Monday, November 21, 2011


Last time, we recounted how landmarks such as New York City’s Penn Station and San Francisco’s Fox Theater were lost to development pressures during the early 1960s.  In fairness, preservation and profit sometimes coincided splendidly even then, as they did at at San Francisco’s pioneering Ghirardelli Square or at Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.  Yet for the most part, developers then and now have had neither the foresight nor the monetery incentive to be entrusted with preservation-worthy buildings.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the private quest for profit often tramples the public good--it’s both obvious and understandable that, for developers, the bottom line controls all else.  What’s more inexcusable is that our public servants are often equally clumsy stewards of our architectural legacy.  

To cite the most egregious example, one could hardly hazard a guess at the number of preservation-worthy buildings--not to mention whole neighborhoods--that have been destroyed directly or indirectly by our government’s postwar obsession with urban freeway building.  Initially, there were good reasons to improve the nation’s transportation routes.  Eventually, however, this freeway program simply became a juggernaut, with state engineers aiming to entangle every major city in an ugly and brutally-conceived web of concrete and asphalt.  For three decades, the heart of San Francisco’s incomparable waterfront was blighted by just such a structure.  It took an earthquake to accomplish what public protest had failed to do:  Destroy it.

Dozens more American cities remain saddled with freeways that slash through their downtowns, dividing and devastating everything in their path. Even our sensible neighbors to the north were not spared from postwar freeway mania:  In Toronto, the elevated, rusting hulk of the horrendous Gardner Expressway still chokes off the city’s dazzling view of Lake Ontario, an insult which residents are forced to resign themselves to.      

But urban freeways haven’t been the only disaster foisted on us by state planners.  As freeway building has mercifully declined, they’ve found other ways to kill us with kindness. In California, for example, scores of superb school buildings dating from the 1920s and early 30s have fallen victim to a well-meant but blundering campaign to ensure the seismic safety of public schools.  

In 1967, the state passed legislation requiring all pre-1933 schools to be examined for seismic safety.  Unfortunately, officials took the path of least resistence in effecting this worthy goal. Rather than retrofitting these lovingly-crafted Revivalist buildings, which ran the gamut from Medieval to Gothic, Tudor to Spanish Revival, wholesale demolition ensued.  Almost without exception, the hurriedly-built replacements for these grand old buildings were bland stucco boxes that may--or may not--be seismically safer given what we’ve learned about earthquakes since.  

In the short term, this campaign produced plenty of feel-good press for officialdom.  In the long term, it deprived the public of splendid buildings harking from an era of unmatched civic pride, and condemned generations of students to school careers 
spent in tawdry, third-rate surroundings.

We may shrug off these losses as the lingering planning biases of the Modernist era, confident that such things could never happen in today’s preservation-savvy climate.  Not so:  Fine architecture remains just as much at risk today as it ever was.  We’ll  see why next time.

Monday, November 7, 2011


When someone who’s been well-liked passes on, it’s amazing how many people suddenly materialize to pay their last respects.  You’d think it might be better to do this while the person was still sentient and around to appreciate it.

Not that there’s any comparison in degree, but well-liked buildings have often gotten the same treatment.  This is odd because, unlike human beings, our favorite buildings can be around forever if we want them to--almost any infirmity can be dealt with given enough money and effort.  Yet time and again, we allow irreplaceable buildings to vanish before our eyes as we stand idly by, only to wring our hands and mourn when it’s too late to bring them back. 

The story of New York City’s colossal Pennsylvania Station is the classic case in point. Completed in 1910, Penn Station was the largest railroad terminal ever built, and perhaps the crowning achievement of the renowned Beaux-Arts architects McKim, Mead and White.  With its soaring and replendent waiting room modeled on the Roman baths of Caracella, there could hardly have been a structure more worthy of preservation.  Yet in 1963, amid just a scattering of protests from a few ardent admirers (the term “preservationist” had not been coined yet), the cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad began to demolish Penn Station in order to sell the air rights above it for development.  

Even today, historians all but weep at the heartrending photographs of this temple of transportation slowly succumbing to the wrecker’s hammer--a process made more excruciating by the building’s unshakeable permanance, which cruelly dragged out demolition for two years and gave New Yorkers plenty of time to rue their inattention.  In a final insult, the station’s replacement turned out to be little more than a banal network of tunnels that burrowed furtively beneath the new sports arena occupying the site.  Of the original Penn Station--by that time reduced to so much landfill in the New Jersey mudflats--art historian Vincent Scully lamented:  

“It was academic building at its best, rational and ordered according to a pattern of use and a blessed sense of civic excess. It seems odd that we could ever have been persuaded that it was no good and, finally, permitted its destruction. Through it one entered the city like a scuttles in now like a rat.”

New Yorkers weren’t the only ones asleep at the switch back then.  San Francisco was likewise scarred by the loss of the Fox Theater, a work of stunning, over-the-top Beaux-Arts splendor by the great theater architect Thomas Lamb.  Built at a cost of some five million dollars and opened in June 1929, the Fox was without doubt one of America’s greatest metropolitan movie palaces.  Yet within a single generation, changing architectural tastes and the rise of television had taken their toll on the Fox.  By the early sixties, its owners were anxious to be rid of it.  

Unlike the demise of Penn Station, the Fox’s impending destruction was widely publicized, and was even commemorated with a final show on February 16, 1963.  Although a few architecture buffs spoke out on the building’s behalf, most people were apathetic, while others, including San Francisco mayor George Christopher, actively supported demolition.  Amid this climate of resignation, the building’s destruction duly began twelve days after closing night.  Today, an utterly mundane (but presumably more profitable) office building carrying the insulting moniker of Fox Plaza occupies the site.

It’s easy to blame greedy developers for many of the great losses our cities have suffered.  Yet our public servants have done their share of bungling as well.  We’ll look at that next time, before we ask ourselves:  Could it happen again?