Books logo

Shaping the City

New York and the Municipal Art Society

by Gregory F. Gilmartin

Clarkson Potter/Publishers, New York, pp. 532, 1995, $35

"Cajole, Shame, or Inspire"

It is a tale painfully worth telling for it documents

the fragility of formal agendas and fearsome egos.

First major scheme by Donald Trump for his Riverside  South complex called for a tower that would be the world's tallest.

Donald Trump's first major scheme for his Television City project included plan for the world's tallest building, but it was modified to meet objections of many civic groups and insert shows proposal advanced by Paul Willen for project that became known as Riverside South

By Carter B. Horsley

This unfinished city, this crested domain, is the survivor of greed and glory, damnation and dreams, politics and power.

Not always pretty, New York sometimes is sublime and as awesomely complex as any center of civilization might dread to be.

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 new book.

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 controversies.

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," Gilmartin observes.

"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 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 ever seen."

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 abandoned.

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 sky."

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 in Manhattan."

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 in 1901.

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 planning."

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 and cornices."

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 two streets.

1931 scheme by the Regional Plan Association for Chrystie-Forsyth Parkway

In 1931, the Regional Plan Association presented this rendering

of proposed Christie-Forsyth Parkway for the Lower East Side

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," Gilmartin wrote.

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 historic buildings.

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.")

The Singer Building, once city's tallest, was demolishedGilmartin 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.






Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

Click here or on the picture below of the book's cover to order the book from


See The City Review's recommended list of books on New York City

Home Page of The City Review