Barthel, Historic Preservation; Loflin et al, A New York Case Study

The last two readings in this section bring the discussion back to earth a bit with concrete examples of how our motivations and ideas (about preservation, truth, authenticity)  have been applied in practice and in law. As we end this week over packed with readings, just dip into these last two for now, and find something to share that connects with the prior readings–either illustrative or contradictory.


25 responses to “Barthel, Historic Preservation; Loflin et al, A New York Case Study

  1. Forgotten NY . com has site links to all the neighborhoods we are going to visit, each site has photographs of historical places.

    • Kim, I *love* this website.

    • Kim,
      Thank you from me as well on the site you found on New York.
      I hope you have a great week.

    • richardhanley


      Let me echo my thanks for that site—I did not know it. I grew up in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn and enjoyed looking through that section.


      • In ’98-’99 I visited a photographer who had moved into a loft building on or around Messerole Ave in Bushwick, and I was told that Bushwick was a good place to look for space. I wonder if more artists migrated there or if the neighborhood resisted their migration?
        The early in migration to Hispanic and Hassidic parts of Williamsburg was slow in part because of the threat of assault by teenage gang members and then competition for housing by people from resident ethnic communities, but over time, these resistant areas did welcome more diverse residents.

    • Thank you for the website Kim. I am looking forward to going to visit these sites.

    • Kim,

      I, too, thank you for the web site link. I have browsed a bit, but will return soon for more virtual visits.


  2. jeanarrington

    The 1971 articles made me really want to go see Sniffen Court, Amster Yard, and Hunter’s Point.

    From the Diane Barthel excerpts, I learned that Britain’s National Trust was started 56 years before ours, that the top-down, ruling-class approach has netted 300 properties as opposed to our 18 (as of the 1990s when Barthel was writing) but that we’ve been the ones to bring more pluralism to preservation (at one point she used the word conservation, implying that it was more far-reaching than preservation – I wondered about the difference), and that authenticity as regards historical sites is a complex issue.

    As I was reading Chapter 4, the Tate Modern kept popping into my mind and also the landscaping at the Red Hook Ikea and the recent stretch of the Hudson River park from 59to to 79th Streets, both of which preserve remnants of the shipping days, remnants that years or decades ago would have been wiped clean.

    What a delimma that a historical industrial site has to be sanitized and aestheticized for visitors, that the more realistic a site is, the more it risks being dismissed by visitors as a downer. I guess the Holocaust Museum is the huge attraction it is because it’s the Holocaust.

    Barthel points out that while Britain in the 20th century reduced child mortality twentyfold, that may have been at the cost of “destroying the ecological basis necessary for human life itself” and that “social inequality today cn been seen as a legacy of the industrial past.” She manages to end on a constructive note – that “perhaps the sites of our industrial origin hold within them clues to innovative solutions.”

  3. These case studies show how the past really is the present. The entire idea of landmarks and historical districts is that we keep them in the now so that the now does not repeat past mistakes but can relish and rejoice in the high points of yesteryear, either in style, design, or evocation of ideologies through those things.

    During many of this weeks readings, I could not help but think of George Costanza and what he would be posting in response. After all, he IS an architect. (For more frivolous connections to sitcoms: )

  4. Diane Whitney

    Barthel’s article concludes with her statement that “history is …humanly made, and what was once socially constructed can be socially reconstructed through interpretation.” This caused me to recall several articles I have read recently regarding the debate between first and third person historical interpretation. The issue at hand is that first person interpretation is more difficult and often less reliable, the effectiveness being dependent on rock-solid research in regard to costuming, accessories, and the finer points of information. In addition, first person presentation makes a question and answer period with the audience much more difficult, if the presenter cannot maintain the character. First person presentations can fall short of bringing the visitor into the relevant time and place, or leave the audience feeling distant and uninvolved.
    It’s difficult to know just what will draw a visitor into the milieu of a historical moment or place. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, a point brought out in EXPOSING THE SOUL: AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUTER WITH COMMUNITY-BASED INTERPRETATION, February 10, 2011, by Kelly Farrell, a certified Heritage Interpreter and Trainer in Arkansas. She describes her experience of coming upon a group of statues by George Segal in Christopher Park in New York City. The event propelled her suddenly and emotionally to a time in her youth, and subsequently altered the way she did her work. She states that “An encounter with community-based interprepation “changed my life when I least expected it. Will it change yours?”

  5. I thought the Goldstone article on Aesthetics was interesting. It extends the earlier conversations on the shaping of memory and the shaping of history to the shaping of what is beautiful–what has aesthetic value. He focuses on compatibility in mass, color and scale as criteria for a successful historic district. New architecture within historic districts is to be preferred to trying to match or reproduce the design of the ‘hood. Maybe Goldstone and Ruskin would have a lot in common eschewing reproduction and renovation in favor of architecture that is true to the spirit of the time in which it is created. Each period produces architecture that speaks to its own “economics, aspirations, techniques, materials and aesthetics.” Our own does as well. It is the quality of the craft in each period that creates the integrity of historic districts. Goldstone applauds the vitality of Brooklyn Heights, for example, because of the diversity of structures of different periods that do meet his test of compatibility in mass, color and scale. He adds that if the Land Marks Preservation Commission had declared the period of the Civil War to be endpoint for historic building in Brooklyn Heights, half of the “best buildings” would not exist.
    What merits preservation as a landmark and how to do it seems to be the theme shared by Barthel and Loflin et al.

  6. Rankin’s article makes an interesting companion piece to Ruskin’s. Rankin started out by explaining the Landmark Preservation Law and discussing why the city put it into effect. It’s interesting that as described by Rankin, the Landmark Preservation Law didn’t contradict the criticisms of preservation made by Rankin. The law seems to emphasize that its legislative purposes are primarily economic, to preserve property values, promote tourism and promote “the general welfare of the economy of the city.” The cultural and architectural value of the structures per se was left vague in the law other than to serve as a source of civic pride and to provide economic value. The law essentially creates what Ruskin despised: a recreation of history that sacrifices the life cycle of the structures for ulterior purposes. It raises an interesting moral question: which is more important, the economic and civic value of the restoration or the artistic value of allowing the structure to follow its natural course. Especially when the preservationists cited preserving the artistic value of these creations in order to get the law passed in the first place.

    • ssmithcitytech

      Thank you for your insightful comments on preservation law. In the New York, economic justifications were emphasized (I believe) to make the law palatable, and this is quite different from the criteria for listing on the National Register (which, by the way, carries no legal status or protection).

  7. I am not an historian but a political scientist and lawyer as well as President of our city council. I guess I will be the practical one which is not to say others aren’t. I love history and things historical but accomplishing preservation has to be grounded in law and sound finances. In Jamestown we have spent years getting to the point where we are now that the exterior of our Erie Railroad Station (we no longer have passenger service but an active freight line) built in the 1930s will be restored to its original look in the hopes of developing it for multiple uses. The interior will also be made ready for private sector use as well as our bus station with a restored interior waiting area. This has been no easy task. Preservation never is. But if it weren’t for the promise of downtown economic revival and the interactin with elected officials (as well as the private sector) going all the way up to a fine Brooklyn US Senator Chuck Schumer it never would have been accomplished. I am as romantic as the next but historic preservation must be grounded in practicality or it never will get done.

  8. Disneyland in the context of history? To me, theme parks represent entertainment, pure and simple.
    I wonder if our present society is producing many things that deserve historical preservation. It seems like many things in American society today are produced as “consumables” — with intended short lives.

    • Deb, theme parks do have the main purpose of entertaining, but they do become a part of history. Not to skip ahead too far, but Coney Island is a prime example of it. In the past few years, the thought of Coney Island becoming condos instead of the boardwalk amusement it’s been for decades caused a passionate uprising because CI is indeed part of Brooklyn’s history. The goal of the park is to offer entertainment, but it represents a Peter Pan ideology and offered an escape from the hardships of the time.

      As for Disney, well, I used to work for that corporation. It’s no Coney Island.

  9. The June “Atlantic” hasn’t arrived in my mailbox, but a preview email today seems to offer a variety of articles on the preservation/NY topic:

    NEXT week, when I’m done with exams & have turned in my grades, I hope to read it!

  10. Among other things, Diane Barthel’s discussion of historic preservation in Chapter 1 helps further clarify British and American notions of preservation. In Chapter 4, her discussion of recontextualized forms of industrial objects kept bringing me back to Lowenthal’s piece and his thoughts on social reconstructions, particularly where he mentions “the pasts we alter or invent are as prevalent and consequential as those we try to preserve”.

    The example Barthel gave of a local preservation battle in New York City was a nice bridge to the New York City Case Study by Loflin, et al. and it was nice to conclude the week’s readings on a decidedly “local” note.

  11. This post may be late but I finally got to do some extensive reading while my students were taking a law exam. There are two questions with “preservation.” What are you preserving and why are you preserving? If you can answer these questions the rest will follow. Getting it done is a whole other issue.

  12. I have been enjoying all the posts that precede mine, so I will build on them. Barthel’s discussion of British and American notions of preservation does seem to coincide with Lowenthal’s as BTEvans mentioned, especially, I would add the tension between what Lowenthal called filial piety and progress. Knowing the what and why of preservation certainly matters, as Greg Rabb pointed out. That certainly is the starting point. Then, too, so does the who, as with the “top-down, ruling-class approach” implemented by Britain’s National Trust that Jean Arrington noted. Above all, I like the positive thrust of Barthel’s conclusion. The dialog that ensues from asking these questions can open up discussion, reveal underlying assumptions, and, hopefully, lead to “innovative solutions.”

  13. The Barthel and Loflin et al readings together reflect the immense complexities of determining what is a “landmark” and then the entire preservation process. All of the various interests and a multitude of different agendas seemingly make it near impossible for a “project” to ever reach completion. It is fortunate that over long periods of time and through many different and difficult “battles” the actual preservation process comes to fruition.

    Before pursuing graduate school and becoming a history professor, I had a career in the field of commercial construction/real estate development. At one point, I held the position of project engineer on a rather large urban renewal/redevelopment project in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. This experience coupled with others in St. Louis exposed me first-hand to many of the wranglings discussed in these readings. It seemed that in the end local politics, economic issues, and funding streams drove many of the decisions related to “landmark” designations and the preservation process. I see preservationists and their “friends” as the real heroes in this process.

    The “New York Case Study” article left me with a couple of unanswered questions. First, once the New York Historic Preservation Enabling Act of 1956 was passed, why did it take New York City nine years to finally pass its Landmarks Preservation Law? It seems in this era of urban renewal/redevelopment in urban centers across the nation, New York City would have moved more quickly. Possibly preservation work was, indeed, underway but without much “framework” in place. If this is the case, the timing of the passage of the Landmarks Preservation Law and then the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is more understood. A second question is who appoints the 11 members of the Preservation Commission?

  14. ssmithcitytech

    The destruction of Penn Station in 1963 is generally said to be the trauma that moved NY to establish a preservation law. ( Only look at these pictures if you are prepared to cry.

    The 11 members of the Commission are appointed by the Mayor, who also designates the chair and vice chair. (

    • Wow, those pictures show a completely different station. Still, they did not make me cry. What has recently disturbed me is the changing of the big board. It used to make clicking sounds as it flipped through the destinations and track assignments. Now it’s all streamlined and digital, which is cleaner and more vivid, but lacks that old-timey feel. I’m no ludite, but it’s a little sad to see the change.

  15. I found the article by Loftin et al most interesting as I am coming from a city without any zoning, which makes me want to play the devil’s advocate. Why should historic buildings be preserved at all? There is usually a fairly good reason people in general abandoned them and moved to something more modern. Or is it only for their aesthetic purposes that the buildings should be kept? To appease the elite (or, in the US, middle class) who want to keep a vestige of the Good Old Days alive?

    As Barthel pointed out, no historical reenactment is going to approximate the actual conditions of the past. Modern safety and sanitation standards alone rule that out. So, besides that they look nice, why do it? Why keep the old buildings when concrete and steel is much more hygienic and practical?

  16. OOOWEEEE, Jameslsc and Christina have set me reeling betwixt and between nostalgia and the concrete/steel, and the notion that restoration/preservation is elitist. Barthel raises the issue of “tension between education and entertainment” as the major tension curators of industrial sites (72). I wonder whether our nostalgia drives us to restoration projection that merely reinforces our fantasies about that “foreign country,” and isn’t that an entertaining fantasy? On the other hand, if we take the Jameslsc route, we have neither education nor entertainment, but worst of all, we have no art!

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