How to Save Great Architecture: Behind the Scenes at the New York Landmarks Conservancy

“We’re the Ghostbusters of preservation,” says President Peg Breen. “We’re the group you’re going to call if you have a problem with your building.”

Chlo̩ Vadot Chlo̩ Vadot

Preserving and protecting New York City’s architectural legacy is a project that takes many. At the root of the process, local organizations around the city stand to advocate for the benefits of preservation and restoration, carrying proposals to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commission has the power to give designations to both individual buildings and entire neighborhoods, thereby enhancing the cultural and economic value of those sites and protecting them from destructive development. The New York Landmarks Conservancyis a private nonprofit that supports these efforts, offering loans and grants toward restoration projects as well as technical advice to building owners across New York City and State.

Every year, the Conservancy presents the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards to honor excellent preservation projects and individual leadership. This year marked the 27th edition of the Moses Awards, the winners of which illustrate the following discussion between Architizer and two directors of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, President Peg Breen and Public Policy Director Andrea Goldwyn.

The Met Breuer. Photo credit: Peter Aaron/OTTO

“We’re the Ghostbusters of preservation,” begins Breen. “We’re the group you’re going to call if you have a problem with your building because we have low-interest loans; we have grants; we have a staff of architects and trained building conservators.” A mission of the Conservancy when it was formed was to be able to help people fix their buildings, and the organization has now loaned and granted more than $50 million to property owners all over the city and state. This amount has helped facilitate projects of approximately $1 billion in total value.

The Conservancy advocates for preservation at City Hall, Albany and in Washington. Its most recent initiatives include a campaign to give landmark protection to the public rooms of the Waldorf Astoria. These efforts followed a similar procedure, which took place several years ago, in which the Conservancy pushed for the public rooms of the Plaza to be landmarked. At the individual level, the Conservancy works with people who may want a historic district or their building landmarked.

Ziehl/Starr Residence. Photo credit: RAND Engineering & Architecture

The Conservancy’s relationship with architects is expansive. Architects may come to them when they have questions about a building they’re working on and need technical advice. On the other hand, the Conservancy will also intervene with the architects’ work as necessary. “We know most of the architects who know how to work on older buildings and do preservation work,” says Breen, “so we’re constantly referring people to architects.”

The Moses Awards is a celebration of these architects and preservation professionals who have done work on buildings around New York City, she continues.

Randolph Houses Phase I. Photo credit: Bernstein Associates

Every year, the Landmarks Conservancy issues a call for nominations for the Moses Awards program. Submissions come in at the start of the new year and include restoration, adaptive use, new construction in historic districts or additions. From a pool of 40 to 50 submissions — which mostly come from the architects themselves — the Conservancy grants a dozen awards. To be eligible, a project has to be completed — or substantially so — by the end of the year and be located within the five boroughs of New York City.

While the award is given to the owner of the building — the steward of the building who made the decision to undertake the project — “it is really a point of honor for the architects” says Goldwyn. “We hear from a number of the same people over and over — big names in our field, like Beyer Blinder Belle, for example,” she continues. “But every year, we also get submissions from smaller firms [and] sole practitioners.”

St. Thomas Church and Parish House. Photo credit: Walter B. Melvin Architects

Beyond this city-focused awards program, the Conservancy leads statewide initiatives such as the Sacred Sites program. “We are one of the few groups in the country that gives financial and technical help to landmark religious institutions,” explains Breen.

The Conservancy offers a number of different financial and technical assistance programs, including a loan program for restoration projects of historic buildings or individual landmarks. “The Sacred Sites program is statewide for historic religious properties,” Goldwyn points out.

Lenox Health Greenwich Village. Photo credit: Chris Cooper courtesy Perkins Eastman

“Often, a condition of getting the loan is that [the applicant] has to hire an architect and someone that we know can do the work,” adds Breen. “We provide a lot of work to architects.”

During the construction process, the Conservancy may be called upon by people working on a building, and even from their architects who need advice or training on specific techniques or technologies. “We have a lot of staff who have worked on the Landmarks Commission,” explains Goldwyn, “so they have a really in-depth knowledge of the technical aspects of what the Commission is looking for.”

New York Public Library Rose Reading Room. Photo credit: Max Touhey

At the local level, a number of neighborhood groups focus their work on advocacy, while the Conservancy remains the only group in the city that has the financial and technical assistance to support projects actively.

Nearly all funds that fuel the Conservancy’s programs are private, but the organization also receives a small grant from the state every couple of years. “It used to be mainly foundation support,” explains Breen. “Now it’s individuals, corporations and foundations.” Regarding the Moses Award, Lucy Moses — a dedicated New Yorker and philanthropist who generously gifted parks, hospitals, schools and cultural institutions to the City — endowed it initially, and it continues to be supplemented thanks to the Henry and Lucy Moses Fund.

Park Avenue Armory Veterans’ Room. Photo credit: James Ewing

In New York City, preservation has always been very popular, and elected officials are primarily responsible for giving importance and priority to preservation efforts in their mandates. Most historic districts get designated because the people in them want it — there is a whole waiting list of requests — and it is up to the elected officials to acknowledge the economic benefit of a historic designation — how it creates jobs and may attract tourism, for example.

Breen explains that the New York Landmarks Conservancy commissioned “the only economic development study on the impact of preservation in New York City” in order to make the case understandable to all levels of government. In addition to highlighting the benefits of preservation, the study showed that only 3 to 4 percent of New York City lots are landmarked, which means that 95 percent of the city isn’t. “We’re not freezing the city,” concludes Breen. “We support new buildings in historic districts and additions.”

From left to right: Dan Garodnick, Ruth Pierpont and the Honorable Gale Brewer. Photo credit: Tequila Minsky

Preservation spans all five boroughs of New York City, at both the building and neighborhood levels. Increasingly, neighborhoods across the city are vulnerable to rezoning, and with this ever-changing cityscape, historic resources need to be documented, surveyed and protected.

The Preservation Leadership Award this year went to Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick for their efforts in the preservation in Midtown East. “An area like Midtown East is well-established,” explains Goldwyn, “but there are a number of buildings that are not designated as landmarks, and with the rezoning, face an uncertain future.”

Temple Court Building/Beekman Hotel. Photo credit: Richard Barnes

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is the city agency responsible for designating buildings as landmarks. They take requests from owners or groups like the Conservancy and lead survey work to evaluate the value of a certain object. “Then, they go forward with designations that they think merit moving ahead,” explains Goldwyn.

The process can be a long one, and last year, changes to the Landmarks Law Legislation put a time limit on the process for a Commission hearing, vote and decision; a year for individual landmarks, and for historic districts, two years. Naturally, there is room for extension within those time frames.

Montauk Club. Photo credit: Jack M Kucy

One of the Conservancy’s principal initiatives this year was the preservation of the public rooms of the Waldorf Astoria. In 2014, Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese holding company, bought the Waldorf Astoria from the Hilton Hotel Group for $1.95 billion, with plans to convert part of the historic hotel into a condominium complex.

Breen tells me the story of meeting with Anbang, who initially did not want to become involved with the Landmarks Commission. “We told them the story of the Plaza, where the owners were initially very resistant and then very proud … that they had restored the public rooms,” she recounts. “We sent out an e-blast to get people to ask the Commission to landmark it, other groups picked that up and the Commission moved on it very quickly.” The public rooms of the Waldorf Astoria are now officially landmarked.

Cartier Fifth Avenue. Photo credit: John Bartlestone

A number of other cities around the U.S. have organizations similar to the New York Landmarks Conservancy. At 50 years, “New York’s Landmarks Law has been the model for a lot of other cities,” says Goldwyn, though New Orleans and Charleston were first to create such laws. Every major city has a preservation group, and states have state preservation groups, as well. Most have much smaller staffs and primarily focus on advocacy, and so the New York Landmarks Conservancy prides itself on the range of programs it is able to offer to New York City and State.

The celebration of the Moses Awards recipients took place on Thursday, May 11, at the New York Public Library, itself a recipient of the coveted prize for the renovation of the Rose Reading Room, Bill Blass Catalog Room and Gottesman Hall by a team of professionals led by WJE Engineers & Architects.

You can find out more about all the winners of the 2017 Moses Awards on the website of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

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