2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned

The Uncertain Future of Local History & Preservation.

Ruth Osborne

Last week, we saw a significant decision that will shape the future of architectural preservation and local history in New York City. And perhaps not for the better.

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GVSHP member at the City Planning Commission hearing last week. Courtesy: NY1 / GVSHP.

On Wednesday, the City Council held its final hearing on Mayor de Blasio’s “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) plan, which last week was approved (9-3-1) by the City Planning Commission. As of Wednesday Feb. 10th, the City Council had approved the ZQA, thus allowing more oversized developments throughout the city’s varied historic neighborhoods – neighborhoods that have seen tall buildings go up in recent years without the city requiring any affordable housing units. This is not just an issue in New York – debates over height restrictions and historic district preservation are also occurring over Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue.

Our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) have been tirelessly working to demonstrate that the ZQA will in fact not help either quality or affordability, but will surely have detrimental impact on the fifty years of progress made in preservation in the city’s neighborhoods, and in so doing will “[turn] back the clock on years of progress to protect community scale and character.” Their work, as demonstrated by this recent testimony, is not based on conjecture or opinion, but on data from City Council and site-specific studies as well as a thorough understanding of real housing needs. Interestingly enough, GVSHP also reports that: “Many [City] Councilmembers have expressed serious reservations about the plan, but as has been widely reported, the Mayor has been doing quite a bit of horse-trading to try to secure the votes necessary for passage.” What this plan could put into place is the lifting of height restrictions to allow for new development in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also recently spoken out against the Mayor’s ZQA, saying that the City Planning Commission has “[ignored] community concerns” with their vote in favor:

We support the goals of increased affordable housing, but “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) amounts to a “bait and switch.” It doesn’t guarantee affordable housing but it does overturn local planning. It will toss aside agreements that communities have forged with the City over decades. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH) will result in units that remain unaffordable for residents in many part of New York.

What this new development is reflective of, in addition to the renewed proposed landmarks legislation we are sure to hear about in months to come, is that efforts against preserving history and local character are only increasing. This is all happening despite the Landmarks Law having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – something commemorated at many events in 2015. But commemorating Landmarks Law is not just about patting the city on the back for having done a good job at not tearing down places like Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, etc. It should demand a response to the immediate seen and future unseen needs to continue conscientious development and historic preservation in the city. Or else, wouldn’t we just look like a bunch of hypocrites?

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany realty

Loopnet Realty ad showing the collapsed section of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany. Courtesy: Loopnet Realty.

Speaking of preserving local history, the capital city of Albany is in a bit of a mess over one of its historically and artistically significant houses of worship. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, built in 1850 on a major thoroughfare for the local Episcopalian congregation, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. It has also been on the list of Albany’s most endangered buildings for the past ten years. Now, it risks not only rapidly increasing structural damage as a result of its lack of upkeep and maintenance. There is also, as history demonstrates, the potential for the church to be ripped from its historic setting by a larger institution that boasts the finances to preserve it in a new location. This is just one example of the growing trend of local history reluctantly yielding to bigger conglomerate collections or wealthier cities that have the concentrated funds that smaller sites simply don’t have. We saw this with the Corcoran Gallery in 2014 and the Barnes Foundation in 2003.

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Interior of the Church of the Holy Innocents as it appeared in The Annals of Albany, Vol. X, 1870. Courtesy: Robarts / University of Toronto.

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Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, NY, late 19th century. Courtesy: Paula Lemire / Albany History Blogspot.

As our colleague, Albany historian John Wolcott, provides insight into its historic and artistic significance:

The Episcopal Church was designed in 1850 by architect Frank Willis. In 1866, a chapel was built by lumber baron William DeWitt as a memorial to his children. It was designed by architects William L. Woollett and Edward Ogden. The church (with adjoining chapel) features a small garden and the interior work of John Bolton in its stained glass windows; it is an example of the mid-nineteenth century early Gothic Revival style that so proliferated not only in New York City but throughout upstate New York and gives much of the state’s nineteenth century landscape its enduring character; to attempt to list the number of related structures in upstate New York’s history of Gothic Revival architecture would be overzealous, but suffice it to say that this structure holds much aesthetic and cultural significance for the members of the area.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany collapsed

Collapsed part of the Church, captured by local news in Albany last May. Courtesy: WNYT.

The church is currently owned by Hope House Inc., a residential recovery program next door. As Hope House a non-profit organization not designed to care for a historic structure, it isn’t surprising that news report of its collapsed roof and corner arrived last May.  Once its immediate stabilization was accomplished, the Historic Albany organization has been monitoring the church’s maintenance. Our colleague in Albany has also written to “Partners for Sacred Places” on the importance of its preservation and maintenance as a historic landmark in Albany, and has been in contact with Historic Albany regarding the urgency of this work:

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Church of Holy Innocents as of May 2015. Courtesy: John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union.

This entire matter here has been something of an awful mess for years and became worse than ever of late in spite of constant spin doctoring, but please hang in with it.  If you have received a copy of the Realty ad [see above photo]; the main photograph shows a view looking from the nave toward the chancel.  Though not too clear here; the chancel arch is completely collapsed. This means that the lettering of a portion of the 23rd Psalm along the lower edge has also been destroyed. One of the most key spiritual artful and historic features of the church. However, in studying recent photos of the debris; it appears that with careful tedious, painstaking sorting the letters could be reassembled to either cement back together but probably to replicate on new stonework that would  faithfully replicate that which collapsed. 

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned

Interior of the abandoned church, c. 2015. Courtesy: Chuck Miller.
A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000.

A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000. Another option is, unfortunately, to remove the artistic structure and put it back together at another location or museum that boasts the funds to display salvaged architectural remains. Places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have certainly worked wonders in this respect. But if we take a step back from the nineteenth-century cast-iron staircase or bank facade that we’re looking up at in amazement, can we ask ourselves a more serious question?: How can this be beneficial to the stewardship of our local artistic heritage? To tear a historic structure from its original context and setting, which demonstrates its connection to the local community and the cultural and artistic development of an area that has lost many other buildings from this period? To place it in the hands of a museum that would likely have an over-abundance of other significant items from this period? Are we forgetting about the authenticity of place? Authenticity of place is exactly what was lost when Albany saw another of its unique nineteenth-century churches collapse (and subsequently be demolished) due to neglect. Trinity Church (1848) had been designed by renowned architect James Renwick, Jr. – the same who worked on Saint Patrick’s and the Smithsonian Castle.

2016-02-15 - Trinity Church Albany demolished

Trinity Church in Albany, which collapsed in 2011 and was subsequently demolished. Courtesy: (c) Chuck Miller / TimesUnion.

Its stained glass windows, however, were the only pieces salvaged, and which may or may not return to Albany.

Former Met director Philipe de Montebello himself has stated on the importance of authenticity in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust:

For museums, this should derive from their collections and comprise an absolute commitment to authenticity and to the museum’s authority, which should never be compromised […] It goes without saying that probity should be expected of the museum […] But probity should be found deeper still embedded in our mission, in our thoughts, and in our intellectual approach. For starters and quite simply , since what we promise is authenticity, that is what the public expects to find within our walls. So there must never be any question of a reproduction, a simulacrum, taking the place of a work of art […]

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Church of the Holy Innocents, 1918. Courtesy: Coll. Mrs. Weldon J. Vail / Albany Group Archive.

How can we presume to celebrate the authentic and original while at the same time stealing it from its authenticity of place or destroying historic context with disjointed developments? The case for historic preservation presented at Albany’s Church of the Innocents is an example of the fight to retain an important piece of local history in its setting. What makes something historically, artistically, or culturally significant to the point of necessitating its preservation for future generations? Or even to simply retain a visual reminder of a past moment in that region’s history? The character of a historic environment, a historic architectural setting, or a historic neighborhood in New York City is important – it is unique, it tells the story of a community or a people or an artist that makes up a larger culture and society. Those who don’t care to deal with the financial and legal burden of caring for local history and neighborhood character simply attempt to gloss over its importance.

While saving architectural remains from what would otherwise be lost to time is sometimes the only option, ArtWatch would like to ask readers what this means for the future of preserving our local history and cultural heritage? What does this mean for neighborhoods in New York that will in 10 years be unrecognizable after historic structures have been torn down, local merchants removed, and all our architectural history is relegated to sit in fragments against the clean walls of a large gallery? These once were real and thriving buildings and streets, and if we consider ourselves at all connected with their history, there should be conscientious development into the future.

Should all our heritage end up at huge institutions that leave the works disjointed from their original environment? Nevertheless, this what is happening with collections management as well as funding for the arts and history – larger institutions that get the grants and the big donors are financially equipped to subsume smaller collections, which leaves less diversity in museums and less physical presence for local historic collections. 

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.

2004-08-23 - Santissima Annunziata altar chapel deterioration 18 2002

Damage at the Annunziata

Visible evidence of leaks and the need for urgent conservation

2004-08-23 - Santissima Annunziata altar chapel deterioration 6 18 2002 2004-08-23 - Santissima Annunziata altar chapel deterioration 18 2002