2015-09-25 - Palmyra Giovanni Battista Borra

The Battle to Remember Palmyra: Daniel Johnson Speaks Out For the Artistic Heritage Lost in Its Destruction.

2015-09-25 - Palmyra Syria ruins

1st century city of Palmyra in Syria.
Courtesy: Standpoint/The University of Heidelberg (CC-BY-SA-3.0). © ZELEDI/GNU 1.2

Ruth Osborne

Earlier this month, news of the destruction of the ancient Temple of Bel at Palmyra by ISIS militants was confirmed.

Satellite imagery showed the area had been laid completely to rubble, only a few months after satellite footage recorded the Temple of Baal Shamin as the first architectural casualty under ISIS at Palmyra. These temples have been joined also by, according to more satellite imagery, six tower tombs at Palmyra. Before these ravages took place, an even more disturbing one occurred – the beheading of the chief of antiquities at Palmyra, Khaled al-As’ad, who spent the last forty years of his life working to preserve and protect the city’s remains. Despite videos of questionable veracity that emerged earlier this year showing the supposed smashing of antiquities at the Mosul Museum (largely plaster cast fakes) and the ancient city of Nimrud (not confirmed), the 1st century city of Palmyra is indeed at great risk to complete decimation. But why should the destruction of ancient ruins matter, beyond a shocking news story? Why should those opposed to ISIS make an effort to protect these works?

2015-09-25 - Palmyra Giovanni Battista Borra Robert Wood

One of Giovanni Battista Borra’s drawings from Robert Wood’s 1753 “The Ruins of Palmyra”. Courtesy: The Royal Collection Trust, UK.

This question is just what Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson finally answers in his recent piece “Why Palmyra Should Matter To The West”. He points out the understandable argument against such action by political leaders – that saving lives in the struggle against ISIS militants should take precedence over saving artifacts: “To have committed even a handful of troops to save Palmyra, rather than to rescue refugees, might have implied that buildings mattered more than people. No politician dares risk a charge of lacking compassion. Hence one of the greatest surviving relics of antiquity has been sacrificed without a fight.” But he also demands the reader understand just why Palmyra should not be dismissed as a casualty in the current crossfire.

2015-09-25 - Palmyra Giovanni Battista Borra

Courtesy: The Royal Collection Trust, UK.

The 1753 study The Ruins of Palmyra, which featured 57 impressively technical architectural renderings of the site by Giovanni Battista Borra, set a precedent for Western art and culture that has been far too overlooked. Borra’s attention to archeological accuracy served to depict the ruins in a way that conveyed their features for future artists beyond the romantic veil of the picturesque so admired by contemporaries like Piranesi. Influential eighteenth-century architects, from Robert Adam in England, to Thomas Jefferson in the U.S., were inspired by Borra’s depictions of Palmyra for their own respective work. Johnson argues “the debt is so extensive that a major Anglo-American exhibition is overdue. It is time that the great museums and libraries of London, New York and Washington joined forces to highlight what has been lost in the destruction of Palmyra.”

If this is so, then cultural patrimony is the driving force that has the power to draw out architectural historians and archeologists to do something about Palmyra. While such expertise may not aid in rescue missions for human lives in this crisis, it could very well serve essential in rescuing ancient cultural heritage from further destruction. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, are hosting a panel next week (Sept. 29) entitled “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save the Endangered Patrimony of Iraq and Syria”.  We hope to report back on this panel, and recommend you take a look at Johnson’s informative article.

2015-09-25 - Palmyra Ruins Giovanni Battista Borra

Courtesy: The Royal Collection Trust, UK.

2015-09-04 - Grand Central Station Chrysler Building

Punishing Preservationists for their Lack of Resources? The Dangers of the Proposed “Intro 775” Landmarks Legislation.

Ruth Osborne


2015-09-04 Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, one of the landmarks that took longer than 1 year to secure.

I recently attended a lecture on the survival of one of New York City’s landmarked sites (now a professionally-staffed museum), and the speaker was very reluctant to answer mine and others’ questions about the politics behind historic preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s authority. He did, however, acknowledge that public opinion and testimony truly is the most effective thing in his experience of advocating for preservation.

Public outcry was the reason New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in the first place, and the LPC was created for the fundamental purpose of providing a voice for the historic integrity of a neighborhood or building that would otherwise be overlooked and forever wiped out by new development. But now, in the same year that we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Landmarks Law and the rich history it has helped preserve – places like Grand Central Station, 30 Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State building – proposed legislation now threatens to put a muzzle back on that voice.

Major news outlets this week have finally turned to acknowledging the Intro 775 bill, which will be scheduled for public hearing next week on September 9th. This bill is both unnecessary and unreasonable, as many preservation advocates have argued. It will essentially serve only to punish historic landmarks and the LPC for having been provided inadequate resources with which to do their job of thoroughly researching and considering potential landmarks. It could create an environment in which developers again have more say, and preservationists are no longer able to effectively do their job. Intro 775 proposes to implement a strict timeline on the designation of landmarks (both interior and scenic), as well as historic districts. It will, in effect:

(1) Impose a shorter calendaring timeline of for the LPC to hold a public hearing (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(2) Impose a follow-up timeline after the public hearing within which the LPC must take final action (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(3) Require the LPC to make determination on current items on the calendar within 18 months (that is, 95 total properties and districts).

(4) Barr a property or district unable to pass designation by the LPC from reconsideration of landmark status for another 5 years.

This is essentially imposing unrealistic time limits on the Commission for doing their work well and thoroughly. It acts almost as an inadequate performance review, but without any true understanding of what it really takes for the Commission to do their job properly. An interview earlier this summer with Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation,  gave ArtWatch some insight into the dangers this legislation could pose to the future of historic preservation in New York.

RO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about something both the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and ArtWatch is passionate about: proper stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. As ArtWatch is New York-based, we are currently expanding to cover issues regarding historic preservation of the city’s cultural landmarks and neighborhoods and are therefore interested in connecting with organizations like yours that work tirelessly towards such efforts. You spoke of a major issue of current concern for GVSHP: Intro 775 and the landmarking process. Can you elaborate briefly on GVSHP’s position on this?

AB: We’re definitely very concerned with Intro 775. It’s being portrayed as aiming to ensure there aren’t these delays or backlogs at the preservation commission but it doesn’t really do anything to ensure the commission would move forward in a timely fashion. It just penalizes the public if they don’t. Ninety-percent of recent designations do move within timing the bill proscribes. And in cases that don’t, there are understandable reasons why. This bill would essentially throw the baby out with the bathwater. It creates pocket veto: if the LPC doesn’t act within this tight time frame, the proposal will be rejected automatically. The bill doesn’t do anything to help get rid of some things that can be reasons why designations can take so long. The LPC is the smallest of all the city’s agencies – but the bill doesn’t improve funding or staffing. What it would really do is encourage developers resistant to their sites being landmarked to come up with as many ways as possible for delaying designation. Designation can drag out and be prohibited from happening for an extensive period of time. We’re also concerned because it’s been introduced by chairs of landmarks committees who we hope would have a more balanced approach. There are also instances in which developers have tried to prevent landmarking from taking place. This would just give them another tool to do that.

2015-09-04 - Merchant's House East Village NoHo construction

Merchant’s House Museum in NoHo, a landmark now endangered by construction next door. Courtesy: Herrmann Fan.

A letter recently sent to City Council Members from GVSHP and other preservationists does well to call out the inconsistencies of the proposed bill and why it should not be passed:

“Our research shows that the LPC has a solid track record of timely designation, if not within the strict litmus described by Intro 775, then nonetheless within a reasonable period of time. […] In the instances where LPC has failed to act within the proposed time

limits, this failure has been in part a result of the Commission’s limited resources. Designations require heavy investment of staff

time towards extensive research, in-depth examination of boundaries, a full airing of all information and viewpoints on a subject,

and the production of highly-detailed reports. […] it would force LPC to make decisions before all information has been

contemplated and all discussions have taken place.”

Does the City propose that their smallest agency do their work with an eye for speed and quantity instead of quality and thorough consideration of all parties involved and affected? How does it expect the LPC carry out their mission without having adequate time and resources to bring full attention to the task at hand? Or would it prefer they were less effective in considering a conscientious approach to city planning that often gets in the way of developers’ interests? Would it prefer the Commission had less and less power as if it weren’t even part of the dialogue in the first place? How would this help create discussion amongst all parties and interests involved? Would it not simply allow developers to have less restrictions and checks on their actions?

A recent New York Times article quoted Michael Slattery, senior VP for research at the Real Estate Board of New York: “The problem is it’s open-ended and indefinite if your building is calendared. […] If you want to sell your building or develop it, it makes that very hard. Property owners deserve to know what is in their future.” But then, don’t the residents of New York also deserve to have the cultural and historic integrity of their city’s landscape properly cared for and taken into account when a change is about to occur? This was the whole basis for the founding of the Commission in the first place – that the growth of the city should be a conscientious, thoughtful effort; one that recognizes the impact a building has on the city around it, and how it fits in with the character of that city. It was about growing respect for what has gone before and taking responsibility for new progress. Buildings – both old and new ones – have character and heart to them, and if we forsake that, then will we even recognize our city anymore?

By Ruth Osborne