Preservation Society

For an enlightening and occasionally amusing glimpse of the arcane world of New York City landmarks preservation, point your browser to HDC@LPC, a new Web site by the city’s Historic Districts Council.

As a nonprofit advocate for New York City’s historic neighborhoods, the HDC reviews and comments on hundreds of applications for alterations to landmark buildings in the five boroughs. (In fact, it is the only organization to do so.) At weekly public hearings, it testifies to the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the appropriateness of the proposed changes. Now it’s also posting that testimony online, making it easy for any New Yorker to tap into the behind-the-scenes conversation about the city’s historic buildings.

This afternoon I spent some time perusing the most recent entries. One thing I noticed right away: the HDC is not afraid to play the neighborhood curmudgeon, giving a resounding thumbs-down to proposals that seem relatively innocuous to this casual observer.

For instance, you may think that installing a bracket sign on an old factory building in DUMBO would easily meet HDC’s approval. You would be wrong. “Bracket signs gussy up the very simple, clean lines of Industrial neo-Classical style factory buildings like 72 Front Street, and after a while they lose their effectiveness, the clutter of signs all canceling one another out,” the HDC wrote.

How about a rear-yard addition to a Greek Revival house in Brooklyn Heights? “A rear addition already exists on this 1845 Greek Revival style house, and HDC questions the need and appropriateness of adding more.” Or a rooftop addition in Greenwich Village, pictured above? “Due to its size and location, the proposed rooftop addition is quite visible, a fact made worse by cladding it in white stucco.”

A couple things to note: the Landmarks Preservation Commission need not take the HDC’s advice; as it happens, the first two examples above were both approved by the LPC (the latter with modifications), and the last one is still pending a decision. And the HDC comes down in favor of many other proposals, frequently praising those that is deems “sensitive and appropriate.” Just as often, it approves of the design idea but suggests that the architect or developer work harder to come up with a more historically-appropriate solution.

I can see how the HDC’s constant vigilance could frustrate some architects, developers, and homeowners trying to make improvements to landmarked buildings. (Hey, no one likes to hear that their white-stucco roof deck is a hopeless eyesore.) But mostly it makes me happy to see that there are groups out there working to prevent the piece-by-piece watering-down of the city’s historic architecture, one bracket sign at a time.

Previously: Last week, our editor in chief wrote about the need for constant vigilance by design activists and preservationists. In our What’s Next issue, two experts speculated on the future of historic preservation.

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