By Carter B. Horsley
This unfinished city, this crested domain,
is the survivor of greed and glory, damnation and dreams, politics
Not always pretty, New York sometimes is sublime
and as awesomely complex as any center of civilization might dread
Commissioned in 1993 by the Municipal Art Society,
the civic association, to commemorate its 100th anniversary, this
book is the most brilliant study yet of the myriad, tortured ways
by which contemporary urban environments are formed.
It is a tale painfully worth telling for it
documents the fragility of formal agendas and fearsome egos.
As Kent Barwick, the society's witty and urbane
president notes in his foreword to the book, "The society
- operating under a veil of piety, the protective cover of powerlessness,
and the previously unrecognized advantage of an incomprehensible
name - has generally been spared the critical scrutiny accorded
political candidates, megadevelopers, and rock stars."
"Unhappily," Barwick continues, "...Mr.
Gilmartin reveals that many civic-minded shapers are as capable
of outsized ego, petty jealousy, and downright foolishness as
the powerful villains they have thwarted. In one volume, MAS has
been carried from the safe shadows of obscurity only to be denied
sainthood. Yet for all the book dismays, it does not disappoint.
Its real value is to present, as it does so effectively, the unmistakable
evidence gathered over many decades that the involvement of citizens
- even in a city as tough as New York - makes a critical difference."
Gilmartin is a co-author, with Robert A. M.
Stern, of two of the five other most important books on 20th Century
New York: "New York 1900" and "New York 1930, Architecture
and Urbanism Between The Two World Wars," both published
by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. (John Massengale was
a co-author also of the former and Thomas Mellins a co-author
also of the latter.) The other three most important New York studies
are the third volume in that magnificent series, "New York
1960," published this year which did not involve Gilmartin
and will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue, Robert Caro's "The
Power Broker," the scathing study of Robert Moses, and Robert
Moses's "Public Works." Another indispensable work on
the city, which covers all of its history, is "The Iconography
of Manhattan Island," a six-volume study written by I. N.
Phelps Stokes, one of the many principal characters in Gilmartin's
All these books magnificently portray a city
consumed with venality and frustration, but also a city that is
the epitome of earthly and occasionally heavens-looking delight.
In particular, they bear witness to its man-made splendor.
Gilmartin, a designer with the firm of Peter
Pennoyer Architects, is a very fine writer who weaves an exceedingly
intricate tapestry of urban ambitions and dilemmas, peopled with
fascinating heros such as Albert Bard, Electus Litchfield, George
McAnemy, and Charles Rollinson Lamb and the usual villainous crew
of Tammany and Robert Moses.
On the whole, Gilmartin is wondrously scrupulous
and even-handed, although a few of the more recent controversies
are a bit cryptically and narrowly discussed such as the Grand
Central Terminal (see The City Review
article on the terminal) and St. Bartholomew Church landmark
From its start "as a quaint group of Beaux
Arts aesthetes...who erected a few monuments at the turn of the
century and were foolish enough to dream that New York might one
day be a City Beautiful," the organization evolved into "a
voice of civic conscience in the great public debates over the
plan of the city, the design of its municipal buildings, parks
and monuments, the preservation of its landmarks and historic
districts, and the public responsibilities of private developers,"
"MAS has struggled," he continues,
"against political expediency, bureaucratic inertia, and
corporate greed in an attempt to make New York a more livable
city. Faced with such enemies, it has lost a great many battles;
it has also made its share of disastrous mistakes."
Among its accomplishments, Gilmartin credits
it with goading "the city into drawing the first coherent
scheme to link the five boros, it gave the early reform movement
a constructive agenda for shaping a better city, it introduced
the concept of setback zoning to New York, and it conceived and
masterminded the campaign for a landmarks law...it introduced
the laissez-faire city to a new sense of civicism."
One of the landmarks that was not saved was
Ernest Flagg's great Singer Building on Lower Broadway, shown
at the left.
The municipal art movement's first "triumph
in New York," according to Gilmartin, "was the new Appellate
Courthouse on Madison Square at the corner of East 25th Street."
"Like beauty, however, adequacy lies in the eye of the beholder,
and [architect James Brown] Lord and his collaborators produced
an excess of riches, overloading the courthouse with decorative
sculpture. More than a quarter of the budget went to pay for sculpture."
The sculptures and murals by such major artists
as Daniel Chester French, H. Siddons Mowbray, Kenyon Cox and Will
Low are wonderful and many observers might well argue that the
small courthouse is one of the rare great jewels of the city incongruous
thought it is now surrounded by behemoths.
In 1895, Candace Wheeler, an artist and associate
of Louis Comfort Tiffany, called unsuccessfully for the creation
of a Board of Municipal Art, which, Mr. Gilmartin notes, would
have "powers of breathtaking scope, not just over public
art and architecture, but over private construction as well."
Three years later, the Art Commission was created, but because
of concerns that an "aesthetic tribunal might grate on the
public's equalitarian instincts," it could only review designs
for public buildings and only those on which the majority of the
Board of Aldermen (a precursor of the City Council) asked for
advice, according to Gilmartin. In 1901, a new City Charter, one
of many in those years, empowered it to review any public work
costing more than a million dollars.
One of the many virtues of Gilmartin's book
is that it does not narrowly focus on the Municipal Art Society
and its insights into city agencies and other civic groups is
often very incisive:
"By the time of the Great Depression,
the Art Commission had become a reactionary force that preferred
bad Beaux Arts work to good Modernism, and the irony was that
its senility coincided with the creation of the Works Progress
Administration, the WPA, when the Federal Government put artists
to work on the greatest campaign of municipal art the nation has
Gilmartin's forté is historical perspective.
At the turn of the century, when New York was
about to become the world's most spectacular city, the city was
far from perfect: "Elevated lines still darkened the avenues;
some, not yet electrified, rained sparks and cinders down on the
streets and set fire to the awnings and window shades of tenements.
North of Grand Central Terminal, the trains still lay open to
the city....Freight trains enjoyed the waterfront of Riverside
Park. Their tracks continued down Eleventh Avenue - Death Avenue
as it was known, because the trains killed so many neighborhood
children....It was still legal to build tenements with wooden
staircases and with airshafts only three feet wide...The Lower
East Side was the most densely populated quarter on earth....Harlem
was, an effect, a suburban town....Estates dotted Inwood....A
pall of soft coal smoke stung the eyes. Traffic regulations did
not exist. Traffic lights were unheard of....The acrid smell of
horse manure...was everywhere....It was almost impossible to restrict
builders unless one could prove that life and limb were at stake,
or that a proposed land use, like a slaughter-house, was literally
nauseating. There was no zoning law, and if asked, most Americans
would have considered the very idea unconstitutional. There was
no landmarks law, no system of tax abatements, no public housing,
no complex of public authorities. Mass transit - The Els, the
streetcars, and the nascent subway - was controlled by private
monopolies over which the city had little control."
One of Gilmartin's heroes was Charles Rollinson
Lamb, who, with his brother, Frederic Stymetz Lamb, ran a commercial
decorating firm, the J. & R. Lamb Studios, that specialized
in ecclesiastical work.
Lamb "was the father of setback zoning
in New York and his ideas for 'streets in the sky' inspired the
1920's Art Deco visions of the skyscraper city,." Gilmartin
writes. He also designed in 1899 a 750-foot-high new City Hall
vaulting Reade Street, advocated communal kitchens to "save
women from the drudgery of housework and free them to join in
the city's public life" and dreamed up the Dewey Arch, "the
greatest publicity coup in the history of public art in this city."
Designed to honor Admiral George Dewey's victorious
foray into Manila Bay during the Spanish American War, the arch,
designed by Lamb as a "loose copy" of the Arch of Titus
in the Roman Forum, boasted sculptures by most of America's most
famous sculptors, and a forecourt of lofty columns with Winged
Victories poised on pedestals.
Dewey was greeted Sept. 29, 1899, with "a
delirium not seen again in New York until Charles Lindbergh's
return from Paris" and "a clamor arose to translate
the [temporary] arch into permanent materials as a monument to
the navy." Dewey, however, soon declared himself as presidential
candidate and the new arch became a partisan issue that was soon
Lamb, however, capitalized on the public enthusiasm
for the Dewey Arch and got his colleagues at the National Sculpture
Society to sketch "ideas for city improvements."
"Some of their ideas were prophetic, some
unconvincing, and some risible. The Sculpture Society, for instance,
published a drawing of a reading room at an elevated railway station.
New York didn't yet have a public library system....George Post
presented a proposal for a civic amphitheater on the blocks north
of City Hall and for the Manhattan approach to the new Williamsburgh
Bridge; this called for a circular plaza with radiating streets,
one running to Union Square, the others through Spring and Chatham
Streets. Milton See unveiled his scheme for extending Riverside
Park over the railroad tracks. A. J. Thorpe presented a project
for new docks and a double-decked elevated railway on West Street.
Karl Bitter published his plans for the Plaza....
"The artists' starting point was an aesthetic
criticism of the gridiron plan, which was so lacking in public
amenities and spatial variety. One should note that the gridiron
seemed much more oppressive at the turn of the century, when there
were few tall buildings outside of the financial district. There
were no landmarks on the skyline, like the Empire State Building
or the Chrysler Building to help people orient themselves....To
the Beaux Arts community New York seemed placeless, a giant checkerboard
on which public and private buildings were randomly placed, and
where every street and avenue ended in an identical vista of open
In 1902, Gilmartin reports that the Times
noted that "Any feature that tends to relieve the dreary
monotony of the gridiron...whether it be Mr. Lamb's suggestion
for a circular colonnade at the Eighth Avenue plaza of the Central
Park or Mr. [Thomas] Hasting's for a decorative bridge at Fifth
Avenue and Forty-Second Street, should be most hospitably and
indulgently considered. There more such interruptions and reliefs
of our street plan we have the better will life be worth living
That same year, Lamb proposed "arcading"
East 59th Street, condemning 15 or so feet from the lower floors
of each building, so that the city could move the sidewalks under
cover of arcades and open the full width of the street, from building
line to building line, to traffic. Even Lamb, however, found this
insufficient, and other plans "called for the street to be
widened 40 feet on its north side, a proposal that even Emmanuel
Bloomingdale, whose store stood in the way, did not oppose, declaring
he'd 'rather lose part of his store than see nothing done.'"
At the time, bridge design Gustav Lindenthal had designed a major
railroad bridge to New Jersey at 57th Street and it seemed 59th
Street "would soon become a great cross axis of traffic between
New Jersey and Long Island," Gilmartin writes.
Two years late, in 1904, the New York City
Improvement commission, established by Mayor George McClennan,
the son of the Union general in the Civil War, published several
important schemes including a new Lamb plan for 59th Street that
called for removing all structures between the Queensboro Bridge
and Fifth Avenue and 59th and 60th Streets to create a "Court
of Honor," similar to the recently announced plan to develop
Park Avenue north of Grand Central Terminal. Mayor McClennan,
however, decided to extend the commission's life to 1907 and little
was done to carry out its proposals, Gilmartin notes.
According to Gilmartin, Lamb recalled that
he had "endeavored to prove to the gentlemen living north
on Fifth Avenue, in the Millionaire's row, that unless they put
in some such buffer between themselves and the march of progress
north, it would not be very long before business would take Fifth
Avenue in the upper part away from them, as it is taking away
from those like William H. Vanderbilt...south of 59th Street."
One might argue that such a plan still makes
sense, giving the tremendous traffic problems that persist along
this cross-town corridor. There are, of course, four major impediments:
the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel (see The
City Review article on the hotel), the former Delmonico Hotel
on Park Avenue, 750 Lexington Avenue (also known as International
Plaza), and Bloomingdale's.
Of these, only the Sherry-Netherlands is truly
a great landmark, but since it only occupies half of the Fifth
Avenue blockfront and since the avenue not only runs downtown,
it could remain. The Delmonico and the office building designed
by Helmut Jahn at 750 Lexington Avenue are very good buildings
that would be missed, but are not all that critical and Bloomingdale's
is a mess. Gilmartin, not unsurprisingly, however, does not raise
this question and such a scheme would be expensive and require
that Bloomingdale's, the Delmonico hotel and the Cohen Brothers,
who own developed 750 Lexington, probably become the mixed-use
partners in a mammoth redevelopment of the former Alexander's
Store on the south side of 59th Street between Lexington and Third
Avenues, a site in which interest has already been expressed for
an airport train terminal and a new headquarters for the American
branch of Sotheby's, the auction house. By transferring air rights
from Bloomington's and the rest of the planned demolition, all
such interests could be accommodated with the development of a
huge mixed-use skyscraper.
At about the same time, Lamb's brother, Frederick,
organized the Conference Committee on the City Plan and its report
included a M.A.S. proposal for a subway linking the new Penn Station
with the rebuilt Grand Central Terminal as well as suggestions
for a widened Christopher Street extended to Union Square and
two new diagonal avenues from the foot of the Williamsburgh Bridge,
one to Cooper Square and the other to the Manhattan Bridge and
the financial district.
"The M.A.S. saw the Lower East Side through
Jacob Riis's camera lens, and had every reason to believe that
it was doing the poor a kindness by destroying their homes,"
Gilmartin notes. Moreover, he continued, the bridge approaches
seemed essential if the poor were to have an escape route from
the old slums to Brooklyn or Queens - to their own homes or, at
worst, to New Law tenements" mandated by new legislation
Mayor Seth Low backed the plan and in 1903
Albany approved a state law authorizing the creation of a New
York City Improvement commission. However, the city's Board of
Alderman, Gilmartin points out, "saw no reason to surrender
control of the city map to an elite group of unnamed and unelected
'experts' who would surely wreck havoc on the aldermen's own communities
- the report of the Conference Committee left no doubt that the
Lower East Side would be devastated."
Mayor Low, however, succeeded in getting another
bill passed in Albany that transferred control of the city map
from the Board of Aldermen to the Board of Estimate. "In
its determination to break Tammany's hold on the neighborhoods,
and the neighborhoods' stranglehold over planning, the reform
movement left communities with no real voice in the planning process.
The danger involved in this wouldn't become clear to the M.A.S.
for years - not until after World War II, when it realized that
nothing could stop Robert Moses," Gilmartin emphasized.
Decades later, of course, the street grid and
its open vistas would be heralded by many as one of the Manhattan's
greatest virtues for its simplified navigation, thrilling canyons
and disciplined organization.
In 1902, Irene Hagamon Hall, inaugurated the
M.A.S.'s Block Beautiful program: "The time will come when
a city vista will always be terminated by a park, lined by a boulevard,
or by a tree-shaded and vine-clad street." To promote her
"embowered" streets, Gilmartin said that Hall would
recruit a few women on a given street and then rely on them to
"cajole, shame, or inspire" their neighbors into joining
the campaign. Gilmartin adds that the Times printed an
"astonishing" editorial: "Trees could not possibly
survive on the sidewalks of New York, it argued, and in any case
'sunlight is best and cheapest of disinfectants.'"
That same year, Mayor Low, based on recommendations
from the Citizens Union, changed the city's formula for assessing
properties from being mortgage-based to open market values. "The
immediate effect of the new assessment policy was a huge windfall
in borrowing capacity - money needed for the East River bridges,
schools, libraries, parks, public baths, and other projects.
The long-term effect, however, was to wed the
city's interests to those of the real estate speculator: rising
land values became the engine of municipal government, and any
move to produce a more humanly scaled city would run up against
this basic conflict of interest," Gilmartin argues. Low,
however, was not reelected and declined to appoint members of
the Improvement Commission.
In 1905, the M.A.S. proposed more cross-town
subway lines and a belt line surrounding Manhattan close to the
waterfront. The Board of Trade and Transportation, however, "normally
one of the society's allies, came out against the cross-town links,
which would have upset the established pattern of land values.
In all the society's plan would have produced a very different
New York: high land values wouldn't have been so concentrated
in the center of the island, and the pressure to build skyscrapers
might have been less intense. The waterfront, especially on the
West Side, would have been a very different place today: other
uses would have gradually infiltrated the factories and warehouses
once the port collapsed."
The Improvement Commission issued its final
report in 1907, but many of its recommendations were regarded
as too timid despite the lack of available funding and the lack
of constitutional power and in some instances too frivolous. Gilmartin
writes that "The report's aestheticism, and its social ethos
seemed to be summed up in its notorious proposal to tear down
the wall surrounding Central Park and pages of illustrations were
devoted to the subject, as to discredit the entire report."
Both the commission and Mayor McClennan, Gilmartin says, shared
the same flaw: "a commitment to aesthetics rather than to
The constitutional problem lay in the city's
condemnation process which was limited to taking only the land
"strictly necessary for public improvement," Gilmartin
wrote, and often the city was required "to shave off parts
of buildings rather than include any 'excess' property."
Eventually "excess condemnation" legislation was passed
in 1912, but too late for the commission's recommendations.
In 1909, the Board of Estimate passed a resolution
requiring all buildings to keep within the building line. Stoop
line privileges were abolished in all future construction, and
all projections over the building line were banned unless they
were more than 10 feet above street level.
Gilmartin notes that the M.A.S. "ignored
the warnings of William Rowe, an architect who specialized in
apartment buildings, that the rule 'will make impossible any architectural
treatment of the lower part of our buildings....All ornamental
porches will have to be abolished."
Soon, Gilmartin observes in one of his most
insightful passages, many Classically intended facades began to
be flattened, "causing shadows to disappear and the sculptural
quality of buildings to vanish into thin air...In the hands of
good architects this led to a newfound delicacy of scale and detail
- there was a Regency revival in New York - but more often the
effect resembled too little butter spread over too much bread.
Art Deco architects of the 1920's learned to take advantage of
this enforced flatness, but even so, Art Deco buildings were usually
weakest at the base. They slam straight into the ground, where
earlier buildings had managed to create a richer effect at the
pedestrian's eye level. Even today, anyone complaining of the
bold, impoverished effect of so much contemporary architecture
should bear in mind the fact that architects are forced to work
in absurdly low relief."
As the city began to ponder regulating building
heights, Daniel Burnham designed a 62-story building in 1908 that
was 1,059 feet high for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of
the United States at 120 Broadway. Plans were approved, but Equitable
put its project on hold. Four years later, however, its building
on the site burned down. According to Gilmartin, neighboring real
estate interests feared Equitable's new building would lower their
values. Meanwhile, Equitable was concerned that a state law barring
insurance companies from investing in a "building not needed
for its own business" might be invoked and it sold its site
to Thomas Coleman Du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune.
A consortium was formed by owners of several
neighboring buildings and some banks to buy the site from Du Pont
and erect only an "underdeveloped" 8-story building
at a loss, but Du Pont would not sell. Instead, a building a building
only two-thirds as tall as Burnham's plans. Burnham had died and
the new building, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White,
was finished in 1915. The building rose 40 stories without a setback
and the "city was forced to reduce tax assessments in the
area by a million dollars" as tenants relocated from nearby
buildings, now shaded, to seek out "better lit office space."
The Equitable Building demonstrated that height limits were in
the interest of real estate people, and the wave of downward assessments
demonstrated that the unchecked skyscraper now threatened the
city's own finances," Gilmartin wrote.
In his discussion of the city's 1916 Zoning
Resolution, Gilmartin observed that it "ushered in, quite
by accident, the great experiment of Art Deco architecture"
because its "jumble of setbacks and towers...rang the death
knell for academic classicism. One simply couldn't make sense
of these shapes with the old vocabulary of columns, pedestals
He also noted that despite its prolonged birth
pangs, the Zoning Resolution gained quick acceptance: "No
one was opposed to zoning anymore. Property owners were grateful
that it had brought some stability to land values; tenants were
happy that it had steered obnoxious land uses away from their
homes." And zoning turned out to be useful to Tammany itself,
for the Board of Standards and Appeals had the power to review
requests for zoning variances, a wide discretionary power that
was ideally suited to the practice of 'honest' graft. Bribes,
in the strictest sense of the word, never needed to change hands.
All Tammany had to do was to make sure that certain lawyers, closely
connected to the Democratic machine, enjoyed astonishing success
when representing clients before the board."
Almost unnoticed at the time, the new zoning
regulations provided ample development potential to accommodate
77 million residents and enough commercial space for 340 million
workers, according to Gilmartin.
In gory and fascinating detail, Gilmartin recites
scores of ill-fated grandiose plans, such as Mayor John F. Hylan's
1922 plan for a new municipal opera house, designed by Arnold
Brunner, that would have stretched from Sixth to Seventh Avenues
and from 57th Street over Central Park South into Central Park,
or a plan by Thomas Hastings to bisect Central Park with a Beaux
Arts garden and World War I memorial to create a major axis between
the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural
History, or the 1920 plan by Gustav Lindenthal for a Hudson River
Bridge at 57th Street with 12 train tracks and 20 car lanes and
towers taller than the Woolworth Building, or Robert Moses's plan
for a bridge from the Battery to Brooklyn two decades later.
Gilmartin is no punch-puller.
In a discussion of Rockefeller Center's decision
to "pulverize" Diego Rivera's controversial mural in
the lobby of the new 30 Rockefeller Plaza office tower, he said
that "to its disgrace, M.A.S. didn't utter a peep of protest."
Furthermore, he continued, the society opposed a bill in Congress
that would have made the Works Progress Administration art programs
permanent: "It's true that many of the W.P.A. murals were
dreadful, but then again, so were many of the art societies' own
early efforts." (See The City Review
article on 30 Rockefeller Plaza.)
Housing, of course, has been a regular New
York City dilemma. "Nearly a hundred thousand New Yorkers
received eviction notices in 1919," Gilmartin recalls, resulting
in the passage the following year of the first rent-control law
in the nation. "By 1927, there were 83,000 vacant apartments
in New York. But for the poor, things had gotten worse: more people
lived in Old Law tenements in 1925 than in 1909."
In 1928, the city widened Christie and Forsyth
Streets on the Lower East Side and the next year used its powers
of excess condemnation to clear away the buildings between the
The Regional Plan Association proposed that
this 7-block stretch seductively be transformed with a sunken
parkway with the neighboring tenements giving way to glistening
Art Deco skyscrapers complete with beacons flashing from their
roofs, as shown in the rendering above.
Mayor Jimmy Walker, however, "ignored"
the association's "gentrified paradise" and "decided
to build housing instead of a highway. It was a great opportunity,
and Walker might have done down in history as the man who built
the first public housing project in America," Gilmartin mused.
The condemnation process for the site involved
Joseph Force Crater who was appointed the next year, in 1930,
to the New York State Supreme Court. He mysteriously vanished
that year leaving a note for his wife that a mortgage company
involved in the condemnation owed him "a very large sum,"
In 1918, St. John's Chapel, which Gilmartin
describes as "the city's most beautiful church," was
demolished as part of the reconstruction of Varick Street. Although
the city had promised a few years earlier not to demolish it,
it did. "Why it did so remains a mystery," one of the
few not unraveled by Gilmartin. Built by Trinity Parish in 1803,
"it was the masterpiece of John McComb Jr., one of the designers
of City Hall...," Gilmartin recounts, "and it looked
out over a four-acre park known as Hudson Square, or St. John's
Park, which was bounded by Varick, Beach, Hudson and Laight Streets."
"For a time, Hudson Square was the jewel
of Trinity's possessions. Fenced with iron and lined by brick
row houses, with the great Georgian spire and portico of Saint
John's commanding its axis, it looked like a genteel corner of
London. By the 1860's, the area was no longer fashionable, however,
and Trinity sold the park to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1867. There
he built the ghastly Hudson River Railroad Freight Depot, southern
terminus of the Death Avenue line; it plunged the neighborhood
deeper into a spiral of decline and by 1895 the state of Trinity's
tenements had become a full-fledged scandal - to think that all
the High Church pomp of Trinity's services rested on a slumlord's
fortune!" Gilmartin wrote.
In 1908, Trinity announced that services would
cease at Saint John's, but a campaign to save it was launched
by I. N. Phelps Stokes, with a petition signed by President Theodore
Roosevelt, Mayor McClennan, J. P. Morgan and others. "The
Times calculated that if these gentlemen felt so strongly
about Saint John's, they could well afford to purchase it themselves...It
is just a century old, they wrote of Saint John's, and though
a structure of 'sure' distinction 'it stands in an unlovely neighborhood
where it is no longer needed.'"
Trinity decided to continue services and realized,
according to Gilmartin, that with new subways Varick Street would
become a major thoroughfare and the pre-law tenements would come
down and that if it was patient the church "would be able
to sell off its ...little slum at a hefty profit...There was another,
political advantage in waiting: the chapel's portico stood in
the bulldozer's path, and Trinity was perfectly happy to let the
city take the blame for destroying Saint John's."
When William Zeckendorf announced plans, subsequently
abandoned, for an 80-story skyscraper, designed by I. M. Pei,
to rise over Grand Central Terminal in 1955, the M.A.S. and the
city's architectural community began to focus more closely on
landmarks and two years later the M.A.S. published its list of
Its counsel, Gilmartin notes, "was so
nervous about the booklet that he insisted on adding a disclaimer
in which the M. A. S. absolved itself of responsibility for any
fluctuations in property values as a result of its work. (He assumed
that the mere suggestion that a building be preserved would drive
its price down.)"
In 1978, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the
city's landmarks law that had been challenged by Penn Central,
which wanted to develop another skyscraper of Grand Central Terminal.
While Gilmartin provides a good account of
M.A. S.'s very active participation in this critical landmark
case, he does not fully analyze the court's ruling, which, in
fact, did not preclude the full development of the bankrupt's
railroad's air rights, but only upheld the city's right to review
proposals of landmarked properties.
The city subsequently has tinkered substantially
with the issue by creating an air rights transfer district that
essentially only effects the terminal but minimizes both the number
of "receiver" sites and the amount they may receive.
The controversial and complex subject, of course, could easily
fill a large and controversial book on its own.
For many years, the courts were "very
stern on the subject of 'spot zoning': cities could invent special
rules for whole neighborhoods, but they couldn't arbitrarily single
out particular buildings or lots for special treatment,"
Gilmartin writes. Indeed, New York was very slow, as Gilmartin
points out, to adopt the concept of historic districts as Charleston
protected its historic center in 1931 and New Orleans made its
Vieux Carré a historic district in 1937.
"The Great Depression had brought about
a revolution in Constitutional law....Where the rights of employers
and property owners had once reigned supreme, they would now be
balanced against the rights of labor and a broader sense of the
public interest," Gilmartin writes.
In 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court, in Berman
v. Parker, a case involving slum clearance in Washington,
held that 'it is well within the power of the legislature to determine
that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious
as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled."
Gilmartin recounts the slow and painful evolvement
of the city's landmarks preservation law, which was finally passed
in 1965, after the loss of many important buildings, most notably
the former Penn Station.
(In 1955, incidentally, William Zeckendorf,
who was then hoping to develop the aforementioned 80-story tower
at Grand Central, teamed up with showman Billy Rose to propose
a two-story merchandise mart to be known as the Palace of Progress,
designed by I. M. Pei, "to replace Penn Station." Gilmartin
reported that this project also "came to naught.")
Gilmartin correctly notes that
from its inception, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission
was cautious because of concerns of legal challenges.
The commission, he writes, "stood by as
the Singer Tower, Ernest Flagg's masterpiece, was torn down to
make way for the headquarters of the U. S. Steel Corporation,
an awful hymn to the brute strength of steel beams.
The commission also looked away from Joseph
Urban's fabled Ziegfield Theater....And by a six-to-five vote,
the Landmarks Commission declared that the Metropolitan Opera
House was not a landmark."
Gilmartin conceded that the old Met's exterior
was "famously ugly," but emphasized that its "architectural
glory was its auditorium" and the law did not yet apply to
interiors - the first was the New York Public Library in 1973.
This brilliant, fearless book's only failing
is that it is not even longer and have more illustrations.
It is must reading for all New Yorkers.