This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the law that created New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission. It is not the oldest such law in the country'cities like Charleston, Baltimore, and New Orleans had protections against the destruction of historic property much earlier'but New York's is considered a national model because it is so comprehensive, according to Andrew Dolkart, professor of preservation at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The statute is broad'it can be applied to single buildings, interiors, or entire neighborhoods. And its definition of places that are architecturally, historically, and culturally significant, says Dolkart, is 'deliberately vague. The built-in flexibility has made the law successful.'
In New York, a building can be considered for landmark status after just 30 years (the federal standard is 50), and it's fascinating to note how ideas of architectural significance keep shifting. The early commissioners didn't think to landmark Art Deco structures like Rockefeller Center (1930'33) or the Empire State Building (1931), says Dolkart, and they would have been stunned to look into the future and see that the Seagram Building (1958) and Lever House (1952) would be landmarked by later commissioners as soon as they were eligible.