Four Hundred Years of Heroes and Villains

A Tribute to the New York City Landmarks Commission
Now privately owned, these paired three-story residences at 437-459 West 24th Street in Manhattan were built in the mid-19th century to provide housing for merchants and professionals of the expanding Chelsea community. Below, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, the longest-serving commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, worked under four mayors: Abe Beame, David Dinkins, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani.

No matter where you live in New York City, fortune’s wheel plays a part in your well-being. Great views and sunlight are here today and gone tomorrow. The coming of a new subway line shatters the peace and quiet of thousands. Small buildings are demolished to make way for big ones; longtime tenants are out of luck. Life changes. 

I have lived for decades in a Carnegie Hill brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When we first moved in, the storefronts around the corner housed hard-working shoemakers, dry cleaners, mom-and-pop pharmacies, made-to-order tailor shops, and other small businesses. In 1976, however, three years after the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission identified our rather scruffy neighborhood as a historic district, a couple bought the brick-and-brownstone handyman special that the pharmacy had occupied for 50 years, restored it to its former elegance, and established in its ground-floor commercial space what quickly became one of the city’s leading independent bookshops, a frequent backdrop for Woody Allen movies. 

What luck! After that, despite the construction in 1984 of a 32-story apartment house wildly out of scale with the low-rise area and casting many a backyard into perpetual shadow, residents of individual blocks formed their own preservation associations. Homeowners planted long-unused window boxes, tree beds sprouted daffodils. In recent years the same has happened in other historic districts all over the five boroughs, especially Brooklyn.

I still wonder, though, how they ever let that building go up. “The issue of new construction within landmarked districts is a never-ending problem,” Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel acknowledges in her introduction to “The Landmarks of New York,” a remarkable volume first published in 1988 and now in its sixth incarnation. The book is a tribute not only to the preservation commission upon the 50th anniversary of its founding but also to the impassioned civic commitment of its author, who has almost certainly headed more historic preservation-related organizations than anybody else in this country, starting in the ’60s and continuing, as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, full steam ahead today.

Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel is one of those writers who can take a weighty subject and make it not just enlightening but entertaining. Her reader-friendly introduction to the book — which, be warned, runs to 912 pages, with photos and backstories of 1,360 individual landmarks, 10 scenic landmarks, and 139 historic districts — manages to sound dispassionate in one sentence and derisory in the next, with heroes and villains aplenty in its absorbing stories of how endangered structures have been snatched from the jaws of backhoes.

Or lost. “An especially troubling incidence of demolition by neglect occurred in 2015,” Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel writes. “The spectacular Public School 31 in the Bronx . . . owned by the City of New York, had been abandoned since 1997. Before it had been emptied, due to a repair program gone awry, the school had been one of the top performing in the area. Despite numerous warnings and admonitions from parents, residents, elected officials, and preservation advocates, the building was never repaired, and after almost 20 years of neglect was demolished. The site is now being developed for affordable housing.”

It was after the destruction of Penn Station in 1963 that urban preservation, “providing a sense of continuity in a city of restless change, destruction, and construction,” began in earnest. But preservation, Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel repeatedly cautions, should be “the partner of good development and not an impediment to it,” recognizing and allowing for “the delicate equilibrium that must exist between new and old, between economics and aesthetics, between progress and history.”

In other words, never-ending confrontation demands never-ending collaboration — and, she laments, the landmarks commission never has enough money or staff to deal with it.

“Francis Bacon wrote that ‘the monuments of wit survive the monuments of power.’ Unfortunately, when ‘wit’ is a charming 18th-century frame house that lends an air of scale and civility to an already crowded neighborhood, and ‘power’ is a block-square behemoth that promises to generate thousands of jobs and millions in sales and property taxes, Bacon’s dictum is placed in jeopardy.”

Tales of the landmarks, often diverting, occasionally galvanizing, accompany their photos (often, unfortunately, small and blurry). Take the Windermere building at 400 West 57th Street in Manhattan, “notable as one of the first residences in the city to offer housing to single women in the late 19th century.” Those Manhattanites of a certain age will be reminded of the Barbizon Hotel for Women on East 63rd Street, where, until 1981, men were not allowed above the ground floor. Who knew that fossil had a much older ancestor? The Windermere, designated a landmark in 2005, is hidden at the moment under scaffolding while new owners renovate, but when the job is done I mean to go see it. 

A record of 400 years of architectural richness, “Landmarks” is an indispensable addition to the libraries of historians, architects, and preservationists, yes, but also for all of us who like knowing more about such remnants as the tall-case cast-iron lampposts that have survived in every borough but Staten Island (which may have more landmarked houses than any of the other four), or the city’s seven remaining sidewalk clocks, originally used as advertising posts, or a street name, an individual building, or an entire neighborhood. 

“Landmarks of New York” weighs about five pounds and has a list price of $75, but this book is worth every backache and penny.

A cast-iron street clock can be found at 753 Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, the only one surviving in that borough. There are four landmarked sidewalk clocks in Manhattan and two in Queens. This is the oldest, circa 1895.
P.S. 31, one of many public schools built in the late 19th century to accommodate the surging population of the Bronx, was “a model for academic architecture in the years to come,” according to “The Landmarks of New York.” The building’s more recent story, however, is not a happy one.
The 1855 Mount Morris Watchtower lives on in Marcus Garvey Park opposite East 122nd Street in Manhattan. From its four-story-high cupola, a watchman could see across the roofs of Harlem and ring the bell to summon help if he spotted a fire.