An Ode to Historic Preservation
Consider the famous cases of New York’s Penn Station and Grand Central Station: both buildings were constructed in the early 1900s and were considered masterpieces of the Beaux-Arts architecture style featuring vaulted ceilings, and monumental marble interiors. However, as did much of New York City in the mid twentieth century, both stations faced a serious decline into disrepair and disrepute as highways and airlines overtook railroads and threatened the future of train travel in America. Pennsylvania Railroad, impending bankruptcy made the demolition and rebuilding of Penn Station into a smaller and more modern station the obvious choice as the costs of maintaining the older structure were becoming prohibitive. And though New York gained Madison Square Garden in the deal, it lost a priceless heirloom of old New York architecture in the process. Grand Central almost fell victim to a similar fate. It had grown dirty and unsafe and but for a dedicated group of preservationists, it would have been torn down.
Jackie Onassis, the face of New York’s preservation movement had this to say in defense of Grand Central: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
These words in many ways encapsulate the essence of the Historic Preservation movement. In the case of Grand Central, such sentiments lead to the restoration of the once great site and were key in turning it into the beautiful and bustling urban hub we couldn’t imagine losing today.
Historic Preservation seeks to protect, preserve, and often times, restore buildings, landmarks, and other relics of historical and cultural importance for future generations. Our built environment can tell the story of our society in ways that we see and interact with on a daily basis. This makes its preservation an important element in maintaining the identity of our cities and communities. Imagine returning to your childhood home after a long time away and finding many landmarks of your youth changed. This is the usual and unrelenting march of progress but it is disorienting and sometimes disturbing to find your most beloved and familiar places gone as though they, and your experiences there, never were. The loss of historic structures in our built environment is tantamount to erasing the part of our history that binds us together around a shared place. They need not be as monumental as a Grand Central or Penn Stations, they may be old hand crafted storefronts or beautiful homes.
Furthermore, our great architecture is often artwork on a monumental or extra-human scale. It therefore exists as a part of our collective cannon and, for preservationists, should be protected with the same ferocity as the works in our museums.
This is not to argue that progress is bad and we cannot continue to improve and develop our cities. Simply that the sites that hold significance and value to us deserve our consideration and care because we are not only protecting buildings, we are protecting our heritage.