What Historic Preservation Is Doing to American Cities

By | July 5, 2023
What Historic Preservation Is Doing to American Cities

When news broke earlier this year that the modest but attractive house on Long Island known as Geller I was going to be demolished, the outcry was immediate. The home’s significance in architectural history was beyond question. Its designer, Marcel Breuer, was among the most acclaimed of the mid-20th-century modernists and one of the few whose name is familiar to those with only a passing interest in architecture. These facts ultimately meant little. Geller I—the first of two buildings that Breuer designed for the same client in Lawrence, New York—was torn down in January to make way for the tennis court of a new, larger house.

A few miles away in Brooklyn, meanwhile, another hard-fought preservation battle was gearing up. The owner of 300 State Street, a pleasant if unremarkable Italianate house on the edge of Boerum Hill, wanted to replace the building’s front door. Because 300 State is a landmarked building, the project required approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the agency charged with carrying out New York City’s preservation laws. A 15-page document was submitted for the LPC’s consideration explaining the design of the replacement door, to be built by a local firm whose specialty, according to its website, is “expertly crafted custom and reproduction doors for historic and landmark properties.” But the proposal did not find favor with the commission. In a unanimous decision, its members ruled that the current front door was “historic and integral to the building’s design,” and a new one would “remove significant historic fabric.” The original door would stay.

It seems incredible that a mid-century marvel like Geller I should fall victim to redevelopment while a government agency nearby intervenes to prevent someone from replacing an old front door with a similar-looking new one. In the world of historic preservation, however, a loose relationship between a building’s historical value and its likelihood of being protected is all too common. In Los Angeles, the iconic Brown Derby restaurant is gone, but a Chevron station in Brentwood is on the city’s list of “historical-cultural monuments.” Washington, D.C.’s infamous Yellow House—a focal point of the city’s early-19th-century slave trade—was lost generations ago, but a strip mall and its parking lot a few miles away are landmarked. New York City, which has long had a particularly assertive preservation movement, has roughly 30,000 lots situated within historic districts today. Most of these buildings are of little inherent importance on their own but are considered by the LPC to be significant because of the way they relate to one another—and can remain so only if all are protected en masse. In Manhattan, once famed for its ever-evolving skyline, an astonishing 27 percent of the borough’s lots now fall under the purview of the landmarks commission.

To be sure, preservationists have a proud history of ensuring that buildings of great historical importance, as well as lesser-known structures that teach us about our past, are protected from demolition. Philadelphia is unquestionably a richer place for having Independence Hall, New York for its Tenement Museum, and Boston for its African Meeting House. As many cities today grapple with unprecedented housing shortages and cost-of-living issues, however, the degree to which historic-preservation laws can function as a pretext for preventing change entirely is clearer than ever. This problem doesn’t just present an identity crisis for preservationists. It’s part of a much larger, unresolved question in urban life: whether our major cities can be sites of social progress in the 21st century, or whether the change-averse ideology that has come to dominate their local politics will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

Understanding how we got to this point starts with appreciating how historic preservation is unlike any other form of antiquarianism. Buildings aren’t usually put in museums, and for most preservationists, doing so would be beside the point. Preservation advocates have long noted that they seek to protect not just architecture but also the way that buildings relate to their surroundings. To landmark a building means not only to fix it in time but also to fix it in place.

For much of preservation’s initial history in the U.S., these ideals were not widely shared by the public. Early preservation efforts were scattershot, made possible by a motley crew of wealthy private individuals and groups. Some, such as the re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg, funded by members of the Rockefeller family, involved the extensive construction of new buildings made to look old. Even at the start of the postwar era, preservation still struck many as an eccentric, even reactionary hobby—a cause endorsed, in the words of the early New York preservationist Harmon Goldstone, only by “crackpots” and “ladies with floppy hats and tennis shoes.” By the middle of the 1960s, however, the tide was beginning to turn. In 1945, just two American cities could boast landmark-protection laws. Two decades later, by which point historic preservation claimed such high-profile supporters as Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson, the number had grown to 70.

In one sense, the cause of this shift was simple. As The New York Times observed in 1964, with each passing year the country was racked by “increasing public dismay over the vanishing of landmarks under the onslaughts of urban renewal and other construction.” Faced with highways, high-rises, and other pro-growth projects that marked the postwar decades, preservation activism offered Americans a way to fight back. The sudden popularity of historic preservation, however, had as much to do with financial sensibilities as aesthetic ones. Spurred by government-backed mortgages and a booming postwar economy, the proportion of Americans who owned their own home grew 42 percent from 1940 to 1960. The rise of a mass property-owning society invited new possibilities for how preservation might function as public policy. Conventional wisdom had long held that the best way to make money from owning real estate was to “improve” it—that is, to build something on the land. But preservationists argued that limits on even minor alterations to the appearance of buildings would, in fact, enable property owners to attract buyers who placed a premium on the existence of those same restrictions. In this way, landmarking would function as a signal to real-estate markets about the likelihood that a neighborhood would experience significant physical change, and, in turn, about its stability as a prospective investment. Wrote the editors of The Boston Globe in 1955, declaring their support for a Beacon Hill historic district, “This is designed not to burden property-holders, but quite the opposite—to protect them from acts of architectural mayhem which could wreck their real estate values and spoil their pleasure and comfort.” A Brooklyn Heights preservationist similarly recalled local real-estate brokers being told in the early ’60s that a historic district for their neighborhood “was going to turn a sleepy community into a hotbed of real estate activity, and they were all going to profit from it.” Even New York’s most ardent preservationists had once estimated that probably no more than a few hundred structures and two or three historic districts within the five boroughs deserved legal protection. By the end of the ’70s, more than three dozen historic districts had been created, and the number of protected lots in the city had surpassed 10,000.

The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

Not all landmarking efforts succeeded, of course, and the ones that did tended to confirm preservationists’ existing sensibilities about the kinds of buildings that should be preserved and the kinds of communities that ought to benefit from the stability that landmark laws would bring. The nation’s very first historic district, that of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, was created in 1931 as part of a Jim Crow zoning code whose aim was to encourage the segregation of the city. Although the zoning itself did not use racial labels, which the U.S. Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional, observers understood that its intent was to increase the neighborhood’s appeal to white people who had left the area and to encourage the Black residents who lived there to move elsewhere. In northern cities such as Boston and New York, the original lists of proposed landmarks were not overtly racist in the same way. Nevertheless, they reflected the interests of the elite and almost exclusively white circles from which those cities’ early preservationists came. While the Harvard Club, Metropolitan Club, University Club, and Century Association were all deemed worthy of inclusion on the Municipal Art Society’s 1957 preservation survey of New York, the entire borough of Queens was found to have just 10 buildings with landmark potential. These biases persisted after the passage of the laws that created official preservation authorities. Early hearings on the creation of a historic district in Park Slope praised the largely white neighborhood for being “a stable family community,” and one report noted with approval that a proposed historic district on the Upper East Side featured “an active property owners’ association [that] governs and controls its destiny.” By contrast, an LPC director reported in 1962 that he had visited a majority-Black section of Crown Heights slated for the construction of new housing and could find “no structures worthy of designation.”

Historic preservation evolved quite a bit in the decades that followed, growing from an inchoate movement into an entire professional discipline. Today, architecture and design firms specialize in renovations and adaptive-reuse plans that adhere to historic districts’ legal requirements. Lawyers have dedicated their careers to mastering the ins and outs of preservation paperwork. Dozens of universities offer graduate or even undergraduate degrees in the field. More important, historic preservation’s political valence has changed significantly as well. In the ’50s and ’60s, the movement had no clear partisan association, counting among its supporters old-money Republicans and Greenwich Village Democrats alike. But the inadvertent and unlikely alliance that emerged against urban growth in late-20th-century cities caused preservationists to find common cause with environmentalists, anti-gentrification activists, and other groups interested in blocking the bulldozer. The rise of this anti-growth politics was part of the much broader realignment of city-dwelling, college-educated white voters into the Democratic Party that continues to this day, and it resulted in the small-c conservative politics of preservation coming to exist firmly within the fold of liberalism as well-to-do liberals started to define it. (For proof of how closely preservation now aligns with white-collar-liberal respectability, look no further than the COVID-vaccination rates of New York City’s municipal workers: The LPC staff was the first to hit 100 percent.) The changing ideological inflection of historic preservation has, in turn, started to change the priorities of historic preservation itself. More than ever before, preservationist organizations are expressing interest in landmarking buildings and neighborhoods associated with people of color, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized groups. Last year, inspired by the uprisings of the summer of 2020, the LPC announced the creation of an “equity framework” to guide the commission’s future work. New and recently proposed historic districts in the city have focused on neighborhoods associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Caribbean immigrants.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that while many preservationists today are engaged in good-faith efforts to move away from the elitism of the movement’s past, the effects of landmark laws have not changed as much as the rhetoric now surrounding them might imply. The aesthetes and white-collar property owners who made historic preservation an enduring political force in the 20th century are still the main coalition supporting it in the 21st. What’s more, preservation remains firmly entrenched in the wider array of practices that make urban real estate an engine of wealth generation for some and immiseration for others. This dynamic has become even more visible as demand to live in the historic districts of older coastal cities continues to grow. Neighborhoods such as New York’s Upper West Side, San Francisco’s Alamo Square, and Washington’s Georgetown—places once affordable to middle- or upper-middle-class home buyers—are now dominated by white-shoe lawyers and financiers. Research on New York City has found an association between such neighborhoods’ designation as landmarks decades ago and their evolution into elite preserves today.

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

In this system, whether advocates of landmarking are genuinely interested in architecture or history—as many preservationists doubtless were and are—or more interested in their bottom line is beside the point. As historic preservation has evolved as a political issue, one cannot be separated from the other. Today, when most preservationists identify as liberals, preservation is thus a superb case study of a much larger problem in urban politics: that of the Democratic Party’s growing base of white-collar professionals attempting to reconcile their material interests with their egalitarian ideals. This tension is reflected in superficial attempts to reframe historic preservation as a progressive endeavor. But no equity framework will make landmarking equitable in the future if it does not first recognize that enriching the owners of landmarked buildings remains a fundamental part of what preservation does in the present.

As demand to live in many cities reaches heights that were unimaginable to the first preservationists, communities need the ability to save buildings of exceptional architectural and historical merit more than ever before. For historic preservation to become genuinely progressive, however, today’s preservationists must root out the movement’s profound apprehension toward the city that might be. And they must banish that fear of the future characteristic of any political formation whose base is people who are comfortable in the present. Otherwise, we will continue to destroy extraordinary buildings like Geller I while less interesting houses—and their front doors—are used to shackle the process of growth and change that produced them in the first place. The neighborhoods around them will lose the vibrancy that once made preservation appealing, and the next generation of city dwellers will find nothing worth preserving at all.