By Kelly Green
The New York City skyline displays centuries of architects’ and engineers’ ideas and designs that range from almost 400 years old to modern construction. It is just one of many cities where national, state, and local governments must work to preserve and protect historical landmarks through legislation. In fact, the state and city of New York implemented rules and regulations on historic preservation prior to federal legislation in the United States.
This legislation translates into modern-day building envelope restoration projects in NYC for all property owners or managers with buildings designated as individual landmarks or located within a Historic District. It typically requires extra planning and budgeting for a project to abide by the Rules of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Ornate building elements can be expensive to repair or replace while upholding the original, historic aesthetic. For example, whenever possible it is preferred to utilize “in-kind” materials for stone replacement on historic buildings. Many existing decorative elements consist of natural stones (marble, granite, bluestone, etc.), but natural stone units carved with intricate detailing typically have a longer lead time and are much more expensive than common substitute materials used on non-historic buildings (cast stone, GFRC, etc.).
If frustrations arise when planning your restoration project due to the length of the schedule and a lofty budget, it may be a valuable perspective to revisit the “why” behind the requirements and guidelines defined by LPC. The New York State Historic Preservation Enabling Act was adopted in 1956, and the New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in 1965. The city-level legislation was partly spurred by the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1964 and promptly followed by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as the eyes of the nation became more focused on the need for preservation efforts. Later, the New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980 further fine-tuned the rules and regulations at a state level.
New York State Historic Preservation Enabling Act of 1956
In April of 1956, the New York State Historic Preservation Enabling Act, also known as the Bard Law, was passed by the legislature and signed into law. The intention at that time was to generally preserve neighborhoods, thus the verbiage of the law was very broad. When this law was passed, the supporters also proposed and advocated for a goal of influencing the zoning reform in New York City to account for the protection of historic buildings and neighborhoods. However, New York City’s Zoning Resolution of 1961 lacked any inclusion or reference to its historic preservation efforts.
Demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1964
Stronger legislation regarding historic preservation in New York City was pushed forward in response to an event that drew significant attention from the public. The demolition of the beloved, elegant Pennsylvania Station, originally built in 1910, shifted the popular political views of New York City residents and even gained attention at a national level in the United States. Both the interior and exterior of this transportation hub were crafted with such attention to detail that many argue has not been reflected in modern buildings. The architecture included elaborate natural stone elements and wide-spanning arches that allowed natural light to illuminate the interior as commuters passed through the terminal. The entrances on all sides were guarded by immense columns and the overall aesthetic was reflective of the historic structures in ancient Greece and Rome.
Unfortunately in 1963, demolition began at Penn Station as the Pennsylvania Railroad struggled to remain afloat due to its outstanding debt and aging infrastructure. They eventually later declared bankruptcy in 1970. Amazingly, throughout the 5 years of demolition and rebuild, service was never interrupted and the location of each track and platform remained the same. In efforts to optimize the usage and profitability of the land, the open space above the old Penn Station was utilized for the new venue, Madison Square Garden, and office spaces.
Typical original cathedral ceilings with natural lighting versus modern drop ceilings with light fixtures (Source: www.myleszhang.org)
This hit home with the public and spurred political action due to the loss of such a dignified piece of architecture, where anyone from a daily commuter to a distant traveler could enter New York City with a feeling of awe. Vincent Scully, influential art and architecture historian was quoted as saying, “Through Penn Station, one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
New York City Landmarks Law of 1965
In the 1950s and 1960s, New York City residents really began to consider the consequences of urban growth and the destruction of structures that portray integrity and hold aesthetic value for the community. Supporters of historic preservation argued that proper planning for the maintenance of aging buildings would still allow for the continued growth of the city, and planning for exterior maintenance is one of the ways in which we, as building envelope consultants, can assist and empower you. The initial preservation efforts depended heavily on private funding, but with time historic buildings proved to be profitable as the public was drawn towards historic value leading to economic gains in tourism and property values.
In 1965, as the demolition of Penn Station drew the eye of the public, the New York City Landmarks Law was enacted and the Landmarks Preservation Commission was established with authority to designate individual landmarks and historic districts. They published the Rules of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Title 63, which outlines all processes, procedures, and standards that are enforced by the agency.
Prior to performing a renovation on a historic building in NYC, a design professional must obtain the approval of the Landmarks Commission. The requirements for this process and clarification on work that requires a permit are outlined in the LPC Permit Guidebook. A staff-level approval can be issued with a document called the Certificate of No Effect if the work is within the LPC Rules. Typically, material samples are reviewed with the staff level examiners to ensure all repairs are performed without affecting or changing the appearance of the façade. However, if there is any deviation from the LPC Rules, the owner and design professional must bring their application for the proposed work to a public hearing and presentation to the LPC Commissioners to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness.
National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
The movement and public awareness of the need for historic preservation had been increasing in the United States for two decades before the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted in 1966. It included Section 106, which authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to create the National Register, a list of historic sites, districts, structures, and objects.
New York Historic Preservation Act of 1980
The New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980 followed and further developed New York state’s preservation programs. It also identified cultural heritage as one of the most important environmental assets. It created a public policy for the state to actively proceed with programs that would protect this environmental asset and encourage maintenance, reuse, conservation, and enhancement of areas deemed significant to the state’s history and culture.
Article 14 of this act includes the regulations for Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Law. The responsibility of coordinating New York State preservation programs falls under the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
In a city that grows and changes as much as New York City, there are always going to be opposing political pressures. Some people may find it time-consuming and frivolous to go through several iterations of color and texture samples before performing a standard repair. However, if you look back at the history and the “why” behind the potential inconveniences that come with the rules and regulations, we are very lucky to have the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission enforcing them. They continue to balance the preservation of our city with the limitations of urban growth and financial limitations.