When news broke earlier this year that the modest but attractive house on Long Island known as Geller I was going to be demolished, the outcry was immediate. The home’s significance in architectural history was beyond question. Its designer, Marcel Breuer, was among the most acclaimed of the mid-20th-century modernists and one of the few whose name is familiar to those with only a passing interest in architecture. These facts ultimately meant little. Geller I—the first of two buildings that Breuer designed for the same client in Lawrence, New York—was torn down in January to make way for the tennis court of a new, larger house.
A few miles away in Brooklyn, meanwhile, another hard-fought preservation battle was gearing up. The owner of 300 State Street, a pleasant if unremarkable Italianate house on the edge of Boerum Hill, wanted to replace the building’s front door. Because 300 State is a landmarked building, the project required approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the agency charged with carrying out New York City’s preservation laws. A 15-page document was submitted for the LPC’s consideration explaining the design of the replacement door, to be built by a local firm whose specialty, according to its website, is “expertly crafted custom and reproduction doors for historic and landmark properties.” But the proposal did not find favor with the commission. In a unanimous decision, its members ruled that the current front door was “historic and integral to the building’s design,” and a new one would “remove significant historic fabric.” The original door would stay.
It seems incredible that a mid-century marvel like Geller I should fall victim to redevelopment while a government agency nearby intervenes to prevent someone from replacing an old front door with a similar-looking new one. In the world of historic preservation, however, a loose relationship between a building’s historical value and its likelihood of being protected is all too common. In Los Angeles, the iconic Brown Derby restaurant is gone, but a Chevron station in Brentwood is on the city’s list of “historical-cultural monuments.” Washington, D.C.’s infamous Yellow House—a focal point of the city’s early-19th-century slave trade—was lost generations ago, but a strip mall and its parking lot a few miles away are landmarked. New York City, which has long had a particularly assertive preservation movement, has roughly 30,000 lots situated within historic districts today. Most of these buildings are of little inherent importance on their own but are considered by the LPC to be significant because of the way they relate to one another—and can remain so only if all are protected en masse. In Manhattan, once famed for its ever-evolving skyline, an astonishing 27 percent of the borough’s lots now fall under the purview of the landmarks commission.
To be sure, preservationists have a proud history of ensuring that buildings of great historical importance, as well as lesser-known structures that teach us about our past, are protected from demolition. Philadelphia is unquestionably a richer place for having Independence Hall, New York for its Tenement Museum, and Boston for its African Meeting House. As many cities today grapple with unprecedented housing shortages and cost-of-living issues, however, the degree to which historic-preservation laws can function as a pretext for preventing change entirely is clearer than ever. This problem doesn’t just present an identity crisis for preservationists. It’s part of a much larger, unresolved question in urban life: whether our major cities can be sites of social progress in the 21st century, or whether the change-averse ideology that has come to dominate their local politics will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.