Rob Goodman: Behind Historic Preservation, a Surreal History
"One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."
Almost 50 years ago, when a demolition project reduced New York City's Penn Station from a monumental vaulted hall full of air and light to a stifling underground maze, the Yale historian Vincent J. Scully Jr.'s lament came to be the last word on an act of architectural sacrilege. It stood for the belated realization of an incalculable loss, and the conviction that we ourselves had been reduced in the process.
But as pithy as the line is, it's not immediately clear why it should be true. Isn't a god a god anywhere? Isn't a rat a rat even on Olympus? What exactly do buildings have to do with it?
The destruction of Penn Station helped spark a historic preservation movement that continues to shape our cities; and a half-century later, the debate still resonates, from a Mad Men plot line that saw Don Draper's advertising agency enlisted to defend the demolition, to a new, ambitious, and contentious reconstruction plan. To the extent that the preservation movement has succeeded in restraining decades of wrecking balls, it has been on the strength of arguments like Scully's: We conserve the old and outmoded not simply out of nostalgia, not simply for the sake of a living connection with the past, but because buildings are almost like psychotropic drugs. Good buildings elevate, bad buildings alienate—and by replacing the good with the cheap and the practical, we immiserate ourselves in the long run....
comments powered by Disqus
- South Dakota drops history as a high school requirement
- The Forgotten History Of 'Violent Displacement' That Helped Create The National Parks
- Gospel of Jesus’ Wife May Be Authentic, New Tests Suggest
- Architect Sought for Obama’s Presidential Library Complex
- 2016 election's leading candidates have strong Jewish family ties
- Historians tackle America’s mass incarceration problem
- Report: Russian studies in crisis
- Ken Burns: Donald Trump’s birtherism — a “politer way of saying the ‘N-word'” — proves America isn’t remotely “post-racial”
- Medievalist calls on historians to welcome pop culture
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?