Huxtable v. Gans

Hayden (The Power of Places) outlines well how Ada Louise Huxtable and Herbert Gans wrote to shape the preservation attitude in New York City at a time when preservation laws and the idea of historic districts and landmarked buildings were relatively new. As Randy has mentioned, a consciousness for the need of preservation in the city existed earlier on, but before 1965 there was not a legal system established to support it. Huxtable and Gans represented and voiced parallel opinions on what preservation should in fact protect—they both wanted to preserve but within that shared desire their opinions never touch. Should preservation pinpoint outstanding examples of architecture, as Huxtable would have wanted or include a vernacular scale of ordinary buildings, as Gans argued? Fifty years later there is a growing movement of Preservationists thinking more holistically about preservation; both the components of what Huxtable and Gans argued for being included more harmoniously, at least there is more of a dialogue happening.

To recap, Herbert’s issue with Ada was that he felt her preservation agenda didn’t extend to lesser more obscure buildings; in his opinion her work was elitist and she was a snob who defended monumental buildings. Maybe Ada was elitist—she’d not be the first preservationist accused of being so—however she didn’t exactly have an easy job either. In self-defense she said:

Because their restoration and re-use are formidably difficult and costly and their land values usually high, these are the hardest buildings to preserve.” She scolded Gans, “so ‘elite’ them not; they need all the help they can get.”

In New York City the perspectives voiced by Huxtable and Gans continue to battle out but not just against each other, they seem to be imploding on themselves too. This past summer I witnessed two cases at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission that bring to mind Huxtable and Gans’s different schools of thought. One concerned the individual landmark, former First Church of Christ Scientist on the Upper West Side, and the other a proposed extension of the West End Historic District, also on the Upper West Side. In the case of the First Church of Christ Scientist, designed by Architects Carrere & Hastings (Ada would have approved), developers were seeking variances from the Commission in order to go ahead with converting the church into a condominium. After a few rounds at the LPC the developers ultimately got the go ahead—albeit with less wholes punched into its façade than initially desired. What would Huxtable have said about the LPC condoning such treatment of a landmarked building? The LPC ruled in favor of the Upper West Side Historic District Extension but cut out a number of buildings, in particular a stretch running along Broadway. After review of the initial proposal, which had included them, the LPC claimed that those buildings left out did not meet their value standards. While Gans probably would have considered the proposed Historic District extension a “neighborhood” by definition more in kind with Huxtable’s understanding of the word than his own—a “complex network of social as well as spatial ties, [that] implied a working-class population… like [1960s-70s*] Williamsburg or Bushwick”—it is an example of the vernacular not being valued enough to warrant preservation.

*Pre-Hipster

Former First Church of Christ Scientist (built 1903).

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