Looking Inward

New York City’s historic interiors are an
essential part of its character. Keeping them intact, however, poses a knotty preservation challenge.

Contrary to the mythic skylines, city life is largely lived indoors. The bustle of the street is, for most of us, an urban dance we do on our way to offices, apartments, restaurants, theaters—interior spaces. Those of us who live in New York cherish our landmark buildings, rightly, as civic treasures. Still, one of our greatest civic treasures—McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station, whose unholy demise in 1963 helped give birth to New York’s landmark-preservation movement—was essentially a set of grand rooms. The building’s long Doric colonnade was formidable, but that proud public face looked (if the historic photographs are to be believed) a bit gloomy. The real magic, that sense of having arrived in the great metropolis, happened inside the station. This is largely true of all of our beloved buildings, protected landmarks or not. We tend to celebrate the view from the street—the facade—but we live our lives in rooms. If the streets and buildings of a city constitute its personality, then the great interiors, large and small, are its soul. But the vast majority of these spaces are ultimately provisional, subject to change. Today’s cozy bistro is tomorrow’s Duane Reade. The spaces shown on these pages are rare exceptions, urban survivors: six New York City landmark interiors.

First, a little history. Forty-five years ago, the city passed legislation creating the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Though it’s routinely derided by nearly everyone involved—developers, architects, preservationists (especially), and the media—the commission has largely succeeded in its appointed task of preserving the essential character of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Today there are 1,266 buildings designated as individual landmarks, along with another 27,000 structures—many rather humble, architecturally—that sit protected within 101 historic districts. The commission, however, lists just 110 landmark interiors.

Why the vast discrepancy? The temporal nature of interior spaces conspires against their long-term survival. Uses change: people crave gelato, then suddenly one day they don’t; businesses expand wildly and go broke later. Real estate agents call this phenomenon “churn,” and it’s been around for a lot longer than historic preservation. Still, a landmark interior is required to meet the same stringent criteria as a landmark building. It must be 30 years old and operate in the public realm. To survive that long intact, it has to be lucky enough to have a sympathetic owner—or more likely, a string of sympathetic owners who have understood and appreciated the space. One false step on the march to 30 can leave it vulnerable to alterations and eventual extinction. Even iconic-design status is no guarantee a space will be spared. Surely Philippe Starck’s 1988 Royalton Hotel lobby was good enough aesthetically, and important enough historically, to avoid its unfortunate fate: it was gutted ten (purely hypothetical) years before it would have been eligible for landmarking.

Landmark interiors may in fact be even rarer than the numbers suggest. Keep in mind that about a fourth of them—28—are Broadway theaters. (All received district protection following the demolition of the Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters in the early 1980s.) Another fourth are commercial lobbies. Surprisingly, in a town obsessed with food and shopping, there are just four landmark restaurant interiors and a single retail space, the sumptuous Scribner’s Book Store on Fifth Avenue, now thriving as a cosmetics boutique.

But the issue today is not the number of landmark interiors; it’s the challenges surrounding the newer spaces just be-coming eligible. The indisputably great rooms of the more distant past are safe: Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall. Though at one point threatened, all have subsequently received loving restorations. Now our modern heritage is at risk. The recent dismantling of a site-specific Harry Bertoia sculptural screen from 1953–54 inside the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company building on Fifth Avenue (with a landmark exterior by SOM and Gordon Bunshaft) underscores the need for a new approach. Once that building’s interiors were altered, the glass facade became an empty vessel, a landmark in name only.

Unless the commission comes to a deeper understanding of what makes these buildings unique to their time—unless it accepts that the interiors and exteriors of modernist glass buildings are inextricable and can’t be treated as separate entities—this controversy will likely play out again. Yes, this could mean introducing more complexity and nuance to an already complicated and politically fraught process. But only by grappling with these contemporary preservation conundrums can we continue to save the best parts of New York City’s grand and diverse history.

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