In January, the demolition of the Geller House by Marcel Breuer, built in 1945 in a suburb of New York, caused an outcry among preservationists and aficionados of Midcentury Modernism. The single-story cedar-clad “bi-nuclear” dwelling—with a plan that demarcated one wing for children, and the other for living, dining, and the kitchen—exemplified a new kind of domestic life in postwar America, with a flexible, open plan and easy access between indoors and outdoors. A similar prototype by Breuer was built in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949—inspiring, along with the work of many others, residential design around the country. As James Russell argues in an article on threatened midcentury houses, the Geller House was significant not only for its “style” but for the ideas expressed in its then innovative program, which have informed social as well as architectural history. Countless similarly significant houses have also been destroyed or altered beyond recognition.
Private property in suburbia tends to be beyond the reach of preservationists, but, in most cities, regulations for protecting historic architecture often come into play in urban planning and during the review of new construction.
But who gets to decide what will stay and what should go can be a complicated and fraught question. Case in point: in New York, a vocal battle has erupted over a $7 billion scheme to rebuild nine dense blocks in midtown Manhattan. Under the auspices of New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation, the plan’s justification is the critical need to replace Penn Station, the largest transit hub in North America—and to surround it with a shiny new business district, comprising 10 huge towers with more than 18 million square feet of office, hotel, and retail space. Everyone agrees that the utterly depressing underground train station (through which a half-million commuters a day “scuttle like rats,” in the words of critic Michael Kimmelman) must be fixed (beyond SOM’s 2021 redo for the Moynihan Train Hall). But in order to trigger the complex New York State plan, the entire neighborhood has been declared “blighted” and could be razed.
This is good news for the real-estate developer Vornado, the largest stakeholder in the area, which has already rebranded it as “The Penn District: A Vornado Campus.” (The state would condemn the non-Vornado parcels). But besides the many small businesses that would be shuttered under the plan, more than a dozen important historic structures are threatened with demolition—from an 1872 Gothic Revival Roman Catholic Church, designed by Napoleon Le Brun, to the 1929 Italianate and Romanesque Revival Stewart Hotel, by Murgatroyd & Ogden, with George B. Post & Sons, to the copper-clad Gimbel’s sky bridge by Shreve & Lamb, who later designed the Empire State Building as Shreve, Lamb & Harmon.
The Hotel Pennsylvania (1919) by McKim, Mead & White is already being torn down as you read this, to be replaced by a 1,100-foot-high supertall by Foster & Partners. The irony is not lost on anyone paying attention that it was the destruction in 1963 of McKim, Mead & White’s magisterial Beaux-Arts Penn Station (1910) that finally led to landmark laws in New York City and elsewhere. Yet the 22-story, now-shabby hotel across the street (which might have continued to thrive had the original station been preserved and maintained) will soon be rubble, and another important McKim, Mead & White structure nearby, the handsome Penn Station Service building (1908), is set to become dust as well.
This immense project seems to ignore so much of what we know about urban planning, from the negative consequences—social as well as economic—of the scorched-earth urban-renewal processes of the 1950s and ’60s to the inexorable carbon costs of the blanket destruction of existing structures to build anew. And it is mystifying to plan millions of square feet of new offices, without understanding what will really be needed in the currently glutted post-Covid market.
Among the many opponents of the plan—from preservation agencies and civic organizations to the myriad citizens who’ve flooded public hearings and posted on social media—are those calling for a nuanced, targeted approach for redeveloping the neighborhood that would privilege historic properties and rehabilitate the many solid buildings there while creating space for new construction as well. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit chartered by the U.S. Congress, points out in its objection that there are at least 13 National Register–eligible structures at risk, and insists the plan must be reviewed under the National Historic Preservation Act or risk losing potential federal financing.
Saving private houses that are architectural gems clearly enriches our knowledge and culture. But sparing historic structures in cities, where regulations exist, is even more important: such buildings contribute to the richly textured tapestry of the urban streetscape—the civic realm that belongs to everyone.