2016-07-12 - Fred Trump Coney Island

Donald’s Demolition: Reckless Jackhammering of Artistic Heritage to Make Way for the First Trump Tower.

Ruth Osborne

What to do with some iconic sculptures on the façade of a historic building that is being razed for a new glass tower?

2016-07-12 - Bonwit Teller sculptures

Sculptures on the facade of the Bonwit Teller building, as it is prepared for demolition in 1980. Courtesy – Nathan Kernan / New York Times.

Well, you could remove them intact and give them to the museum just blocks up the street. Or you could forget about salvaging architectural remains altogether and just smash them along with the rest of the building. This is exactly what happened in 1980 when presidential candidate Donald Trump, then a 33 year-old real estate developer, appeared in the New York Times as the man responsible for destroying two Art Deco sculptures that had been promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The pair of sculptures, along with some “gilded 20-by-30-foot grillwork of interlocking geometric designs” that framed the entrance of the 1929 Bonwit Teller department store that formerly stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, were jackhammered unannounced during demolition of the historic structure.  In unrepentantly smashing the 15 ft tall stylized female nudes and nickel grillwork, Trump had, according to the then-Mayor’s office, failed at his “moral responsibility to consider the interests of the people of the city”. A Trump representative told the Times the next day “we don’t know what happened to it.” It was not until four days after the incident that a revealing statement was finally released, proving that Trump indeed called for the destruction of the sculptures and rare grillwork. According to Trump’s camp, this was due to the fact that the cost of their removal could have been more than $500,000 (though a few days prior, another representative had put the estimate at $32,000). Trump also tried to make this about the safety of pedestrians: “If one of those stones had slipped…people could have been killed. To me, it would not have been worth that kind of risk.” Was this really about pedestrians? Or was it about a few pennies being shaved off a $100 mil. project?

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Bonwit Teller building in 1956. Courtesy: AP.





2016-07-12 - Bonwit Teller facade

Bonwit Teller building 1950s. Courtesy: AP.

Trump had apparently already received tax abatements of up to 90% on some of his other development projects around the city. A  New York Times article published just a few months after the event read: “Evidently, New York needs to make salvation of this kind of landmark mandatory and stop expecting that its developers will be good citizens and good.”

2016-07-12 - Trump Tower

Trump Tower, completed 1983.

2016-07-12 - Donald Trump Fred Trump

Donald Trump with his father Fred in Brooklyn.

From this early appearance in the media, Donald Trump has made for himself a reputation as a developer who skirts responsibility and commitment and instead places only the interests of his brand name and his company’s bottom line at the fore of his mind. Forget about the city that he’s impacting in the expansion of his empire – it’s his name that must go first. From reports of using illegal immigrant workers at the Trump Tower construction site in the early 1980s, to pushy donations to and questionable favor from city and federal officials, to violating regulations to build the Trump Soho in 2006 , he has proven himself unforgiving to any other interests around him.

It’s no surprise, however, considering his father’s showy demolition of what would have been a landmarked site at Coney Island in Brooklyn – the “Steeplechase” – in 1964. The Trump disregard for art, history, and preservation is rooted back in the turbulent decade of the 1960s that created the uproar for the Landmarks Law in the first place. Fred Trump was then up against challenges from both the surrounding community and Chamber of Commerce and legal restrictions on development in an area zoned residential. At his “Demolition Party”, he decided that regardless of legal limitations he was still restricted under, it was his call to demolish the site himself. He reportedly encouraged guests to toss bricks into the Steeplechase Pavilion’s stained glass windows, and then proceeded to bulldoze the site to the ground later that night. Fred Trump’s reputation as a racist, profiteering developer is well documented, and his mark on south Brooklyn is the focus of a recently opened exhibition at the Coney Island Historical Society;  it’s no surprise that his son couldn’t care less for an un-landmarked Art Deco building that was in the way of his namesake tower.

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Fred Trump at his Demolition Party at Coney Island, 1964. Courtesy: Charles Frattini/NY Daily News Archive via Getty.

2016-07-12 - Donald Trump Trump Tower

First in a two-part series, published in the January 15, 1979, issue of the Voice. Courtesy: The Village Voice.

Joseph Kaminski’s piece on the Bonwit Teller building earlier this year provides an extensive description of the structure’s design from contemporaries. In 1929, American Architect magazine stated that the building was “a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store”. More than fifty years later, Donald Trump’s representatives considered the building’s sculptures to be “without artistic merit”. Since then, he has made his opinions on art well known to the public.

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.

2015-06-18 - New York Landmarks Conservancy panel

NYLC Panel: Is There Room for Both Historic Preservation & New Development in NYC?

2015-06-18 - New York Landmarks Conservancy Morgan Library

NYLC Panel at The Morgan Library & Museum, May 27, 2015.

Ruth Osborne

The New York Landmarks Conservancy recently hosted a panel with a title that posed the question:

“Preservation and Development: Is there room in this town for both?”

The discussion that followed was informative about the current opinions towards the importance of historic preservation and the hope to strike an understanding balance with new development in New York, the city that served as a birthplace of sorts of the modern preservation movement.

The NYLC, which has been instrumental in providing support for researching and designating landmarks in the city since 1973, gathered the following members of both the preservation and development “camp” for the discussion:

2015-06-18 - New York Landmarks Conservancy panelMorris Adjmi, Founder & Principal, Morris Adjmi Architects

Richard Anderson, President, The New York Building Congress

Ingrid Gould Ellen, Director, Furman Center for Land Use and Urban Policy, New York University

Roberta Gratz, Writer and Preservationist

Michael Sillerman, Land Use Attorney, Kramer Levin

The evening began by the moderator acknowledging at the outset the growing anxiety in New York City over historic preservation in the midst of rapid new development, despite the Landmarks Law celebrating 50 years of preserving history in the city this year. Why has anxiety over the destruction of the city’s history continued to be such an anxiety-inducing topic?

One reason could be that, with New York City experiencing an all-time high in its population (nearly 8.5 million as of 2014), and with the greatest volume of construction in its history, we are seeing developers feeling threatened by any measure of historic preservation or districts designation. As Ms. Gould pointed out, matter-of-factly, this sense of limited space is simply because we are in a city and cities have boundaries. There is going to have to be a limit to the development that occurs; Manhattan is an island. But what exactly is the point that threatened developers are making and that prevents the preservation of historic and culturally significant areas of our city?

Developers insist that historic preservation limits affordable housing opportunities for low-income families and seniors. But, as an audience member pointed out, only a small fraction – 20% – is portioned out for “affordable” housing. The rest goes to luxury housing, oftentimes to foreign buyers who are either gone most of the year or who have legally-questionable reputations. Then there is the “poor door” – the door through which residents of the affordable units are permitted to enter. Is this new development truly beneficial for New Yorkers? Are they the ones who are able to have a say in how their city grows? Or will they be allowed to speak out for what they want for their own neighborhoods instead of being walked over by outside developers?

The panel discussion made it clear that historic landmarking and district designation have not had a negative impact on the availability of affordable housing – in fact, it is new development that has. A member of the audience brought up the fact that, in neighborhoods  with a proliferation of new high rises, the prices of pre-existing housing raise dramatically, thus forcing out old residents for which housing is no longer affordable. This is contrary to the point of developers that historic designation and contextual zoning of neighborhoods gets in the way of the citizen’s interest.

According to Mr. Anderson, an authority on construction and the city’s recent growth, “There is $38 billion of development in the City right now. So, no, historic districts haven’t stopped growth.” Meanwhile, architect Mr. Adjmi scoffed at the supposition that landmark regulations prohibiting new construction. Long-time preservationist Ms. Gratz emphasized that landmarking is not about avoiding change or growth, which is inevitable for a city. Rather, it is about being able to question what kind of change we do want to happen, because those who live here can and should have a say in it. In the past, preservation was feared in poorer neighborhoods because they saw it could bring gentrification. But in actuality, residents of neighborhoods up for designation – such as Crown Heights – sought it for the protection it could bring against the higher rents brought on by new development that would push them out. Ms. Gould reminded the audience that landmarking does not prevent what is appropriately scaled growth in each neighborhood, but rather allows for the historic and artistic context of those neighborhoods and the residents in them to have as much say as a developer does.

Ms. Gould Ellen, an experienced researcher in urban planning and land use, argued that the role of preservation in the debate over affordable housing has been greatly exaggerated. Instead of being unconscionably frightened by preservation and the new responsibilities it brings to home owners in those areas, that is the trade off that comes with it and there are still many benefits it can bring in the interest of maintaining affordable housing in the city. It is less costly, after all, to renovate than to demolish and build anew), so can we save neighborhoods by rebuilding what is already there instead of flattening them with bulldozers? So how do we best accommodate both the city’s growth and appreciate and preserve its history at the same time?

The panel discussion ultimately reached what could be a compromising point – that historic districts and landmark designation should be considered in city planning so that development and preservation are treated hand-in-hand with finding a balanced approach to each as the city continues to grow. But preservation must be considered in such a way that it is respected for the history and culture it seeks to make part of the city’s future, not as an afterthought. These buildings and neighborhoods are part of this city’s character and what it has become today. They represent the many ethnic communities, economic growth periods, and cultural and artistic movements for which New York served as the center. As we enter a sixth decade under Landmarks Law, with developers and preservationists still butting heads, the proof of its impact will be in the small decisions that are made, in the number of citizens who rally for preservation and the contextual growth of our city, in the level of engagement we have with how our city is changing before our very eyes.

Places like the Tenement MuseumMerchant’s House Museum, and Mount Vernon Hotel Museum have taken the piece of history upon which their building stands and have worked for decades to preserve it as best possible for interaction with the modern public. In their efforts, these small but vital institutions are able to relate to residents and visitors today crucial stories about the development of New York that have impacted the character of this city and the rest of the country. Can you imagine New York without its history? Without the visual and visceral links to the people and industries that were an integral part of its growth throughout the centuries? We certainly cannot.