Monday, December 5, 2011


Today, almost fifty years after the destruction of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station and San Francisco’s Fox Theater, practically everyone agrees that they were the sort of architectural treasures that deserved preservation.  But with 20/20 hindsight, these are ridiculously easy calls.  The real test, as New York and San Francisco both learned through bitter experience, is to recognize the value in buildings we take for granted in our own time.  This is still much harder than it seems, in spite of all we think we’ve learned about preservation in the interim. 

Why?  The reason is best seen through analogy.  In 1963, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began demolishing Penn Station amid overwhelming disinterest from New Yorkers, the building was fifty-three years old--in today’s terms, the equivalent of a structure built in 1951.  How many people you know would regard a building of this era, however excellent its design or energetic its defenders, as worthy of preservation?  Now suppose that this preservation would also cost a lot of money--perhaps more than a replacement structure.  Now what are the odds of survival?  Viewed in this context, the destruction of Penn Station and a thousand other long-lamented landmarks doesn’t seem so inexplicable.  In fact, without extraordinary vigilance, it’s just as likely to happen again in our own time.

Every generation is blinded by its own biases about what constitutes “worthy” architecture.  Faced with the preceding scenario, we’re just as likely to make the same poor choices our predecessors did.  Our foresight inevitably falls just short of where it ought to be, distorted by the aesthetic lens of the present. 

Today, it’s the exuberant “Googie” commercial architecture of the 1950s and 60s that’s at greatest risk;  tomorrow, it may be buildings our generation finds even less worthwhile.  Is an original mission-fronted Taco Bell worthy of preservation?  A domed Century 21 theater?  How about Apple Computer’s first office building, or the last remaining cell phone tower?       

If you find these choices distasteful or even ridiculous, you’re probably in good company.  But if we hope to preserve architectural history for its real beneficiary--posterity--we have to set aside our own biases, and learn to approach preservation from posterity’s point of view. 

Shopping plazas, burger joints, and motels:  Pennsylvania Station, they ain’t, and that’s just the point.  In preservation, the target moves year by year.  If judging architectural worth from the context of the present was easy, we’d never again have to mourn a lost landmark.


A half-century after the loss of Pennsylvania Station, some New Yorkers have audaciously set out to reclaim their long lost masterpiece.  The Farley Post Office, a sprawling Beaux-Arts work also by McKim, Mead and White that stands not far from the site of old Penn Station, may soon be transformed into a passenger terminal worthy of the magnificent original.  The idea was first proposed in 1991 by then-Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor Jr., and was energetically supported by senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, neither of whom would see it realized during their lifetimes.  

The Farley Post Office was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 as a direct result of preservation laws arising from Penn Station’s destruction.  It’s an imposing legacy, but it came at a very high cost.

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