here.

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