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A book worth preserving

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New York’s City Hall, which dates from the same era as St. John’s Chapel, was widely acknowledged as the greatest city government building in the country.

By Jay Furst

furst@postbulletin.com

The modern historic preservation movement began more or less in 1963, when one of the grandest buildings in the United States, New York’s Pennsylvania Station, was demolished. The neo-classical train station, patterned after the Roman baths of Caracalla, had stood barely 50 years but was known by all in the city as a fundamental "memory site," an emblem of the city’s arrival as the "capital of capitalism" and a masterpiece by a major architectural firm from New York’s Gilded Age, McKim, Mead and White.

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Demolition began a week before President Kennedy was killed, and the city has been trying in various ways to replace it ever since.

But Randall Mason, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, proves in his new book that efforts to preserve the historical and architectural beauty of New York began long before the Penn Station debacle. It only makes sense that this is true, and in fact the City Beautiful movement of a hundred years ago arguably spawned similar local movements all over the country, including Minneapolis. What happened in the 1960s was that planning and zoning laws caught up with popular commitment to preserving buildings and landscapes that are important to a community’s history, quality of life and future viability.

Mason’s expertise as a planner and his interest in the process that was followed (or not) in responding to the city’s growth in the era 1890-1920 is what makes "The Once and Future New York" more than just a sentimental look at the grievous historical losses of that time frame. The author, in fact, seems to accepts more graciously than is necessary that landmarks will give way to "progress" and the relentless rebuilding of cities. He writes at time with the dispassion of a scholar rather than as a protester at the barricades. When you realize how much historical and natural beauty has been lost in New York alone, it breaks your heart.

Regardless, the book makes clear what was lost when St. John’s Chapel, one of the loveliest of Old New York’s churches, was razed after a long battle in 1918. It’s a compelling story with many players and angles — the greedy Episcopal corporation that controlled the property, the neighborhood’s transformation as the rich and powerful moved uptown, the way in which selling the church’s park property across the street ultimately doomed the church itself, and ultimately, the limits of popular sentiment if no one’s willing to come forward with the dough. Just about every major city architect and public official (including Teddy Roosevelt) came out in favor of preserving the church, but for whatever reason, no financial solution materialized, in part presumably because world war was looming.

The issue regarding New York’s City Hall, which dates from the same era as St. John’s Chapel and was widely acknowledged as the greatest city government building in the country, was whether a new city hall should be built uptown, again following the city’s growth. That one was quickly resolved in favor of the city’s historic center, leaving the issue of how to preserve and restore the beauty of City Hall Park, which was hallowed ground from Revolutionary days but had been nibbled away over the following century. Some improvements were made, but in this case, as is usually the case, what’s done is done and you’re not going to get that property back. Take a look at Rochester’s Mayo Park for a good local example.

Mason’s third case study may be the most amazing: the planning and construction of the Bronx River Parkway, often called the first true auto parkway in the world. Starting in 1906 and completed in 1925, it was an all-encompassing project to clean up and redevelop an area that represented the worst of urban sprawl at that time, including environmental degradation of the river. The goal was nothing less than "the reconstruction of the ecology, economy, appearance and social character of the Bronx River valley," Mason says — and, oh yes, also building a good paved road. While not what we typically think of as an issue of historic preservation, Mason makes a compelling case for this type of enlightened, vigorous, progressive public leadership as at heart preservation-oriented — committed to preserving the natural, aesthetic and historic qualities that give meaning to our cities.

Mason’s immense research — even the footnotes are fascinating — tends to confirm the great-man theory of history: a lot of people were involved in these issues, but it took a few remarkable men to make things happen, foremost among them Andrew Haswell Green. If not for Green and others who were the captains of industry and civic life in New York at that time, how would history have been different and would anyone else have stepped forward?

You don’t have to be a New Yorker or wanna-be New Yorker to find Mason’s work engrossing. It’s about Rochester as much as New York. It’s about how a city and its leaders can take control of rapid growth and seize the opportunity for preserving what’s true and important and beautiful about a place. Preserving the historical and natural areas of a city are essential in building a civic culture and promoting American virtues. As Mason writes, "the construction of historical memory in the service of civic patriotism and the building of memory infrastructure" are vital if our cities are to be more than just aggregations of a lot of people and cars.

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Also new: If you’re interested in "The Once and Future New York," you might also find "Urban Design," a new anthology of essays on the subject from the University of Minnesota Press, of interest. The essays by key scholars and leaders in the field provide an overview of the relatively short history of urban design, and how planners and elected officials need to adapt — fast — to the incredible urbanization of planet Earth. As David L. Lawrence, the forward-looking mayor of Pittsburgh in the 1950s who led that city’s renewal, said, "Civilization cannot be a string of country villas, or a sprawl across the landscape of incomplete satellites revolving around nothing."

Among the more provocative points explored: that "uncontrolled sprawl of our communities only aggravates their problems, and that the solution lies in shaping the city as a whole. The necessary process is not one of decentralization, but one of recentralization."

The dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design wrote that in 1956.

"Urban Design," edited by Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders, University of Minnesota Press, $25.

Jay Furst is the Post-Bulletin’s managing editor. If you’re interested in reviewing a book for the Post-Bulletin, contact him at furst@postbulletin.com.

By the book

"The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City," by Randall Mason. University of Minnesota Press. 307 pages, $27.95.

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