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Embedded History in City Streets: Preserving history while building for the future

Embedded History in City Streets: Preserving history while building for the future | New York Empire State Building
Empire State Building

Every major city has a rich and diverse history embedded in its streets through architecture and design. In New York, some of the most obvious staples of this can be seen in the Empire State Building (1930), the Chrysler Building (1928), Central Park (1858), the Brooklyn Bridge (1869), and in perhaps the most cornerstone of all, the Statue of Liberty (1875). These city icons are internationally recognized and are inextricable from the New York essence. Is it even fathomable to imagine the city without them? In what kind of world would we be if Central Park got built over by luxury condos? Or, if Liberty Island got overhauled into an all-inclusive resort? The thought of either of those historical mainstays being perverted in any such way seems preposterous to say the least, and any such effort in the future would be met with strong objection.

We value history. People change and with them so do the cities they live in, but, we can refer to the relics of our past to provide us with a cohesive cultural definition of ourselves as we move forward. Just like our lives are defined by our memories, cities are defined by cultural markers and historic feats – the erasure of either constitutes the erasure of value, either personal or cultural. There is a fine line, however, between the destructive and insensitive disregard for a city's cultural history and contribution to its growth. Imagine if someone burned all of your childhood photo albums, and arrogantly replaced them with theirs. In some cases, this is essentially how development functions, where the historical significance of a building or marker is disregarded and replaced by something that benefits the wallet of an opportunist investor. On the flip side, imagine if someone added a bunch of photos of you to your photo album – photos you didn't know existed – that reflect moments of your life. In this example, development becomes cooperative, since it’s done with respect to the people whose lives it directly affects.

Continuity. This really is the keyword. Preservation of the city must be comprehensive. If we can agree that the destruction of the integral parts of New York's visual history is beyond ludicrous, then why do we not have the same attitude towards the destruction of important historical relics of New York’s communities, or in communities of any other city for that matter?

Brinckerhoff Cemetery
Brinckerhoff Cemetery

For example, a place like the Brooklyn Lyceum (1906) is much more vulnerable if someone wanted to build a gym inside of it (and build it they did) then say any potential development in a building that is well recognized on the international level. Thankfully there are measures put in place such as the New York City Landmarks Law (a derivative of the Bard Act of 1956 drafted by Albert S. Bard) to protect sites of historical significance. Pieces of legislation like the Landmarks Law are vital for preservation, but they are not without their limitations. Often times, community members rush to bestow landmark status to a particular location under pressure from developers, with only limited success. One such case where the Landmarks Law proved its worth would be in the case of the Brinckerhoff Cemetery. While there are no visible headstones left, written and visual records were referenced in determining the property had enough archeological significance to render it a landmark. The site which is found between two homes had previously been under threat from an owner who purchased the plot for $105,000 with the intent of constructing homes on the land. It was under these circumstances that in 2012 a struggle was triggered to save the land from development with success.

An important question arises out of the need for preservation: How can we preserve our history and still allow room for growth? While one comprehensive solution may be extremely difficult to arrive at given the number of relative cases, one specific case can help us see that it is at the very least, possible to do preserve and develop a growing city. The TWA Flight Center was originally designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (1910 – 1961) in 1957 and completed in 1962 a year after his death. The terminal features an iconic futurist Headhouse in addition to the many intriguing red carpeted tube-shaped pathways and an overall remarkable interior design. In spite of its incredible design, the terminal went out of use in 2001 when Trans World Airlines finally became overwhelmed by financial difficulties and sold their assets to American Airlines. This “Grand Central of the jet age” as described by architect Robert A. M. Stern, faced some renovations and was partially restructured into what is now generally referred to as “Terminal 5”. Before its partial implementation as an active terminal in 2008, the dormant terminal became a site of increased cultural significance when it became the grounds for an art exhibition by the same name. Terminal 5 ran for several months until a rowdy guest had damaged a door leading to a runway, breaching airport security. Having the protection of being a New York City landmark since 1994 and on the historical register since 2005, Saarinen’s flight center would seem to have limited flexibility in terms of its pragmatic use for the future, potentially adding to congestion in an already extremely dense city. However, a creative and constructive solution was arrived at, one that would preserve the flight center’s architectural integrity while still contributing to the growth and development of New York City. In 2015 Governor Cuomo announced that the flight center would be converted into a massive hotel, reinstating a previously inaccessible work of architectural mastery, allowing it once again to be viewed, appreciated and used by many.

 Lafayette Theatre in Harlem
Lafayette Theatre in Harlem

However, not all sites of historical significance can be repurposed, and some that perhaps shouldn’t be, are. However, if they can be adapted, it's much better to save them than to demolish them. Some sites suffer a darker fate than that of the TWA Flight Center and the Brinckerhoff Cemetery like the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, which was destroyed in 2013 despite providing a stage for numerous world-class jazz musicians and Broadway hits. The demolition of a place of such cultural significance comes with an element of cynicism; we really can't save them all. However, this cynicism can be easily overcome. We can save some and improve and adapt others; by implementing creative solutions and uncovering more context about a particular location, people can save sites of historical significance.


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