Our third guest at last week’s Faculty Resource Network seminar was the architectural preservationist Ward Dennis, who is a member of the firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, which advises private, corporate, government and institutional clients on the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties. “Denny” is also an adjunct professor in the Historic Preservation program of Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Last spring, he taught a Historic Preservation studio course that took Corlears Hook as its study area.
For Denny, change is a fact of urban life, and as a preservationist he adopts what he regards as a “curatorial” approach that can allow a city to manage the ways in which its neighborhoods change, not simply preserving buildings from the past but also finding new uses for them. He began with what might be considered the preservationist’s conundrum, using the famous Katz’s Delicatessen as an example.
The guidebooks call Katz’s a New York landmark, but from the standpoint of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, it can’t be landmarked because it isn’t architecturally distinguished. And what is it really, that you want to preserve about Katz’s? It isn’t, Denny argued, the building: it’s the pastrami sandwich — its taste and the ambiance in which you consume it. And that’s something you can’t legislate.
Katz’s signs offer evidence of another characteristic of city life that sometimes stymies preservations: the process of accretion over time. The signs were added at different times, which in fact detracts from the potential significance of the building itself. It is much more difficult to have landmark status conferred on buildings that are substantially altered over time. Change apparently diminishes architectural significance, and architectural significance is the name of the game when it comes to landmarking.
In the afternoon, he led us on a tour of the neighborhood south of Washington Square, showing us the changing architectural styles of buildings that were once tenements, pointing out features and subtle distinguishing marks that most of us don’t notice as we walk by these buildings on a daily basis. What became clear is that the idea of Greenwich village as a Bohemian space quickly became a marketing tool for developers in the early part of the twentieth century. Many buildings were renovated so that they could be more effectively represented as artists’ spaces. The tour highlighted a concept that emerged during the week as highly problematic, often evoked as a reason to resist or promote one or another kind of urban change: the idea of authenticity.
Overall, Denny offered us a highly pragmatic approach to the task of preservation, a refreshing counterweight to the nostalgia and sometimes knee-jerk resistance to change that often accompanies accounts of “lost New York.”
Hmm. I wonder if your conclusion isn’t a little too either/or. I also found Denny’s pragmatism surprising and somewhat refreshing, and I appreciated the example of Katz’s pastrami as the *what* that someone would want to preserve, and the difficulty doing so. But I think it’s too easy to throw up our hands and suggest that because you can’t landmark a pastrami sandwich the only choice is to roll with it once the owners of a place like Katz’s decides it’s time to retire. We have the ability (and responsibility) to create and maintain neighborhood ecosystems that are friendly to places like Katz’s and provide all the incentive possible for keeping them around. That goes beyond encouraging people to eat there: it means keeping high rise condos off of Houston (the monstrosity next to Mercury Lounge should never have been allowed to go up) and discouraging the douchebags who want to move into neighborhoods like that one only to replace everything there with high end goods and sterile services.
Two other models from Houston St might be useful to think about: Russ and Daughters remains family owned and operated (unless I’m mistaken; I don’t have time to look it up just for this comment) and has clearly undergone changes over time to keep pace with a changing city, though they still maintain a very special place in the neighborhood, and one sensitive to history. Yonah’s, down the street, hasn’t remodeled its interior nearly as much. It feels like it must have when Yonah abandoned his pushcart and moved operations in doors, though in reality it probably just feels the way it did in 1960 or so. Still, it keeps doing what it does, has a loyal base, and keeps the history of LES foodways alive for new generations of knish eaters. Now, which one is more likely to fold? Probably Yonah’s, since it seems more reluctant to keep up with the glossy makeover of that part of town. But perhaps that’s all the more reason to make sure the new New York doesn’t get its mitts on that stretch of Houston any more than it already has.
Is it possible to preserve a neighborhood mentality? Maybe that’s what we should have our eyes on rather than just bricks and mortar. You can’t legislate it, but you certainly can foster it in many ways.
In any case, I found Denny’s presentation provocative in the best way and look fwd to thinking more about the ideas he presented. And I certainly enjoyed that walk through the Village!
Anyone interested in more on the work of Denny’s Columbia studio on Corlear’s Hook should visit http://www.landmarks45.org/archives/139
I also appreciated Ward Dennis’s pragmatic approach to preservation and
I enjoyed the walking tour. Your comments address the “re-use” issue. A commercial enterprise must be economically viable and profitable to survive. What is to be done if a particular building is significant (socially as well as architecturally), but the business is no longer applicable? I think concerned parties should work together to seek conversion as well as preservation solutions before deciding that demoliton is the best option.
P.S. I think Manhattan has already cornered the market for skyscrapers,
from one end of it’s “delerious” self to the other!!
Thanks everyone – I very much enjoyed the seminar and leading the walking tour.
I’d just make correction on the post – I don’t think that the cacophony of signage on Katz’s detracts from the building (such as it is). The signage really represents the layers of history that are so interesting about NYC. My comment was more that IF it was a landmark, it would be very hard to regulate that ad hoc accretion of signage, particularly if there was a new tenant. Change can in fact be very significant – sometimes the changes are more significant that the original artifact!
Bryan’s comment about Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side reminded me of a PBS special I saw recently on “The Jews of New York.” It offers an extended profile on the history of that famous deli, and, as Bryan suggests, confirms that, as in the reports of Paul McCartney’s death, the demise of some of our venerated city institutions has been greatly exaggerated. Although I have never visited Russ and Daughters, according to the documentary, that deli thrives today under the ownership of the founder’s grandchilren and their offspring! I’ll leave comment on the cosmetic and architectural updates to others who have seen them firsthand.