Rob Goodman: Behind Historic Preservation, a Surreal History

Roundup: Talking About History

Rob Goodman is co-author of Rome's Last Citizen, a book on Cato the Younger and the Roman Republic, to be published in October by Thomas Dunne Books.

"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....

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