There's an excellent story by Burkhard Bilger (what a name!) in this week's New Yorker which says a lot about the way New York City treats and regards its architectural heritage and history. It's about the back story behind last year's wanton destruction of 211 Pearl Street, a five-story, 176-year-old warehouse between John and Platt Streets in lower Manhattan that survived the Great Fire of 1835, but was knocked down by a developer in favor of a high-rise hotel.
The developer's winning the right to wield that sledgehammer lasted over many years, beginning with the Machiavellian machinations of the builder, who operated behind many shadowy fronts in order to acquire enough property to erect the tower. The story also included a battle with a bar owner who had a 20-year lease on the place, and an eccentric scrap dealer, Al Solomon, who became obsessed with saving the property—particularly an cryptic brick artifact on the first floor on the building of three interlocking pyramids.
The entire piece is worth a read, but here are some salient excerpts which speak volumes:
New York demolishes more old buildings every month than most American cities have standing. In a single week last September, the list of scheduled demolitions ran to six pages; in an average year, about two thousand buildings are torn down... In fact, fewer than three per cent of the city's million or so building are protected as landmarks...
In early November 2002, the Landmarks Preservation Commission began to review Al Solomon's documents on 211, and to survey similar buildings in the area. But such reviews usually take months, and Rockrose [the developer] quickly applied for a demolition permit. Before the commission could decide whether to save the building, the Department of Building had granted permission to destroy it. Rockrose's secrecy had done its work. The development, [Rockrose executive] Jon McMillan said, "was under the radar."...
"I have no idea what the symbol means," [Princeton professor] Sean Wilentz had told me. "And that's another reason to keep it. Because New York, to me, is becoming less and less mysterious. Its ghosts, its revenants, they don't have a place to walk anymore. They are being squeezed out. And this is a little place where they can gather. I don't mean to sound like an occultist, but a little bit of strangeness is important to Manhattan. And this thing is strange."
Also strange is that articles like this one keep getting published in magazines, newspapers, blogs and its still business as usual at City Hall, as it has been for the past six years.
And for those out there who always wonder why bloggers like me howl every time something old is torn down in favor of something new; why we automatically assume the old building is inherently better than whatever will rise in its place. Well, it's because it is better. Inherently. Read:
The best reclaimed wood is finer than anything freshly cut, Al said. A few years earlier, he had sold me some old joists for a bookcase I was making. The wood was Southern longleaf pine, four inches thick and heavy with resin. It had twenty growth rings to the inch—twice as many as the plantation pine at Home Depot—and felt hard as oak. When I'd sanded and oiled it, the wood glowed a deep amber and looked nearly translucent.