In my latest story for Popular Mechanics, I chronicle the history of drinking water technology, and describe how our water supplies can adapt to a changing climate.
Read it here.
In my latest story for Popular Mechanics, I chronicle the history of drinking water technology, and describe how our water supplies can adapt to a changing climate.
Read it here.
In my first story for Smithsonian Magazine, I chronicle New York City’s long road to finding a clean source of water.
Read it here.
Today, I recount the story of how a rivalry impacted New York City’s skyline in the 1920s and 1930s.
Read it here.
My latest story for Popular Mechanics investigates the very long and complex history of steel.
Read it here.
In today’s story for Popular Mechanics, I explain how concrete has shaped the world.
Read it here.
In my latest article for Popular Mechanics, I tell the story of how the slinky came to be, and outline its many uses throughout the past seven-plus decades.
Read it here.
New York City’s Landmarks Law was passed after some of the city’s architectural gems were demolished to make way for modern buildings. Decades later, how would the city treat these modern buildings under the law?
I wrote the story below for my NYU journalism honors class, a yearlong advanced reporting program. This study of New York City preservation is my senior thesis, written in a journalistic, creative nonfiction style. It can also be found at the class website.
A crowd of 150 New Yorkers encircled a vacant building in the Manhattan summer heat. They surrounded the building’s lollipop-shaped pillars, constructing a makeshift do-not-cross line with a roll of yellow caution tape. The tape was slowly unraveled and passed around the perimeter, each member of the crowd clutching a portion of the strip. In front of the building, a young, petite woman and native Texan was scurrying up and down the street. She handed out flyers; she was their leader. Chant, she told the crowd in her slight southern drawl, because the TV cameras are here and this protest is for City Hall.
“Save 2 Columbus Circle!” the crowd cried. “Save 2 Columbus Circle!”
Two Columbus Circle was a white marble and mostly windowless 10-story building. Natural light crept into its empty halls through portholes and through rounded arches at the summit. The structure took up the entire block. But the property was small for Columbus Circle, New York City’s busiest traffic circle. The surrounding buildings—glass offices and some of the city’s most expensive apartment houses—towered over the little lollipop building. That’s what New Yorkers called it, the lollipop building. And on this day in June 2005, the crowd and its leader, Kate Wood, the executive director of the Upper West Side preservation advocacy group Landmark West, knew what the city was intending to do. The city was going to sell 2 Columbus Circle to the Museum of Arts and Design for $17 million. The museum had redevelopment plans.
Kate watched as museum employees walked along the edge of the crowd, distributing flyers describing their employer’s plan: the white marble façade, portholes and rounded arches were to be stripped. In their place, 2 Columbus Circle would get a terra cotta tile and glass skin. The lollipops were to be hidden behind walls and windows, but the size and shape of the building—concave along the traffic circle—would be left unchanged. The crowd scoffed. What good was a frame without its picture? Here was a building you couldn’t find anywhere else in New York City. Since 2 Columbus Circle’s construction in 1964, architecture critics, preservationists, authors and city officials called the lollipop building a monolith, a giant shower stall, a perfume bottle, a urinal and an eyesore. The New York Times wrote that it was a building New Yorkers loved to hate.
City Hall hated it. The traffic circle, the city asserted, had been due for a complete revitalization. On the west side of Columbus Circle, the New York Coliseum had been demolished for the Time Warner Center, a glimmering glass tower and CNN’s headquarters. In the center, where the Christopher Columbus statue stood, walkways were paved, fountains were built and flowers were planted. The lollipop building was the last step. To save 2 Columbus Circle was to fight the mayor and City Hall.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was Kate and the crowd’s only hope. Although a city agency, the LPC could designate 2 Columbus Circle as an official New York City landmark, which would prevent the Museum of Arts and Design from redesigning the building. But 2 Columbus Circle had been first proposed as a landmark in 1995, and 10 years and three LPC chairpersons later, the consensus hadn’t changed: the building was not just unworthy of preservation, but unworthy of getting a hearing before the entire 11-member commission.
Landmark West set up a podium at the building’s entrance. Kate stood to the side, watching Harlem City Councilman Bill Perkins, clad in a navy suit and purple-striped tie, walk to the microphone. Scaffolding was up behind them.
“The refusal of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold hearings on the future of 2 Columbus Circle demonstrates a shameful disregard for the will of the people,” Perkins said, “and the commission’s charter-mandated responsibility … Next month, I will chair the ‘People’s Hearings’ to make sure the people’s voice is heard on the future of this significant building. The mayor and the Landmarks Preservation Commission must understand that this is not their city alone. It is all of our city and we must fight to protect it.”
Anthony C. Wood stood among the protesters that day, chanting and holding the caution tape in front of a lollipop pillar. He’s not related to Kate. But for those who have stepped into the civic trenches to protect a building in New York City, everyone knows Tony Wood.
Tony has spent the last 24 years working as the executive director of the Ittleson Foundation, a philanthropy group. His office is located on East 67th Street, on the fifth floor of a townhouse built in 1879. It’s a proper setting for a life in preservation. The townhouse is within the Upper East Side Historic District. On the ground level, an elevator with an old metal gate awaits his visitors. It’s a slow ride up.
It was 3 o’clock on an icy Friday afternoon in February. When the elevator finally made it to the fifth floor and the gate slid open, Tony was standing in the hallway, a big grin on his face. He looked like a professor about to reveal his research. He had a white beard and wore a dark suit with a red tie. Round glasses rested atop his nose.
Tony stuck out his hand for a shake. Welcome. Step inside. The office was spotless. Books and reports and studies and articles were carefully organized on the shelves and in the closet, his personal library on the city’s history. Two chairs sat beside a coffee table in the middle of the room. Throw your coat on the couch, he insisted, and take a seat.
“I love to talk about this stuff,” Tony said.
Tony was born in New York City, but by first grade, his family had moved to an Illinois suburb. He studied history at Kenyon College, a small Ohio school, and attended the University of Illinois for a graduate degree in urban planning. While studying at Illinois, he made a point to routinely buy an out-of-town newspaper, The New York Times, to read its articles on New York City’s historic buildings and preservation battles. With a bagful of clippings and his urban planning degree, he moved back to New York City in 1978.
“I came back to reclaim my birthright,” Tony said with a smile.
His first job was as an aide to a city councilmember. That’s when the LPC chairman, Kent Barwick, took note of him. Here was a kid interested in preservation. He had energy and enthusiasm, Barwick says. A no-brainer hiring. Tony became Barwick’s assistant. After two years, he was hired as the deputy director of the Municipal Art Society, an advocacy group where he led the campaign to create the Upper East Side Historic District. In the subsequent years, Tony served as the president of Friends of the Upper East Side, a preservation group born out of the historic district’s advocacy campaign. He later founded the New York Preservation Archive Project, a nonprofit that documents the history of preservation in New York City. And he’s been a board member of so many preservation advocacy organizations, including Landmark West, that he couldn’t possibly name them all.
“We could be here all night talking about the boards,” Tony said.
Tony has spent his life studying New York’s preservation process. New York City’s Landmarks Law allows the LPC to designate buildings based on architectural, historical and cultural significance. A landmark can be a building, of course, or it can be as simple as a lamppost or a tree—and it has been, in Lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn. The only concrete requirement is that a landmark must be at least 30 years old, to provide the LPC with some significance to assess.
“It’s kind of a small miracle anytime anything gets designated,” Tony remarked.
Designating a building is a deliberative procedure. First, the LPC identifies potential landmarks or receives applications from the public. Anyone can fill out an application. Then, the chairperson, with the help of 10 unpaid commissioners and a research staff, reviews the potential landmark to determine whether it should be considered at a weekly public hearing. No alteration and certainly no demolition on the structure are allowed during this entire process. At the public hearing, anyone can testify for or against designation. The commissioners consider the public’s input. The research team studies the building’s history and presents its findings. At another public hearing, the commissioners hold a majority vote. If the building is designated, the City Council must uphold the designation with a vote of its own.
Politics can certainly influence the deliberation, but this process—this subjective process—is about something much more tangible and visible and real. As of 2016, the five-decades-old LPC has found 1,355 buildings to be so precious that they were designated as individual landmarks. The Empire State Building is one. The Chrysler Building is another. The Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Terminal, the Flatiron Building and the Woolworth Building will certainly never, given their landmark status, ever be heavily altered or demolished.
But just take a second here to think about your own city, Tony said, whether it’s New York City or anywhere else, and imagine that 4 percent of it suddenly disappeared. This number is not random. In New York, 4 percent of the city is landmarked, including the 1,355 individual landmarks, the interiors of various subway stations and the historic districts that allow the commission to regulate a total of 36,000 buildings. Imagine that the brick tenements and brownstone townhouses of Greenwich Village had disappeared and in their place came metal and glass. Imagine that the Chrysler Building was knocked down to construct a taller tower. Imagine that Grand Central Terminal’s ownership received approval to build a tower atop the station. “If you can convince every New Yorker to pause for a minute and think of all the places in New York that are special to them,” Tony said with his hands stretched out, “help them realize that probably so much of what they care about in New York would not be here, or would be in grave danger, if we didn’t have a landmarks preservation dimension to the city.”
Most of New York’s landmarks are quite old—nineteenth and early twentieth century old. You might find a younger building here and there within an historic district, only because its surrounding structures are much older. Just 24 individual landmarks as of 2016 were built post-World War II. These are the mid-century modern buildings—the glass, the steel, the concrete, the boxy and the oddly shaped. They are the buildings that replaced brick and stone structures from the nineteenth century. They’re the buildings like 2 Columbus Circle.
“Part of the motivation for the preservation movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s was against those buildings,” Tony said. “Not only were they removing buildings that people wanted to save, people just hated the look of those buildings.”
Tony stood up and walked over to a bookcase. No neighborhood resisted change more than Greenwich Village, he explained. He slapped a book on the table. It was The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
“It’s the extremes that activate people.”
As a child in the 1940s and 1950s, Roberta Brandes Gratz lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Greenwich Village, across the street from Washington Square Park. She walked to the park by herself. Village parents trusted one another to watch that the kids stayed out of trouble. Gratz played pickup ballgames on the grass. She rollerbladed along the walkways, stopping every day by her grandfather’s bench to say hello. She listened to the folksingers playing their guitars at the edge of the fountain. She watched artists set up their easels to paint or to display their work. She walked her dog with this nice lady from the west side of the park named Eleanor Roosevelt. In the evening, Gratz’s mother hollered from the sixth floor window. Dinnertime.
This kind of life no longer exists in Greenwich Village. But Gratz never had the chance to see this childhood through. She was barely a teen when her family was forced out of the Village. It was 1953. The city government had just sent brochures to 191 buildings on the nine blocks southeast of the park. “Age contributes to obsolescence in commercial structures,” the brochure read above a picture of an old building with a clothesline, “because it prevents their adaptability to the requirements of present-day business.” Gratz’s father earned a living in one of these obsolete buildings. Larry Brandes Dry Cleaning. Between the restaurants, cafes, hat factories and Eddie Condon’s Jazz Club, 15,000 people worked in these buildings. The obsolete structures were mostly nineteenth century redbrick tenements and lofts, crammed tightly together, like most other buildings in Greenwich Village. The newspapers said 132 families lived here, and the brochure was just their warning. Get ready, it told the tenants, because New York building czar Robert Moses planned to condemn the land, evict every tenant, and clear the buildings for sparkling new towers.
All construction in New York City went through Robert Moses. He was the chairman of the Committee on Slum Clearance. He controlled the parks department, the New York City Housing Authority and nine other agencies, all allowing him to build parks, bridges, highways and housing, followed up by building more parks, bridges, highways and housing. He was never elected. He was appointed. And he was pursuing a vision: New York would become the preeminent modern city, cost and people be damned. When facing a community outcry over his plans to extend a parking lot in Central Park, Moses sent a wrecking crew to clear the trees in the middle of the night. When the Columbia Yacht Club’s owners requested a delay before the demolition of their building, Moses was so infuriated that he cut off their electricity and sent steam shovels to chase them out. He refused to acquire land for the Brooklyn Dodgers to build a new stadium in Atlantic Yards, forcing the team to move across the country. New York City was his real life Lego set. Robert Moses demolished and rebuilt at his whim.
Moses had watched in disgust as the 1950s suburban sprawl took middle class residents out of his city. To bring them back, he’d have to make New York City more appealing than suburbia, where Larry Brandes prepared to move his family. His solution was more upscale and middle-class housing. But in a city fully developed, building more housing meant demolishing what already existed and rebuilding in one direction: toward the sky. The low-rise Village was perfect.
Moses used a federal initiative called the National Housing Act to clear the Washington Square Southeast land for construction. The Act gave city governments grants for redeveloping “blighted” neighborhoods. What “blight” really meant was up to the city government, and in New York City that decision belonged to Moses. The law made it legal to simply select old buildings that could be deteriorating.
The land of the Washington Square Southeast “slum” was condemned and sold to a private company for redevelopment. The tenants were evicted, 15,000 had to find new jobs and 132 families were forced to search for new homes.
A group of 21 area tenants and business owners sued. How could an industrial and commercial area, they contended, be a slum? And if it wasn’t a slum, how could the project qualify for the federal grant? The case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1956. But the court ruled against the plaintiffs—the buildings were deteriorating. Moses’ actions were legal.
The wrecking crew began its demolition. Greenwich Village became anxious. What would be next? Even before the brochures were sent, Moses had proposed building a road through the Arc de Triomphe-styled Washington Square Arch, which would split the park in half. In November 1957, a year after the legal action ended and all the southeast tenants were out, about 100 Villagers walked through the chill of the wind and rain to the Cooper Union Foundation Building for a forum on the destruction and the proposed road. The forum had been advertised in The Village Voice: 8:30 p.m. sharp, room 203.
The audience watched as a woman with bobbing auburn hair prepared to speak. She wore dark, round glasses that rested atop a pointed nose.
“We do not consider community destruction as progress,” Jane Jacobs said to an approving audience and a reporter from The Voice, “no matter how shiny or clean it looks.”
Community destruction, Jacobs explained, was twofold: redevelopment displaced friends and family, and the high-rise apartments replacing their homes were “violating the scale of the neighborhood.”
Jacobs was a journalist who raised eyebrows when she criticized Moses’ modern vision in Fortune. High rises, she wrote, “have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.” They do not create communities. They “deaden” them. An ideal city was made of low-rise housing. Small buildings brought people closer together, onto the street and into the park. It was the city that Gratz knew, the one where a mother could trust a community to watch her daughter rollerblade in the park. Modern buildings were in “majestic isolation,” high above city life, away from the street. They lacked the soul of a small old building.
The destruction spread outside of the Village. Moses had selected 16 “blighted” slums, 16 clusters of land to redevelop all around the city. Even after he retired, individual old buildings elsewhere—structures that would assuredly be landmarks today, like the marble column-clad, Greek palace-reminiscent Pennsylvania Station—were demolished. The Brokaw Mansion, a glitzy Gilded Age home, was also razed. But Moses or not, Jacobs’ point was the same. These buildings had no protection. Real estate was beating out history. Something had to be done.
Protests against Penn Station’s demolition were held in August 1962. The men wore suits and the women wore dresses, white gloves and pearls. “Save Our Heritage,” one sign, held high under the station’s marble columns, read. “Don’t Sell Our City Short,” said another. Jacobs stood among the picketers in the 86-degree heat. The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote, “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” On April 19, 1965, with the station’s demolition nearly complete, the city satisfied its fed up civic community by passing the Landmarks Law.
By this time, the tenants of Washington Square Southeast were long gone. Moses had driven Gratz and her family out of the city. Larry Brandes found an opportunity to open a new dry cleaning business in a Connecticut suburb, and Gratz spent the rest of her childhood dreaming of returning to the city. She attended New York University in the Village, and became a journalist for the New York Post, where she cultivated her own beat: preservation.
Take a stroll along Park Avenue. A few paces north of Grand Central Terminal is a mile-long stretch of buildings that sparkle on sunny days. These buildings are towers, coated in windows and metal. Steel beams surround the glass, creating the repeated pattern of a grid. Some of the glass is blue-green. One tower’s glass is a sleek bronze. A few have concrete. All these buildings are modern.
Add another glass tower today and it would blend right in. But these buildings had been the intrusion, modernism’s succession of the old world, the kick in the head that inspired the city to pass its Landmarks Law. The old world began in the 1870s, when the area transformed from farmland to streets with one-story carriage houses. As immigrants flooded in through Ellis Island, the city needed more space, and the one-story houses were replaced with five-story tenements and rowhouses. Commercial buildings were added, turning Park Avenue into a thoroughfare. By the 1920s, the rest of the buildings became large apartment houses for the wealthy. The one constant throughout this time? The buildings were all brick and stone.
And then the avenue went corporate.
The Lever Brothers Company, the producer of Tide detergent and other cleaning products, wanted to move its headquarters from Boston to New York in 1950. The company purchased a full block on Park Avenue between East 53rd and East 54th Streets. A modernist architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was hired to design the building. Modernism was progress, and Lever Brothers wanted a building that would make a statement on a block of brick and stone. The company was intrigued by a new design method from Europe. Architects were calling it the International Style. Its characteristic materials were glass and steel. In 1952, on the avenue of brick and stone, construction was completed on New York City’s first glass and steel tower: Lever House.
Pedestrians stopped and stared. Cab drivers parked on the sidewalk just to take a look. To clean the building, workers rode a gondola that rolled down the façade, scrubbing the building’s glass skin with Lever products, a subtle advertisement. The glass gleamed by day. At night, with the lights on inside, Lever House’s interiors could be seen from the street. The building was 24 stories high, propped up by one-story-tall pillars and a one-story horizontal base. The tower, a slab of blue-green glass, was placed perpendicular to the street. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed the building as “a box on sticks.”
All around Midtown Manhattan, corporations saw the shining glass and steel as a newer and cheaper form of construction. For Robert Moses, it was the glistening, modern future he had envisioned. By the 1960s, the brick and stone virtually disappeared on that mile of Park Avenue. The buildings were now International Style.
And it remained this way, for two decades…until a new generation of developers knocked on the door, demanding taller towers for more tenants and more rent revenue. In 1982, Lever House was in danger.
A real estate firm, Fisher Brothers, had bought the land under Lever House, and announced plans to make the most of the space available in the air. In a neighborhood like Midtown, you could do a whole lot better than 24 stories. Lever House was to be demolished, and in its place, a 40-story tower would grace the Park Avenue skyline. But it was the damnedest timing. The first glass building had just turned the requisite landmark age of 30.
A modern building like Lever House wasn’t even a blip on the preservation radar. LPC Chairman Kent Barwick, who had hired Tony Wood three years before, had been on a personal mission since beginning his job in 1978. He was landmarking the buildings that appeared on the postcards, buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. He was designating some of the oldest unprotected neighborhoods, like the western portion of the Upper East Side. Barwick even landmarked a street plan in Lower Manhattan: the Street Plan of New Amsterdam and Colonial New York, an uneven and curvy set of roads from the city’s earliest history, from before the grid plan of Manhattan was created. And he was not nearly done. Rockefeller Center was next on his list.
And then Lever House was threatened. Barwick saw the headlines. The LPC has to pay attention to redevelopment. But could a modern building—in a world where the Landmarks Law was not yet 20 years old—could a modern building even be historic? “I see buildings from the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Barwick said in his gentle voice over the phone, “as buildings that the Landmarks Law was setting out to fix.”
But maybe Lever House was an exception. Barwick had the research team study the building. Here was the thing: Lever House was the building that heralded the new wave of American office construction. It was the first of its glass-and-steel-clad kind. It was original. It was history you couldn’t deny, a chapter in New York City’s architectural story. That, Barwick concluded, made it a landmark. “You don’t want to dispose things that have value,” Barwick said, “like sweaters that only have one hole in them.”
The LPC landmarked Lever House. The vote went to the eight-member Board of Estimate—a now defunct segment of the city government, which, in the 1980s, was tasked with upholding landmark designations instead of the City Council today. The five borough presidents each had one vote. The Mayor, the President of the City Council, and the Comptroller each had two votes. The Manhattan Borough President sided with Fisher Brothers, and the other four borough presidents followed suit, as was customary. Mayor Ed Koch and the President of the City Council sided with Barwick. It was four votes for designation, five against. The final decision was up to Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. He wasn’t quite sold on glass and steel.
Barwick arranged a meeting. Goldin asked whether a certain prominent member of the Municipal Art Society, which advocated for the Landmarks Law in 1965 and announced its support for Lever House’s designation, would come along. The board member Goldin was asking for was Jacqueline Onassis.
“What he wanted and what he got was a headline and a picture,” Barwick said.
The case was laid out before him: the first glass tower was history worth saving. At the end of the meeting, Goldin said he’d support the landmarking, and Onassis kissed him.
In the preservation world, it’s known as the kiss that saved Lever House, the first modern landmark.
How do you convince the public that a young building is of historical value? If the law allows a 30-year-old building to be a landmark, even if that might seem young, isn’t that your baseline?
Tony Wood sat in his office and thought about it.
In the mid-1990s, modernism’s fate was like an elephant in the room. The buildings that were constructed in the 1960s when the Landmarks Law was passed were becoming eligible for landmark designation. Buildings from the 1950s were already eligible, and seven of them had become landmarks. The Seagram Building, the sleek black and bronze glass tower on that mile-long stretch of Park Avenue, was designated in 1989. The Seagram, preservationists say, was New York City’s other glass tower that matched Lever House in quality and workmanship. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a Frank Lloyd Wright building, was another landmark. But for the buildings of the 1960s, so closely tied with the passage of the Landmarks Law, designation would be a bigger debate. Someone just had to start the conversation.
“It was a weird conversation,” Tony said. “It was weird in that it wasn’t a regular part of the conversation. It was a pushing-the-envelope conversation.”
On the Landmark’s Law’s 31st anniversary in 1996, The New York Times published “35 Landmarks-in-Waiting,” a list of mostly modern New York City buildings deserving designation, from the perspective of architect Robert A.M. Stern. “There has been a prejudice against them,” Stern said to The Times, “and it goes like this: The preservation movement grew up out of concern that Victorian and, in New York, Classical buildings were being torn down to make way for modernist buildings. So they equated modernist buildings with bad, the evildoers.”
On Stern’s list was University Village, a complex of towers built on the southernmost block of the Washington Square Southeast slum clearance site.
Also on the list was 2 Columbus Circle.
The advocacy campaigns were about to begin.
The lollipop building was a failed art museum. The whole idea was doomed from the start. It was the brainchild of art collector Huntington Hartford, the heir to The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company supermarket fortune. With 2 Columbus Circle, Hartford was fulfilling his desire to build a money-where-his-mouth-was museum catering to his personal tastes: a modern art museum that excluded a key style of the period, abstract art. It was intended to rival the Museum of Modern Art, which did include the style. Hartford even hired the Museum of Modern Art’s architect, Edward Durell Stone, to design his museum. Stone had been a major International Style architect, but had grown tired of the plain geometric style by the 1960s. With Hartford’s commission, Stone wanted to design a building that combined modernism and classicism, and what Hartford got in 1964 was a beautiful building and an ugly building, a disputable landmark.
Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art lasted five years. The Museum of Modern Art was still the city’s go-to for modern art. Hartford donated the lollipop building to Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1969 and sold his art collection. Two Columbus Circle was officially renamed the New York Cultural Center. But that, too, lasted just a few years. The building was acquired by Gulf and Western Industries in 1975 and turned over to the city in 1980. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau offices moved in. In 1998, the city saw an opportunity to put 2 Columbus Circle up for auction, and the building was vacated.
The LPC had taken a quick look at 2 Columbus Circle in 1996. Its “designation committee,” an informal subcommittee of four commissioners with architectural expertise, had held a vote to determine whether the building was worthy of a hearing. What they were voting on was a building that never quite found an identity. It was a vote on a building that, in 1964, The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable famously dismissed as a “die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” describing its outlandish character and establishing its “lollipop building” moniker. Maybe 2 Columbus Circle was just an outlier in New York’s architectural story? It certainly didn’t set a precedent like Lever House did. The designation committee recommended that, for the time being, a hearing was unnecessary. The lollipop building was not worthy.
It deserved a hearing where the public could speak. The conversation needed to be held.
Robert A.M. Stern had announced his support for the building’s preservation that year, in his list. Landmark West, before Kate Wood’s time, sent letters to the LPC urging landmark designation. The Historic Districts Council, another preservation group, publicized its support by baking a 2 Columbus Circle gingerbread house and entering it in a contest. Another group, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, couldn’t decide whether the building was worthy of designation. But its 28-member board of directors did reach one consensus: the lollipop building was worthy of going through the LPC’s formal review process. It deserved a hearing where the public could speak. The conversation needed to be held.
The preservationists saw a revolutionary design in 2 Columbus Circle, a design that went outside the box of conventional modernism. Its marble façade was not a typical example of modernist garb. Modernism’s simplicity and lack of decoration had been a rebellion against the old standards of architectural design, against buildings like the redbrick tenements and the old marble-columned Penn Station. With 2 Columbus Circle, Stone had reverted back to the styles of the past, clashing with modernism’s rebellion against historical precedent. His building was a two-decades-early preview of postmodernist architecture, when designs worldwide would stray from modernism’s simplicity. The lollipop building was in a class of its own. That, preservationists believed, made 2 Columbus Circle landmark-worthy.
At a rally in front of the lollipop pillars in April 2000, five years before the caution tape rally, the author Tom Wolfe, wearing a bright checkerboard-patterned suit, said to The New York Times, “I think this is one of the few candles lit in the dark ages of New York architecture, which ran from the 1950s almost to the present day.”
That rally, whose attendees included Stern, Hartford’s daughter Juliet, and New York Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen, was assembled simply to raise awareness for the building. The protesters wanted a public hearing. It was just the first protest, a year before Kate became executive director of Landmark West. It was the calm before the storm.
“Through the preservation advocacy battle,” Kate said, “it took on even a whole other level of significance.”
The last step to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Columbus Circle revitalization was moving along. A landmark designation for 2 Columbus Circle would only get in the way. City Hall had selected the Museum of Arts and Design’s $17 million bid for the property, and the museum’s makeover was in progress. The writing appeared to be on the wall for the lollipop building. The LPC commissioners knew it.
Inside the LPC office in the Manhattan Municipal Building in 2003, Roberta Brandes Gratz walked up to LPC Chairman Robert Tierney and told him that 2 Columbus Circle needed to have a hearing. The public wanted it. A hearing would quiet the noise. The commissioners, including the newly appointed Gratz, did not see the building as an architecturally or historically meritorious landmark. The redevelopment would not be stopped if the LPC held a hearing and declined to designate the building. “If you don’t give it a hearing,” Gratz said to a silent Tierney, “it will become your mistake.”
Landmark West operates out of the basement of a condo on West 67th Street. Piping runs across the ceiling and along the walls. Bookcases are crammed with old newsletters, poles are decorated with pictures of historic apartments, and a poster of 2 Columbus Circle looms high on the wall. The caution tape from the 2005 protest, Kate Wood said, is somewhere down here, too. She sat at the conference table, where Landmark West decided to pursue the lollipop building’s landmark designation more than a dozen years ago.
Kate spent the first decade of her childhood in Texas before moving to a 60-year-old house in New Jersey, living within the orbit of New York City. She’s seen each state but Alaska, visited all the Civil War battlegrounds, toured every presidential house, and by age 16, she knew her career would be in historic preservation.
Kate stood up and walked to the bookcase to get a stack of 14-year-old postcards. Each postcard had a picture of the lollipop building on the front. A message for the mayor and the LPC was printed on the back. The message read, “Since its opening, 2 Columbus Circle has been loved, loathed, and hotly debated … We owe it to future generations of New Yorkers and visitors to the city to consider designating this building as an official NYC landmark.” Kate and her staff of three would step outside, walk eight blocks to 2 Columbus Circle, and hand these postcards out to pedestrians to read and to sign. The signers would hand them back with their contact info. Landmark West, funded by the residents of one of America’s densest neighborhoods, paid the postage. Hundreds, if not thousands, of postcards and letters were sent to the LPC and to Mayor Bloomberg.
Landmark West volunteers would station themselves around the Circle, passing out flyers and, on one occasion, handed prepaid cellphones to pedestrians with Mayor Bloomberg on speed dial. Call the mayor, the volunteers instructed, and tell him to get the landmarks commission to hold a hearing. Leave him a message. About 200 people called.
Everywhere the Landmark West team went, every public meeting, every trip to Columbus Circle, and every stroll on the streets of New York to monitor the Upper West Side’s preserved buildings, baskets of lollipops were brought along. People came to the office and left with lollipops. Printed on each wrapper was a picture of the lollipop building itself. The sticks had a message: “SAVE 2 Columbus Circle.”
Kate stood up again and walked to a table near the stairs. She pointed to a bowl. She still has the lollipops. Red and purple. They’re 12 years old. “This is what I ate for lunch practically everyday back then,” she said.
Landmark West tried the legal route. The group sued City Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden—the sale of 2 Columbus Circle ignored the customary environmental review impact, they claimed. The case went nowhere. Kate filed a Freedom of Information Act request on all LPC documents mentioning 2 Columbus Circle. The request was granted, and the commission’s staff set up boxes of papers in the Municipal Building. Kate and her team spent a day rummaging through each document one-by-one. They found some emails and, oh my! Chairman Tierney had exchanged emails with the Museum of Arts and Design’s building director, Laurie Beckelman, about keeping the redevelopment process on track. Aha! Was this proof of bias? How could the building get a hearing with a biased chairman? Landmark West sued Tierney to remove him from all 2 Columbus Circle decisions, alleging that he and the museum’s leadership were in cahoots. The court dismissed the case, stating that, “Taste is not justiciable.”
Kate appeared at public hearings for other modernist buildings, including the wacky, wavy Summit Hotel on the East Side. She declared her support for the designation, and added that, by the way, “The public hearing process is very important, and you should have a public hearing on 2 Columbus Circle.” The commissioners watched her in silence. In the newspapers, Tierney, a lawyer by trade, responded to the pleas with his customary answer: the designation committee’s decision in 1996 would not be revisited.
Demonstrators marched in front of the lollipop pillars. A month before the caution tape rally, 100 angry New Yorkers convened with Kate at the Museum of Arts and Design’s soon-to-be-sold 53rd Street location, five blocks south of 2 Columbus Circle. They yelled and marched with their picket signs while a new exhibit opened inside. “Let the public speak,” read one sign. “Why no hearing?” asked another. Passersby going across the street to the Museum of Modern Art walked up to Kate and told her to keep up the fight.
Amidst all the commotion, Ada Louise Huxtable, then 83, penned her view on the battle in The Wall Street Journal. The building deserved a makeover, she wrote, the makeover with the terra cotta tiles and glass that the museum was promoting. “This small oddity of dubious architectural distinction…has been elevated to masterpiece status and cosmic significance,” she wrote, “by a campaign to save its marginally important, mildly eccentric, and badly deteriorated façade—a campaign that has escalated into a win-at-any-cost-and-by-any means vendetta in the name of ‘preservation.’”
Kate listened at the conference table as the quote was read aloud.
“What was upsetting about that article was the way she cast preservationists as not understanding what our mission was and that we were going to the mat for the wrong building,” she said. “The broader point was about the landmarks process, the need for a public hearing.”
In an op-ed for The New York Times, author Tom Wolfe wrote that, “every time the question of a hearing on 2 Columbus Circle came up, the landmarks commissioners, as I see it, dove under their desks, clapped their hands over their ears, cried out to their secretaries to shove history and the concept of landmarks preservation itself through the shredder, and hid.”
Three dozen people stood on the southernmost block of the Washington Square Southeast slum clearance site in 2004. Those 191 crammed, low-rise brick buildings had become shops, a 12-floor library, two slab-shaped apartment buildings, and three 30-story concrete apartment towers. The crowd was gathered in the plaza of the 30-story towers, the University Village complex from Robert A.M. Stern’s list.
The blocks were owned by New York University. The apartments that Robert Moses had devised to combat suburban flight now housed faculty, in all but one building. In order to purchase the University Village land, NYU surrendered one of its 174-unit towers for co-op housing. Many of the co-op’s residents had lived there since 1967, when the towers opened as the tallest in Greenwich Village. A few people in the crowd leaned on canes. Some, like City Councilman Alan Gerson, grew up in the tower. With the help of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), Gerson and 111 tenants had spent the previous months sending letters to the LPC urging landmark designation.
The crowd stood around the GVSHP’s executive director, Andrew Berman. He was wearing a cap—he always wears a hat outside—and, at 35, he was younger than most of the crowd. He had neither a microphone nor notes. “We are here today,” Berman announced, “to call upon the city to make what has long been an unofficial landmark an official one, and to ensure that this innovative complex is preserved.”
Like 2 Columbus Circle, University Village looked nothing like its surrounding streetscape. The towers looked like giant waffles with their buff-colored concrete and deep-set windows. The land was mostly open space. Two of the streets that cars once drove through to get to the factories and to Larry Brandes Dry Cleaning had been built over to form the plaza. The towers had been placed asymmetrically, so that all three would be visible from any angle on the street. Compared to the low-rise Village, the 30-story towers were the out-of-character complex that Jane Jacobs had derided 50 years before.
But Berman and the residents looked upon University Village as a healed wound and a home. The buildings had won the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 1967. In the center of the complex was a 60-ton reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s “Bust of Sylvette.” The towers’ architect, I.M. Pei, was among the most prominent in his field; he designed the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. University Village was one of his early works.
Then there’s the history. None of Robert Moses’ slum clearance buildings had ever been landmarked. By preserving University Village, the Moses chapter of New York City slum clearance could remain for future generations.
The GVSHP had also learned that NYU planned to build a fourth tower on the site.
“And we are also here,” Berman continued, “to call upon NYU to stand by its original commitments to the community and preserve the balance of open space and towers we see here, and not engage in another case of running roughshod over their neighbors by erecting a monstrous, out-of-place edifice where it does not belong.”
It’s funny how things work out. Here were Moses’ towers, the roughshod plan, the Village’s tallest buildings—the edifice—of the Washington Square Southeast redevelopment project. Now Berman and the crowd wanted the once dreaded complex protected from more redevelopment, as the 15,000 workers and 132 families had wanted for the 191 buildings back in the 1950s.
Pursuing University Village as a landmark was Berman’s idea. After majoring in art history at Wesleyan University and working for State Senator Tom Duane, he was hired as the GVSHP’s executive director in 2002. He had grown up in the Bronx, but spent time in Greenwich Village after school, walking around the neighborhood and the towers. He had never seen the Village without them. When Berman began his job in 2002, he proposed University Village to the GVSHP’s board of directors as a potential landmark. They were all in.
Chairman Tierney had never seen the neighborhood without University Village, either. He grew up in West Haven, Conn. and moved to Greenwich Village as a lawyer in 1968, a year after the towers were constructed. He remembers walking to a movie theater nearby, seeing the Picasso sculpture and looking up at the towers. When Tierney was appointed as LPC chairman in 2003, he notified the commissioners that the complex would one day be scheduled for a hearing. “Calendaring will usually lead to—not always—but will usually lead to designation,” Tierney noted in February, three years after ending his 11-year LPC tenure. “You don’t even get calendared unless you’re really on the merits.”
Owner approval is not needed for designation, but for Tierney, it was preferred. University Village was calendared for a hearing in 2008, and immediately NYU announced its support for the designation. But the block had open space. A 40-story tower, NYU asserted, would improve the historic site.
Landmark designation, however, would make construction nearly impossible.
At the public hearing in the Municipal Building, Berman, standing at a podium in front of the commissioners’ conference table, said that for NYU to support designation and build another tower “is like saying you support an end to global warming, but want to continue riding around town in your gas-guzzling SUV and 18-wheeler diesel truck.” From elected officials to additional preservation organizations, 27 people testified in favor of landmarking. No one testified against. NYU proposed its fourth tower.
The LPC’s vote was held five months later, in November 2008. A microphone was set up at each commissioner’s seat. Roberta Brandes Gratz leaned forward.
“I do have to say for the record that this is a project that never should’ve been built,” Gratz said. “This is a Robert Moses mistake of which this city is filled with.”
But, Gratz added, “this is a rare example where we came out with something good instead of something mediocre.”
Tierney looked toward the commissioners. “All in favor?” he asked.
“Aye,” the 11 commissioners said.
“Designated,” Tierney said to applause. “Thank you.”
The fourth tower would not be built.
When you hold several rallies, send thousands of postcards to City Hall, bombard the mayor with phone calls, hand out lollipops to everyone you see and the LPC still refuses to hold a public hearing, why not just organize one of your own? Spread the word. Send the emails, make the robo calls, mail the newsletters. Mention it on the street while handing out a lollipop and a flyer. About 150 people gathered into the library of the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen at 1 in the afternoon in July 2005, a month after the caution tape rally. The tables were pushed to the back wall and replaced with chairs for the audience. Every seat between the stacks was filled. Robert A.M. Stern, the small-statured architect, and Tom Wolfe, dressed in a white suit, sat in the front row. Tony Wood sat behind. A basket of lollipops from Landmark West was set up at the greeting table.
Councilman Bill Perkins walked to the podium, and with perfect posture gazed toward the crowd. “This is a community of folks in the struggle to preserve our city and its preciousness,” he said.
Perkins stood in front of 11 empty chairs. Each chair had a poster with a name scrawled in big black letters. They were the names of the commissioners.
“Unfortunately, as you can see behind me, the New York City Landmarks Commission did not come. They were invited, yet they lacked the courage and resolve to stand before you.”
Individual by individual, Perkins said, shall present their case for 2 Columbus Circle. Even those in opposition are welcome to speak. Testimonies will be capped at three minutes. More than 50 people plan to testify. Stern will go first.
Stern took the podium. He looked behind the chairs, where a picture of the lollipop building was displayed on a projector. He wore a dark suit with a pocket-handkerchief and leaned toward the microphone. “I think we must take the long view, and not give in to the ever present and very dangerous tendency to preserve only a partial view of the past,” he said.
Here was a building, Stern remarked, that pushed the envelope, a building that took advantage of the “freedom that comes with modernity”—a building that broke away from modernism’s rebellion against the architecture of the past. Architects have a responsibility to their predecessors. They must preserve the great works of the past, however recent that past is. Preserving 2 Columbus Circle honors Edward Durell Stone. The “building on Columbus Circle represented in the 1960s just the kind of provocative, world-class architecture that so many hunger for in our city today.” Landmark preservation is a democratic process. Use it. “Join me in calling on the commission to hear the case for 2 Columbus Circle on its merits. Thank you very much.”
The crowd applauded as Tom Wolfe stood up and walked to the podium.
He had spoken to 98-year-old Huntington Hartford himself that morning. “And his message was to me: tearing down this beautiful building is a disgrace.” That might sound simple, Wolfe said, but the more you think about it, the more this response seems apt. “I hadn’t kept track of this building going up,” Wolfe said, “but when I arrived I saw this graceful, elegant, white marble monolith, that ever since this building had been the focal point of Columbus Circle.” There’s a saying in journalism, Wolfe told the crowd, and here it is: “It’s no use being more than 10 minutes ahead of time, and Hartford was always more than 10 minutes ahead of time, all his life.” This building, the postmodernism precursor, was proof.
Elected officials spoke, followed by two representatives of the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art, an art historian and more than 20 others. Then it was Tony Wood’s turn.
“Today the question on everyone’s lips and in New York Times editorials is, ‘when will the Landmarks Law be used?’” Tony said. It’s unfortunate, because what we are seeing before our eyes are the very “torchlight rallies” that created the Landmarks Law in 1965. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. “The Landmarks Law is a brilliant document. One of its strengths was that it realized that with the passage of time, tastes, appreciation, knowledge and understanding would all change and evolve.” Architectural, historical and cultural significance, as described in the law, is deliberately vague. “Today it is clear that 2 Columbus Circle is worthy of a hearing. Let’s have one.”
One of the names on the 11 empty chairs was Roberta Brandes Gratz. In 2003, she would not have voted to designate 2 Columbus Circle. By 2005, she had changed her mind.
“It was not whether I liked it personally,” she said in March. “I changed my mind because of what I learned from the public process that Landmark West organized. I got educated by that process.”
You know when you lose in preservation. A building is destroyed when its façade is stripped. The sale of 2 Columbus Circle was finalized later in 2005. The lollipops would be covered up by walls and windows on the outside. The marble, portholes and arches at the top would be removed and replaced with terra cotta tiles and windows that connected to form a zigzag and a letter “H” shape. The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a reception to celebrate the new design and its architect, Brad Cloepfil.
A few dozen gathered outside the Institute’s building in Greenwich Village for a final protest. Kate and Landmark West provided free brown bag lunches. As the reception was held inside, the crowd, which included members of the Institute, shouted, “You don’t speak for us!” Professors heading to nearby New York University classrooms looked on. The protesters were across the street from University Village.
Tony Wood, an ad hoc advisor to Landmark West, had one last idea. Shame the LPC. Use technology. Use the Internet! Landmark West set up a video camera at an apartment across from 2 Columbus Circle, which Kate named the “Shame Cam.” The video was streamed online as the marble was dismantled.
“At that point it was over,” Kate said in her office under the 2 Columbus Circle poster.
Before you go, there is something you must understand. There is a layering to this city, Kate said. Its buildings span from the seventeenth century to 2017. A building from 1850 can stand side by side with a modern or postmodern building. You won’t see that as much in the historic districts made of brownstone or brick. But take a look at Greenwich Village. The South Village Historic District is across the street from University Village. That’s layering. And in an undesignated area nearby, a 2017 building can be constructed. That’s three eras, and just as University Village is a modern landmark, buildings from across all eras around the city must be preserved. That’s what makes this city layered.
“A lot people have the impression of preservation, that it’s about lying down in front of the bulldozer, and that it’s people who don’t want things to change,” Kate said. “That we’re anti-change. But I think the thing that really motivates me about preservation is it is very future-oriented.
“It’s looking ahead to, what do we want New York to look like in the future? Do we want it to continue to have this layering? And this texture? And this vibrancy? Or do we want it to become homogenized? I think that’s the question.
“And so I think that whereas preservationists have a reputation for being stuck in the past, I really do think that we are oriented towards the future.”