Saved From the Wrecking Ball: Today, and Fifty Years Ago
Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat! We have seen it on many occasions here at GVSHP. Most recently, in case you haven’t heard, we were victorious in persuading the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York City agency charged with administering the city’s Landmarks Preservation law, to begin the formal process of considering 827-831 Broadway for landmark designation.For a year and a half, after we became aware of a developer’s plans to demolish the buildings, we tenaciously waged a campaign to prevent the destruction. We initially fought the application for demolition in early 2016, but the LPC denied the request at that time. Only after extensive research and advocacy were we finally able to sway the Commission to reconsider their original decision. The two 1866 cast iron buildings, built in the Italianate style, were the home and studio of world-renowned artists Willem and Elaine de Kooing and Paul Jenkins, among others, and hold remarkable cultural significance. Yesterday, on September 19th, the LPC voted to calendar the buildings, affording them preliminary protections against demolition or alteration. The vote to designate the buildings will take place on a date to be decided in the very near future. We are thrilled.
There are remarkable echoes in events more than a half century ago. On September 21st, 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing, one of its first, on the proposed designation as a Landmark of the Astor Library. The LPC had only been created months before, in April, in response to the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station. In fact, the demolition of this well-known landmark is often cited as a catalyst for the modern historic preservation movement in the United States. After its destruction and the subsequent protests and outrage, new laws were passed to restrict such demolition in the future. The Astor Library was the first structure to be saved from the wrecking ball due to the newly formed commission and freshly penned law. The beautiful structure is now one of the leading lights of the cultural institutions in the United States: The Public.
The Victorian building on Lafayette Street is one of the few remaining public structures built in this style in New York City. Commissioned by the Astor family, the library was begun in 1849 and completed in 1881. Conceived as a research library, it was “the first great classical library broadly accessible to the public and set the example for such institutions as the Morgan Library [at 29 East 36th Street] and the Huntington Library [in San Marino, California]”, according to the landmark designation report on our Resources page. The building was officially designated on October 26, 1965.
Indeed, the building stands today as a testament to the early years of the landmarks law. In the words of well-known critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a fascinating 1966 New York Times article entitled “A Landmark Saved: Historic Building Scheduled for Razing Is Rescued With Aid of City’s New Law”:
“New York City has scored its first major preservation success under its 18-month old landmarks law with the dramatic announcement of Joseph Papp’s plans to purchase the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street as the Shakespeare Festival’s new home. Scheduled for the wrecker’s ball six months ago, the miraculous last-ditch rescue of the Victorian red brick and brownstone structure is a bit of appropriate 19th-century melodrama calculated to make any 20th-century cynic’s heart melt. On a less emotional level, it may also indicate the power of the New York landmarks law to turn the tide in the fortunes of the city’s historic heritage.”
Congratulations to the LPC for making such a monumental decision to preserve the Astor Library building back in 1965. We hope they will do the same for the beautiful and culturally significant buildings at 827-831 Broadway. Stay tuned.