2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Remembering the Consequences of Mishandling Art.

Ruth Osborne

Every so often it is useful – indeed, instructing – to take a glance at the current environment in the art world and see what recent developments show about what the future holds. For ArtWatch, this means considering again the consequences of collections across the country that we have seen dismembered or mishandled over the past few years. We cannot remain in the dark about the damages done to art when its appointed stewards forsake their responsibility. Keeping one eye always open and aware is the key keeping in check the mishandling and greed that always has the potential to consume what unique artistic and cultural heritage has been handed down to us.

Washington, D.C.

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

The former Corcoran Gallery and College of Art + Design has been reeling since its dissolution two years ago when the collection was handed over to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the art students and faculty were brought under the mantle of George Washington University. Both have suffered at the hands of the behemoth institutions that now own them. Corcoran College faculty and students are experiencing a culture clash as GW, a primarily research-led university, enforces curriculum changes and struggles to connect with the non-capitalist-driven founding principles of the College. Faculty did not even review student portfolios for its first admissions  process with GW. Relates one student: “At one point, a career counselor went into a Corcoran class and told students that art was a hobby and to look for real jobs.”  And just this May, after only 1 school year under GW’s wing, Corcoran professors experienced massive layoffs – over half its faculty – including several department heads. This not only left many students concerned for who would come on next to continue guiding their artistic education, but it also left course listings for this fall’s semester looking rather without direction, as they lacked any named professors for some time. Said one student of the faculty cuts: “This is atrocious on the part of the GW administration and it is not something that should be swept under the rug.”

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Corcoran Collection installed at the NGA 2015. Courtesy: Molly Riley / AP.

Meanwhile, the 17,000 piece Corcoran collection was removed from its historic landmark Beaux-Arts home of 117 years and sifted through by NGA staff with much secrecy as to what made the cut for accession into their collection and why. Many in the arts world have questioned the NGA’s aims to “fill gaps” in their own collection; while the larger issue has been raised of what it means that one of the first independent museums in the country, with its own unique collecting history under its founder William Wilson Corcoran, to be removed from its unique context and stuck within a larger federally-owned collection. The context of late 19th century American art and collecting, with Corcoran’s own relationships with artists and dealers, is lost. The personality of the collection, its social and economic context, is harder and harder for the viewer to grasp at.

Wilmington, DE

2016-10-15 Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum, founded in 1912 with the one of the nation’s most extensive Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood collections, in addition to that of Brandywine River School and Ashcan School artists, has gone through several deaccession sales and a blacklisting by the American Associations of Museums in an attempt to pay debts on their 2005 expansion.  Ironically, an upcoming fundraiser for a local non-profit being hosted at the Museum is titled “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”; the evenings program will have guests solve the mystery of a “masterpiece” that has gone missing from the Museum’s walls. Now, the curatorial staff must work under a Board whose respect for the stewardship of a collection and its founding mission is questionable. Meanwhile, the dismissal from the AAM network is not boding well for their line-up of exhibitions and loans from other AAM-accredited institutions, whose previous agreements for collaboration are now invalid. Meanwhile, the pay-off for selling the selected works – one by Alexander Calder, one by Andrew Wyeth, another by Winslow Homer, and another by William Holman Hunt – wasn’t ideal. While the Calder fetched its estimate, the Hunt fell far below what was expected and the Homer and Wyeth were forced to sell privately. Though it has been over a year since the last two were sold, their prices remain undisclosed, even after inquiry by ArtWatch. Their most recent financial report relates that the second two deaccession sales yielded $9.5 mil in proceeds, so, considering the $4.25 ($4.9 with premium) brought in by the Hunt and the $10.6 mil brought in by the Calder, the Museum still falls at least $5 mil short of their over $30 mil+ deficit. The Museum also received a new CEO and Executive Director this April, Sam Sweet, who, unlike the former CEO and CFO Mike Miller, actually possesses an art history degree (from Columbia). Miller will return to his formerly held position as part-time CFO.

2016-10-15 Winslow Homer Milking Time

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Private Collection (formerly, Delaware Art Museum).

*Interesting side note: Sweet also served as the Corcoran Gallery of Art/College of Art + Design’s COO from January 2008 thru June 2009, a rather short stint just before the cracks in the armor of the now defunct institution were beginning to show in 2011-2012. In fact, the deaccession and sale of 10 paintings from the Corcoran’s collection was announced under his directorship as the first “rare move” in a series of steps “toward refining the museum’s focus and providing funds for purchasing future works.” This announcement came after failed attempts to raise funds for repairs, to rise above its recurring $1 mil+ deficits, and, of course, an “ambitious” $200 mil expansion by Frank Gehry.

Auburn, NY

2016-10-15 Seward House Museum

William Seward House in Auburn, NY. Courtesy: Preservation Association of Central New York.

The Seward House Museum in upstate New York had kept a central painting in the collection – Thomas Cole’s Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) – in storage for over two years after new owners of the museum, the Emerson Foundation, began to consider its sale in favor of the millions with which it could help spill over into its own pockets. This resulted in a replica of the original painting being left on display in the museum while the original languished in storage while being considered for sale.

2016-10-15 Thomas Cole Portage Falls

Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Courtesy: Emerson Foundation / Seward House Museum.

News of its sale has not yet emerged, but a recent inquiry to the Museum staff revealed that it is still in storage and there are no plans to return it to its historic setting in Seward’s home. Meanwhile, one of its popular tours, called “The He(art) of the Seward House”, continues to be offered to visitors, though a central piece in the collection has been potentially forever replaced by a “museum-quality” replica”. According to their website, the tour promises guests a view into “the fabulous and fascinating artwork of the Seward House moves from the backdrop to the foreground in this art-centric tour. Learn how aesthetics framed the world – and home – of the Seward family, as well as which artists and art movements caught their eyes.” Meanwhile, a grassroots group committed to returning the Cole painting to the Seward House reported in March that the New York Attorney General’s office (who had been active in prohibiting the sale of the painting back in 2013) was still ” ‘actively’ involved in the discussion regarding a ‘solution’ to this issue.” We encourage you to write Asst. AG James Sheehan, Charities Bureau Chief (Office of the Attorney General, The Capitol, Albany, NY 12224-0341) in support of returning the original painting to its historic home.


New York, NY

2016-10-15 National Acadamy Museum New York

One of the two National Academy Museum buildings on 5th Ave. Courtesy: National Academy Museum & School via Facebook.

The National Academy Museum went through its own deaccessioning crises back in 2009 to pay for general operating expenses and owed debts. That fiasco ended in a loss of two important Hudson River School works, works that marked the basis for the Academy’s founding in 1825 New York City, in addition to sanctions from the American Association of Museum Directors. But only recently was it forced to sell its historic townhouses on 5th Ave. in favor of putting its works in storage until they can settle in a supposedly less-expensive new home. This simply looks like a black hole for the historic collection, which points to a crucial point in the development of the arts in the young United States and which, if broken up like the Corcoran was when it couldn’t support its own up-keep, would lose this value.


2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York

Recap: 2016 James Beck Memorial Lecture

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York

The Art Students League on W. 57th St. in Manhattan

This year’s 8th annual James beck Memorial Lecture was hosted last Thursday evening at The Art Students League of New York in midtown. Alternating between London and New York, ArtWatch holds this event each year to honor memory, scholarly efforts, and unwavering commitment to artistic stewardship of its founder, Professor James Beck. Since Beck’s passing in 2007, the lectures have been organized to continue Beck’s campaigning on the arts’ behalf, as well as to provide a platform for lectures by distinguished scholars, to commemorate his own contributions.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Ottavino Stone

Old Ottavino Office Courtesy: A. Ottavino Corporation

Another remarkable force in the art world, and supporter of Beck’s efforts, New York painter Frank Mason, is also honored at the Beck Memorial Lectures. The Frank Mason Prize is awarded each year to an individual who has contributed to a courageous effort to benefit art scholarship and research. Frank’s dedication to traditionalist artistic training, his long teaching career at the Art Students League in New York, and protests against harmful restorations at the Metropolitan Museum leave behind a strong legacy. He was also instrumental in the founding of a precursor to ArtWatch International, The International Society for the Preservation of Art. This year’s recipient, Kate Ottavino, has expressed similar dedication in her work for A. Ottavino Corporation (founded 1913) as Director of Preservation.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - St. Paul's Chapel Manhattan

St Paul’s in NYC. Courtesy: AP Photo / Seth Wenig.

Kate has been practicing conservation for over 30 years, and since 1994 has overseen restoration work on many buildings and monuments throughout the country and has presented at several conferences, taught courses, and is extensively published. Her award-winning work on New York City landmarks can be see at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, St. Paul’s Chapel, the Cooper Hewitt, New-York Historical Society, the Dakota Apartments, and Grace Church, among others. Kate has also made a point of pursuing educational initiatives at the Williamsburg High School of Architecture and Design and the Bronx International High School in order to benefit future generations of conservators, and advocates for landmarks as a board member of The Merchant’s House Museum and Historic Districts Council.

The art and life of Polish-born sculptor Andrew Pitynski was the topic of our 8th annual Lecture. The Art Students League of New York proved an apt setting for both the subject and the event, as the ASL has, since 1875, welcomed innovative artistic education and craftsmanship when the National Academy was unyielding to new artistic ideas.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Don Reynolds

Dr. Donald Martin Reynolds. Art historian and Founder of the Monuments Conservancy (NY)

Speaker, art historian, and founder of the Monuments Conservancy, Dr. Donald Martin Reynolds, also took classes at the League. He shared from his extensive study of the life and work of Andrew Pitynski,  bringing to our attention the great impact of art that embraces both personal and collective struggle. Pitynski’s works employ his own heritage and the tragedies experienced by his Polish brothers to connect with the viewer’s experience; his sculpture recognizes that there is a universal striving towards freedom that can cut across boundaries of culture and time.


2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Andrew Pitynski Horse

Horse, ink sketch, Artist’s Collection, 2012.

Pitynski’s talent as an artist and sculptor developed in Poland, where his avant-garde teachers encouraged him in the pursuit of truth and morality in his work. For Pitynski, that meant pulling inspiration from the constant battle for freedom that his ancestors and family members fought against the waves of war and Communism in his homeland.


The exposure during his youth to the bravery and courage of his loved ones and the local Partisan group they aligned with became entwined with Andrew’s art. From his rough-hewn bronzes of galloping warriors, to the larger than life plaster sculptures of solemn soldiers honoring the sacrifices of others, the value of human liberty is made manifest.



2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Andrew Pitynski Sarmata bronze

Pitynski’s Sarmata, bronze and granite, 1980.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Sarmata Spirit of Freedom Seward Johnson Grounds for Sculpture Hamilton NJ.

Sarmata – Spirit of Freedom at Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, NJ, 2001.

Pulling from his Polish heritage, many of Andrew’s most powerful sculptures have one major common thread – the stoic warrior spirit of the ancient Sarmatians, from whose civilization, according to 15th and 16th century historians, the Poles descended. The Sarmatians themselves, according to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, were descendents of the Scythians and Amazons, and thus contemporary Polish legend embraced all the virtues of strength, independence, and bravery supposed of their distant ancestors. These characteristics can be seen, for instance, in his monumental Partisan I and Partisan II on the Boston Common and New Jersey “Grounds for Sculpture”, respectively.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Partisan I Boston Common.

Partisan I, cast in aluminum, on the Boston Common, 1983.


Here are featured a series of marching hussars, or mounted soldiers that served as Poland’s highly regarded and magnificently feared assault cavalry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Sarmatian spirit is evident in his larger-than-life Patriot, demonstrating the dynamic heroicism in a winged and wounded hussar, standing with sword unsheathed.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Andrew Pitynski Patriot Poland.

Pitynski’s Patriot in Stalowa Wola, Poland, 2011.


2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Andrew Pitynski Avenger Doylestown.

Pitynski in his studio carving plaster of Avenger for Polish cemetery in Doylestown, PA, 1986.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Katyn WWII Jersey City Twin Towers.

Katyn, 1940, honoring the WWII massacre of Polish nationals by Soviets, installed in Jersey City, 1990. Shown here in early 2001.

Following the tragedy that hit New York and the rest of the U.S. on September 11th, Pitynski integrated a new memorial bronze, Sorrowful Liberty, onto his 18 ft high Katyn memorial that honored the deaths of those who had been massacred by the Soviets in 1940.  Throughout Pitynski’s artistic career, as Dr. Reynolds’ lecture demonstrated, he has sought the intersection of historic memory and honoring current loss. His sculptures, reliefs, and drawings exhibit an unmistakable commitment to searching for, as his master Jerzy Bandura put it, the “only valuable truth”.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Sorrowful Liberty bronze.

Sorrowful Liberty, bronze relief installed on the Katyn Memorial, 2005.



2016-09-23 - Frank Mason Storing Hay Pownal VT

Frank Mason Painting Raffle to Benefit the Preservation of the Historic Salmagundi Club.

2016-09-23 - Frank Mason

Frank Mason in the studio. Courtesy: Karen Winslow/Brushwork Blog.

Ruth Osborne

Our 8th annual James Beck Memorial Lecture was a brilliant gathering of those invested in the making of art and the stewarding of its well being.

We were proud to have this year’s lecture hosted at the Art Students League of New York, an historic institution that has been instrumental and innovative in art education in America since 1875. Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK, shared on the intertwining of the Art Students League and ArtWatch. Our founder Prof. Beck, after whom the annual lectures are named, was connected with artists and students at the League. Most notably, the legendary artist and League instructor Frank Mason, with whom he entered the long campaign against the overrestoration of the Sistine Ceiling. Mason himself had been known to lead protests against overcleaning of important paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is therefore rather fitting to announce that an oil painting by Frank Mason will be raffled off this evening at 6pm at another historic arts organization, the Salmagundi Club downtown. Salmagundi’s Silent Auction is being held to benefit the continued preservation of the landmarked 1850s building on lower 5th Avenue that the Club calls home. The Auction will feature champagne, hor d’oeuvres and music.

You can find more information about tickets for the event here on the Club’s website:

Raffle of Frank Mason Painting

September 23, 20166 to 9 pm — Salmagundi Club, 47 5th Avenue at 12th Street

2016-09-23 - Frank Mason Storing Hay Pownal VT

Frank Mason, Storing Hay, Pownal, Vermont (1959) oil on canvas.

“Storing Hay, Pownal, Vermont” measures 25″ high by 30″ wide and is in a gold metal leaf Florentine style Frame. Painting is signed. It was done by Frank Mason in 1959. Appraised value of painting is $15K.

Anne Mason, widow of Frank and long-time supporter of ArtWatch, says:

Frank would have been happy to know his “Storing Hay, Pownal, Vermont” is part of a fund raising effort to benefit the renovation of the Salmagundi Club. In an era when non-profits are going under, the Salmagundi is alive and well. The raffle is part of a silent auction. On September 23 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an evening at the club. Around 8:30 pm there will be a drawing. One lucky winning raffle ticket will be chosen. The winner does not have to be present. BUT think how much fun it would be if you are there for the drawing and WIN!!

2016-07-12 - Fred Trump Coney Island

Donald’s Demolition: Reckless Jackhammering of Artistic Heritage to Make Way for the First Trump Tower.

Ruth Osborne

What to do with some iconic sculptures on the façade of a historic building that is being razed for a new glass tower?

2016-07-12 - Bonwit Teller sculptures

Sculptures on the facade of the Bonwit Teller building, as it is prepared for demolition in 1980. Courtesy – Nathan Kernan / New York Times.

Well, you could remove them intact and give them to the museum just blocks up the street. Or you could forget about salvaging architectural remains altogether and just smash them along with the rest of the building. This is exactly what happened in 1980 when presidential candidate Donald Trump, then a 33 year-old real estate developer, appeared in the New York Times as the man responsible for destroying two Art Deco sculptures that had been promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The pair of sculptures, along with some “gilded 20-by-30-foot grillwork of interlocking geometric designs” that framed the entrance of the 1929 Bonwit Teller department store that formerly stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, were jackhammered unannounced during demolition of the historic structure.  In unrepentantly smashing the 15 ft tall stylized female nudes and nickel grillwork, Trump had, according to the then-Mayor’s office, failed at his “moral responsibility to consider the interests of the people of the city”. A Trump representative told the Times the next day “we don’t know what happened to it.” It was not until four days after the incident that a revealing statement was finally released, proving that Trump indeed called for the destruction of the sculptures and rare grillwork. According to Trump’s camp, this was due to the fact that the cost of their removal could have been more than $500,000 (though a few days prior, another representative had put the estimate at $32,000). Trump also tried to make this about the safety of pedestrians: “If one of those stones had slipped…people could have been killed. To me, it would not have been worth that kind of risk.” Was this really about pedestrians? Or was it about a few pennies being shaved off a $100 mil. project?

2016-07-12 - Bonwit Teller department store

Bonwit Teller building in 1956. Courtesy: AP.





2016-07-12 - Bonwit Teller facade

Bonwit Teller building 1950s. Courtesy: AP.

Trump had apparently already received tax abatements of up to 90% on some of his other development projects around the city. A  New York Times article published just a few months after the event read: “Evidently, New York needs to make salvation of this kind of landmark mandatory and stop expecting that its developers will be good citizens and good.”

2016-07-12 - Trump Tower

Trump Tower, completed 1983.

2016-07-12 - Donald Trump Fred Trump

Donald Trump with his father Fred in Brooklyn.

From this early appearance in the media, Donald Trump has made for himself a reputation as a developer who skirts responsibility and commitment and instead places only the interests of his brand name and his company’s bottom line at the fore of his mind. Forget about the city that he’s impacting in the expansion of his empire – it’s his name that must go first. From reports of using illegal immigrant workers at the Trump Tower construction site in the early 1980s, to pushy donations to and questionable favor from city and federal officials, to violating regulations to build the Trump Soho in 2006 , he has proven himself unforgiving to any other interests around him.

It’s no surprise, however, considering his father’s showy demolition of what would have been a landmarked site at Coney Island in Brooklyn – the “Steeplechase” – in 1964. The Trump disregard for art, history, and preservation is rooted back in the turbulent decade of the 1960s that created the uproar for the Landmarks Law in the first place. Fred Trump was then up against challenges from both the surrounding community and Chamber of Commerce and legal restrictions on development in an area zoned residential. At his “Demolition Party”, he decided that regardless of legal limitations he was still restricted under, it was his call to demolish the site himself. He reportedly encouraged guests to toss bricks into the Steeplechase Pavilion’s stained glass windows, and then proceeded to bulldoze the site to the ground later that night. Fred Trump’s reputation as a racist, profiteering developer is well documented, and his mark on south Brooklyn is the focus of a recently opened exhibition at the Coney Island Historical Society;  it’s no surprise that his son couldn’t care less for an un-landmarked Art Deco building that was in the way of his namesake tower.

2016-07-12 - Fred Trump Coney Island

Fred Trump at his Demolition Party at Coney Island, 1964. Courtesy: Charles Frattini/NY Daily News Archive via Getty.

2016-07-12 - Donald Trump Trump Tower

First in a two-part series, published in the January 15, 1979, issue of the Voice. Courtesy: The Village Voice.

Joseph Kaminski’s piece on the Bonwit Teller building earlier this year provides an extensive description of the structure’s design from contemporaries. In 1929, American Architect magazine stated that the building was “a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store”. More than fifty years later, Donald Trump’s representatives considered the building’s sculptures to be “without artistic merit”. Since then, he has made his opinions on art well known to the public.

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain

Architectural Restoration & the “Blank Space”

Ruth Osborne

What is a restorer to do when only a fragmented portion of a historic building, or work of art, remains?

2016-06-14 - Sebastiano del Piombo Adoration of the Shepherds Fitzwilliam Museum

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Adoration of the Shepherds, 1510, before & after restoration. Courtesy: Fitzwilliam Museum.

News reports this month have been lauding the 10-year long conservation on a terribly wrecked picture by 16th century Italian artist del Piombo at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But what happens when the work is a building that is missing significant parts of its infrastructure?

Spain appears to be having a bit of an identity crisis on its hands when it comes to architectural preservation. First, a 1,000 year-old Moorish castle tower was “restored” with white walls beneath its stone walls. Then, in keeping with using modernist additions to treat a centuries-old structure, aluminum windows were installed by the owners of a 400 year-old tower in the town of Ombreiro in the northwestern region of Galicia. This also was done by the same architects who worked on the Moorish castle tower, Carlos Quevedo Rojas and the Carquero Architecture firm.

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain

Newly-restored Matrera Castle. Courtesy: Architzer.

One critic in particular has said of the project: “They’ve got builders in rather than restorers and, like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up.” But the finished project, it seems, has begun to be accepted by some, even going so far as to win the prestigious international architectural prize from Architzer A+ awards in the restoration category. According to the statement from the firm:

2016-06-14 -Ombreiro Tower Spain

Ombreiro Tower restoration May 2016. Courtesy: Altas España /The Local ES.

“It tries to approach the work in recognition of the ‘memory’ in its physical consistency and its dual polarity, aesthetic and historical, in order to transmit the future. Therefore, the proposal aims to avoid the aesthetic mimicry that involves falsification or loss of value of authenticity…”

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain restoration

Matrera Castle before and after restoration. Courtesy: Architzer.

What supporters of this modernist pastiche approach to architectural restoration have insisted is that the work of Quevedo is in keeping with recent trends. But how exactly is a “trend” an appropriate response to preserving the materiality of a structure from its own distinct moment in history? Do these blank modernist additions not appropriate it into the aesthetic preferences of those who restored it? Going back to the firm’s statement on the award-winning project, “the essence of the project is not intended to be, therefore, an image of the future, but rather a reflection of its own past…” How does one accomplish this with white Bauhaus-like right angles jutting out from the historic fabric?

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation website

Menokin website showing projected vision of restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Meanwhile, a small historic house museum in Virginia – the Menokin Museum – has recently become known for its vision to restore the shell of the 18th century home by replicating what’s missing with a glass covering. The Menokin, which retains 80% of its original structure, will feature a new glass roof that will reveal the inner workings of the building fabric and design. You can see by the drawings that, while this is indeed a modern building material, the intended effect will be to reveal a more detailed vision of the original 18th century building. According to one of the conservators and the Manager of Architectural Collections (also involved with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation): “If you were to reconstruct the house, you’d cover up some of the most interesting parts. With glass, we can actually see how an 18th century building comes together.”

2016-06-14 - Menokin cross section

Cross Section of the Manokin plan, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Does this differ from the approach of the restorations in Spain? Or will it have the same unfortunate impact?

2016-06-14 - Menokin interior restoration

View of interior restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation dining room restoration

View of the Dining Room restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-04-27 - Salmagundi Club 5th Ave

Recap: Historic Preservation Panel

Ruth Osborne
2016-04-27 - Salmagundi Club 5th Ave

The Salmagundi Club on 5th Ave. Courtesy: Salmagundi Club New York.

What Do the Last 50 Years Tell Us About the Next 50?

That was the question of the night earlier this month when three individuals from organizations across the city came to The Salmagundi Club to discuss the challenges and successes of historic preservation in New York, and how we can learn from these past fifty years to better care for our urban landscape today.  The evening was co-sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, an organization that has worked since 1980 to support the preservation of historic buildings and areas below 14th Street. The speakers for the evening were:

Andrew Berman (Executive Director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation)
Simeon Bankoff (Executive Director, Historic Districts Council)
Adam Steinberg (Senior Education Associate, Lower East Side Tenement Museum)


2016-04-27 - Greenwich Village Society Historic Preservation Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman of GVSHP. Courtesy: GVSHP.

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Mr. Berman began with an overview of the successes of landmarking and zoning in the West and East Village, as well as areas of Soho and Noho, over the last 50 years of the Landmarks Law being in effect. But there wouldn’t be a law without there being a need, right? So the audience also heard about several current challenges the GVSHP is seeing in historic preservation, knowledge of which demonstrates the Society’s thorough understanding of the system of preservation in the city and the various groups involved in it. These include:

(1) Recent attempts to roll back zoning restrictions in historic districts that Landmarks Law has won over time.

(2) An increasingly permissive Landmarks Preservation Commission towards allowing new construction, demolition, and alterations to take place within landmarked buildings and districts that pose risk to the historic character of these neighborhoods. With new developments that are allowed to exceed the height limits of a designated historic district, all to often it turns out that landmark and zoning protections still do not prevent escalating prices which may force out long-time residents or businesses (though it can be slightly beneficial in both respects)

(3) A tendency to conveniently overlook (sometimes controversial) new development in areas being considered for historic designation until they are completed, or carving them out from the borders of the newly designated district.

(4) A push by the real estate industry (specifically, REBNY) to undermine landmark and zoning protections throughout historic areas, a topic on which we posted last year and one which GVSHP has worked diligently against.


Historic Districts Council

2016-04-27 - Historic Districts Council Gowanus

Gowanus historic sites for designation. Courtesy: HDC.

2016-04-27 - Historic Districts Council Bed-Stuy

Bed-Stuy historic sites for designation. Courtesy: HDC.

Next, Mr. Bankoff spoke on the educational and advocacy work of HDC throughout hundreds of communities in each of the five boroughs. Since 1971, this organization has served to support residents in the designation of historic landmarks and districts, and to engage with the needs of those who will be impacted by the preservation of streets and buildings in their respective neighborhoods. His presentation offered a critical perspective on the approach to preservation in the city, looking at the political and community approach to and acceptance of historic designation since its early days in the 1960s through more recent challenges. Mr. Bankoff shot down the myth that landmarking and preservation is way out of control and is taking over the city and stunting its growth: only about 3.5% of the entire city is landmarked after fifty years, representing a mere 34,000 buildings out of about 1 million. In fact, the trending slump towards historic preservation since the 1960s, as well as the narrow focus the past fifty years on preservation in Manhattan below 110th Street, has caused HDC to see the need for attention to northern Manhattan at the other boroughs. In striving to see historic preservation serve a truer representation of the city’s population, Mr. Bankoff and his colleagues’ current efforts are aimed at projects in East Harlem and InwoodRidgewood and Jackson HeightsBedford-Stuyvesant, Gowanus, East New York, Sunset Park, Far Rockaway, and Harrison Street on Staten Island. Not to mention considering how best to preserve ephemeral traces of culture such as wall murals that cover areas like Harlem.  The overall lack of resources for historic preservation – not to mention the fact that the LPC is one of the city’s smallest agencies – has drawn HDC into offering conferences, workshops, talks, walking and bicycle tours for what are mostly, he termed, “kitchen table groups”. These groups are what best represent the actual needs and wants of the residents living across the city’s five boroughs, but it is unfortunately these groups that also have no connection of their own with developers, elected officials, and agencies like the LPC. For those outside of Lower Manhattan, who are without strongly-supportive community-based organizations like the GVSHP, the HDC works actively to fill in the gaps of preservation throughout the city, aiming to do a more comprehensive job of designating landmarks and areas of historic and cultural significance.


2016-04-27 - Lower East Side landmarks

LES Landmarks as of 2016. Courtesy: Adam Steinberg.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Dr. Adam Steinberg, senior educator at the Tenement Museum and a scholar of the preservation movement in the U.S., offered a look at the field’s development over the past fifty years, as well as various critiques from historians. According to many, preservationists are thinking too narrowly. They are missing the opportunity to think beyond the boundaries of preserving a building or even a district as an end in and of itself. There is also a social justice impact their work can have that they don’t properly utilize to their advantage. Some critics, as Dr. Steinberg mentioned, pointed to the true roots of historic preservation in the Progressive Movement of the 1890s. The Progressive Movement being itself a response to the corruption that came along with the massive industrialization of New York City at the time, these social advocates worked to create heritage sites and parks throughout the city that would make history and culture more accessible for its poorer residents. These place-markers of significant moments and people aimed at engaging the “huddled masses” of the contemporary city with the rich historic landscape in which they lived and worked and voted. Missing the opportunity to expand their work and impact by connecting with the Progressives, preservationists in the latter half of the 20th century are disjointed from the very community planners and affordable housing advocates that could benefit from their work. Dr. Steinberg offered his study of the Lower East Side of Manhattan as an example of the failure of preservationists to connect with the concerns of affordability and displacement felt deeply by the neighborhood’s residents in the 1990s. There is still to this day very little preservation in that neighborhood of the city, despite how much rich history is contained within its few blocks. The inability of the Tenement Museum to work with the neighborhood to create a designated historic district in the LES can be seen as demonstrative of the lack of connection felt by local residents and landlords.

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LES proposed historic district. Courtesy: Adam Steinberg.

Their greatest concern was displacement, due to increased gentrification, which was being followed by new development in the area. But they couldn’t see how designating a historic district could help them stay in their rapidly changing neighborhood. Preservationists, Dr. Steinberg argued, need to know more about how historic designation impacts the affordability of a neighborhood, as well as more about the correlation between a district’s designation and the displacement (if any) occurring there. Recent studies, he mentioned, have shown that a neighborhood’s designation does not necessarily lead to displacement. But he urged preservationists to do more work with the actual people residing in the areas of the city they see as needing designation and landmarking; something it seems both the GVSHP (through their research efforts and engagement with city policy and elected officials) and the HDC (through their advocacy with “kitchen table” groups) see as crucial to the work of preservation in New York. In the opinion of recent critics, only growth can happen if there were to be a greater acknowledgement of the urban planning and policy discourse of the early 20th century that laid the groundwork for preservation today, as well as more discussion of how this work can advance urban development and adapt to the immediate needs of local residents. Preservation should be a means to an end – the public good being that ultimate end.


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The Panel. Courtesy: GVSHP.

The panel that followed discussed the recent difficulties encountered in the work of historic preservation in New York. With the many layers of New York’s history, there will always be competing stories about one particular area or building, and thus a difficulty choosing which story to tell with the preservation of that site. The role of historic house museums in supporting historic preservation in their surrounding neighborhoods was also touched on, though they also have the curious battle of figuring out how to tell their many stories. Mr. Bankoff related a recent HDC event on Staten Island hosted at the Alice Austen House; while the house itself served as an example to convey the benefits of historic preservation work, the HDC was then able to open up a discussion on landmarking and designation in other areas of the Island.


One audience member asked about the ability to offer city officials alternative spaces for new development when there is the potential for that development to destroy historic buildings in the process. There are indeed areas of the city that do not hold as much historic significance in their architecture as others do that are being heavily developed. And a city will always have very obvious geographic boundaries. What Dr. Steinberg suggested was that we need a society-wide movement that addresses multiple issues at once, as he saw the need for in the LES.

Mr. Berman acknowledged the struggle of pushing preservation up from being the last item on an elected official’s agenda. There will always be vested interests that are enemies of an effort that isn’t always financially efficient nor pleasing to foreign investors in the city’s economy.  One audience member reluctantly, but realistically, conceded that it will never be a top priority. While all the panelists, as well as myself, have been critical of the LPC, they all acknowledged that it has done much good work in the city since their inception. There are dedicated commissioners amidst others who may not be there for the right reasons, and, Mr. Berman reminded the audience, we are all responsible for who we elect to our city agencies. And while there is currently a great economic drive behind the push for new development (which often inhibits the work of historic preservationists, but does not necessarily have to), he encouraged the audience that it was possible for this administration to be even more vigorous about preservation and that we need to get them there. Mr. Bankoff agreed that it was unfair to ask a city agency to drive home one of the many thousands of opinions of New Yorkers, but we do still need to hold our representatives to high standards. And this is exactly why organizations like the HDC and the GVSHP exist.

At ArtWatch, we consider it essential to create spaces in which open dialogue concerning historic buildings, community needs, and city growth can take place. This enables a more transparent view on situations that are bound to have multiple points of view, but which require we understand the aims and needs of each party if we are to see New York develop and flourish. Questioning the aims of change and new development that impact the architectural fabric of a city and how its residents are able to live day to day is an essential part of good stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. The state of historic preservation in New York, even after fifty years of Landmarks Law, is constantly in flux. And it is exciting to see the energy with which preservationists and scholars approach their work in the field, as well as to consider what it might look like for preservationists, urban planners, affordable housing advocates, and community residents to find synergy with one another and grow their efforts. We hope for more opportunities in the future in which we can serve as a platform for discussions like this, bringing individuals from different backgrounds together to see how their interests overlap and how they might collaborate to make a greater impact.