Praise, criticism & commitment: Landmarks Law turns 50
by Michael Perlman
Apr 21, 2015 | 7461 views | 0 0 comments | 133 133 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mayor Robert Wagner signs the Landmarks Law in 1965. (Photo: Margot Gayle/New York Preservation Archive Project)
Mayor Robert Wagner signs the Landmarks Law in 1965. (Photo: Margot Gayle/New York Preservation Archive Project)
New York City’s Landmarks Law is being recognized citywide by residents as it celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 19. One such commemoration was the illumination of the Empire State Building in blue, gold, and white.

History has proven that it sometimes takes a travesty to result in success. Back in 1963, hundreds of New Yorkers marched to urge the city to preserve Penn Station, but watched in awe as the wrecking ball brought down the grand ionic columns and palatial arched interior.

In 1965, the city finally responded to those pleas when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmarks Law, but it could not resurrect Penn Station’s glory.

Nevertheless, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) did not act swiftly to calendar, hear, and designate other unofficial landmarks such as Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, nicknamed “The largest roadside restaurant in the United States,” or the Singer Building, one of America’s first skyscrapers to be illuminated at night.

It's difficult to visualize a cityscape without landmarks such as Carnegie Hall and Grand Central Station or historic districts and landmarks in Washington Square Park and SoHo.

However, these sites and neighborhoods nearly faced demolition if not for the heroic preservation advocacy of people like violinist Isaac Stern, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and urban theorist and author Jane Jacobs.

Over the past 50 years, the LPC has protected over 33,000 architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites throughout all five boroughs. The commission receives in excess of 13,000 work applications for landmarked properties annually.

“The commission rigorously reviews these applications to find architectural solutions to meet today’s exciting challenges of sustainability, adaptive reuse, and new construction in historic districts, all while preserving the significant architectural features and character of the landmarked properties,” explained LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan.

Many local residents feel that Forest Hills and Rego Park, which have a shared history that dates to 1906 and 1923, have long been underserved by the LPC.

Forest Hills has just three landmarks: the Remsen Cemetery designated in 1981, Ridgewood Savings Bank designated in 2000, and Engine Company 305/Hook & Ladder Company 151 designated in 2012. Rego Park has yet to receive any designations.

Dadras Architects, a firm led by partners Robert Dadras and Victor Dadras, are the founders of the Downtown Revitalization Group, which specializes in the revitalization and redevelopment of main streets and neighborhood commercial corridors, as well as historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

Now they hope to assist Forest Hills and Rego Park in preservation, revitalization, and landmarking initiatives.

The firm emphasized the need for greater public education about architecture and the landmarking process, and have suggested a historic preservation weekend to call attention to preservation in the two neighborhoods.

"Landmarking is overwhelmingly successful in every scenario, from economically to socially to environmentally,” the pair said in a statement. “Property values have increased, historic architecture has been restored, and new buildings nearby have been designed better. Preservation always costs less than building new, is greener, supports local businesses, and enables potential grants and tax credits for restoration."

“There is minimal awareness of the rich history of Queens,” said Linda Fisher, a Forest Hills resident and a licensed city tour guide. “Neighborhood history can come alive through walking tours, lectures, and oral histories by residents.”

She sees numerous landmarking candidates in the area, including the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, Metropolitan Industrial Bank, Forest Hills Post Office, and the former Jamaica Savings Bank.

Anita Nelson, also from Forest Hills, cringes when she sees “McMansions” replace landmark-worthy homes in Forest Hills, such as the Al Jolson house, and suggested landmarking to spare the remnants, as well as the Queens Medical Society building, Sterling National Bank, and Arbor Close and Forest Close.

“With the advent of social media, it’s easier to bring these campaigns to the attention of local citizens who would like to become involved,” she said.

Many are concerned that the LPC puts more emphasis on preserving sites in Manhattan and overlooks the rich history of the outer boroughs. Architect and musician William Gati of Kew Gardens noted the LPC’s Manhattan address.

“There are borough offices for city Planning, the Department of Buildings, and all major agencies except the LPC,” he said. “This lack of representation indicates a philosophy that the boroughs are not as important as Manhattan. I strongly believe Queens would be better served if we had our own LPC borough office to address specific requests.”

Edward Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society, would like to see a large section of Forest Park receice historic District status, as well as the landmarking of the LaLance & Grojean Factory Clock Tower.

“I hope the 50th anniversary celebration will bring attention to the many extremely worthy locations around Queens,” he said. “Each site we can secure with landmarking is one to be enjoyed for generations to come. Why imagine what these places looked like or view them in old pictures?”

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