Historic Preservation

“Tear down the past, rip out cultural roots, erase tradition, rub out the architectural evidence that the arts flowered earlier in our cities and enriched them and that this enrichment is culture. Substitute a safe and sanitary status symbol for the loss. Put up shiny mediocrities of the present and demolish the shabby masterpieces of the past. This is the ironic side of the ‘cultural explosion’ coin. In drama, and in life, irony and tragedy go hand in hand.”

—Ada Louise Huxtable


Landmarks Preservation Commission Hearings, June 16, 2009

Carnegie Hall, Individual Landmark

An Italian Renaissance style music hall and tower, designed by William B. Tuthill and built in 1889-1891, with additions built in 1894 and 1897. Application is to install marquees, entrances and flags; remove skylights; construct an elavator tower, a bulkhead, and a rooftop canopy; replace HVAC equipment, alter and replace masonry and openings; and install signage and lighting.

Testimony of the Society for the Architecture of the City:  Christabel Gough

Carnegie Hall was one of the LPC’s earliest designations, reflecting the importance that the founders saw in it.  It represents a most significant moment in New York’s cultural history.  The magnanimous Andrew Carnegie, who had not yet made his 1901 library gift, offered a music hall to New York, and some seven years later, a studio building on top of the original structure, designed by Hardenbergh.  Like Greenwich Village, 57th Street was a preeminent studio district. The now demolished Sherwood Studios (1880, 58 W. 57) were as important here as the (also now demolished) 10th Street Studio Building of Richard Morris Hunt.  Fortunately, we still have the landmarked Rodin Studios by Cass Gilbert (200 W. 57) And the equally important landmarked Fine Arts Society Building and Art Students’ League, by Hardenbergh, 1892 and so roughly contemporary with the Carnegie Hall Studios.  The neighborhood “abounds in structures devoted to the cultivation of the arts.” 19th and early 20th century studio buildings are a feature of the city that helped make it a cultural center of the world.

Obviously, the roofscape of Carnegie Hall is very visible from numerous prominent locations. On that roof, we see the signifiers of the studios, the monitor skylights that light the interior workspaces occupied by a most distinguished roster of architects, artists and musicians over the years.  The use of these spaces or their re-purposing should not be allowed to lead to the removal of  the visible reminders of studio history. Nor is it acceptable to clutter the roofscape with contemporary mechanicals such as the transparent elevator tower. We viewed the mockups and were shocked by their prominence. The normal standards of visibility for rooftop additions—on roofs that have so much less cultural and historic significance—would forbid these additions.  When the studios and their windows are remembered as Andrew Carnegie’s earliest gift to New York, how much worse to shunt their visible presence aside.

Later generations have added to Carnegie Hall, and the canopies have changed over time. We see the new 57th Street canopy as a contemporary design mistake which can and doubtless will eventually be reversed, if it is approved.  But the destruction of the roofscape would be destruction of a significant architectural feature which should be sacrosanct under the landmarks law.


Historic Districts Council  Testimony:

This is a huge project and one that is extremely important to this internationally-known landmark and New York’s cultural life. While we approve of much of the restoration work and the general idea of other alterations, HDC feels strongly that alterations should recall the historic conditions of a landmark.

HDC recognizes the need to alter our city’s landmarks to enable them to continue to flourish and contribute to our city through their programming as well as architecturally. The notions of better lighting, a canopy to keep the rain off and a better elevator are entirely reasonable goals and ones we don’t object to. However, they do affect the overall cityscape and the public appreciation of this important historic structure. Therefore, HDC asks that these alterations be made with all due consideration to the historic design, that this instituion’s functionationality and physical presence can work together and support one another.

Although glass canopies have been approved by the commission (so many that they are starting to feel generic), HDC continues to find them inappropriate for most landmarks. Even completely glass canopies are noticable additions to a building – they are never utterly invisible.  In addition, as anyone with windows in New York City knows, they will get dirty fast and will be quite popular with birds. In this case we also find that the proposed feel too flimsy for such a siginificant sturcture. The best alternative would be nothing, but barring that, something that harkens back to the 1908 photo with more framing, could be a welcomed addition. A middle ground between trying to deny the existence of canopies and the bulky incursions of recent decades can and should be found.