The Hotel Pennsylvania, in Manhattan, is said to be at risk of demolition again and of replacement by a building sympathetic to the current Penn Station. The old hotel, designed by McKim, Mead & White and opened in 1919, is across the street from Penn Station and near the Foley Post Office. The latter, like the original of the former, is also by McKim, Mead & White, the most successful architectural firm of America’s Gilded Age. The hotel’s Café Rouge hosted performances by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey Brothers. It boasted the most longstanding phone number in New York City (PEnnsylvania 6-5000, or 212-736-5000).
None of those facts are enough to cancel the hotel’s doom. Preservation organizations have not rallied to its defense. Its fate depends on whether New York – its citizens and leadership – comes to realize that preservation at bottom isn’t just about saving old buildings but the spirit of the city itself. That means preservation must rethink its raison d’être. Don’t hold your breath.
It is not surprising that preservationists hold so many conferences on what preservation is all about. The Providence Preservation Society sponsored one here last fall, the College of Charleston is holding one there in February, and another will be held by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, on March 16-18, focusing on how to address those pesky heritage issues.
Preservationists are always wondering what they are all about because for decades preservation has allied itself not with tradition but with the rejection of tradition, not with history but the rejection of history, not with beauty but the rejection of beauty. Professionally and intellectually, the preservation movement now fashions itself rejectionist, and is thrashing around in bed with modern architecture, itself famously, callously, thoughtlessly and inexcusably rejectionist. But most people, including members of preservation societies, are not, and find themselves alienated from goals that they did not sign up for. That is why preservationist organizations hold conferences trying to understand – or pretending to try to understand – the very obvious mission for preservation.
Some preservationists and some of the work of preservation organizations still reflect a respect for tradition in architecture and cities, but most preservationists have gravitated toward a perceived need to defend unsympathetic new construction in historic districts or, in the relative absence of traditional buildings at risk in many cities, a perceived need to save utilitarian structures, including modernist buildings, that hardly anyone outside of their professional circles – including their societies’ members – gives much of a hoot about. Here is a passage from promotional literature about the UPenn symposium:
Concepts of heritage have evolved dramatically in the past 50 years, from the stately mansions of founding fathers to neighborhoods and landscapes, from sites of conscience to the intangible and ephemeral. Throughout the world, leading designers have embraced the complex challenges of remaking historic places, creating sophisticated ensembles that range from seamless to provocative.
Nonetheless, the basic principles of contemporary design in historic settings, as first codified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in 1966, have remained unchanged. The directives that additions and new construction in historic settings be “differentiated” yet “compatible” remains challenging, controversial–even mystifying—for designers, regulators, property owners and the general public.
Notice the effort to appear neutral as to tradition and its rejection. But you can easily imagine which leg the symposium’s thrill will travel up.
My post from last November looking forward to the Providence Preservation Society’s annual dance around this topic, “Symposium: Why preserve?,” wondered whether panelists would address whether preservation should return to basics. They did not. In Philadelphia they will, at least if Steven Semes has anything to say about it. The author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation, one of my bibles, is a scheduled speaker. In Charleston, I am on the schedule, so we’ll have to see what happens.