Columns: February 2008

President’s Message

Marked by storms and plummeting temperatures, winter is typically a preservationist’s off-season. It is a quiet period when architectural historians spend important time in study or research.

Architectural historians are all around us. Their jobs and skills are widely divergent, but their passion for old buildings binds them together as strongly as the mortar binds the bricks together in the old rowhouse in which I write this letter.

In this issue of Columns, we focus on architectural historians and the broad roles they play with regard to historic preservation. We interviewed architectural historians and preservationists in different fields – historic landmarks commissioners, independent researchers, and state historic preservation officers. One of our interviewees even provided us with an abridged insider’s tour of Art Deco New York, highlighting some of the City’s great buildings of that era.

The Trust for Architectural Easements joins these architectural historians and preservationists in their mission to protect our nation’s architectural heritage. By preserving your historic building with a historic preservation easement, you, too, can help protect our nation’s architectural heritage. I encourage you to contact the Trust for more information about how to make an easement donation, and invite you to read on to learn more about the fascinating world of architectural history and preservation.

Best wishes,
Steven L. McClain
President, Trust for Architectural Easements

Local Preservation

Boston Landmarks Commission Balances History with Progress

Bowdoin Street Townhouse

Bowdoin Street Townhouse

In Boston, the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) is the city’s historic preservation agency. The BLC conducts historic building surveys, designates Boston landmarks and local historic districts, and manages the National Register program at the municipal level. The BLC also administers the Demolition Delay of Boston’s Zoning Code,  participates in environmental reviews for major projects, and provides preservation outreach.

“Making room for growth and change within Boston’s legacy is a challenge. . . You can’t save everything and expect the city to remain vibrant,” explains Ellen Lipsey, executive director of the Boston Landmarks Commission. It is the job of the  commissioners and staff of the local historic district commissions and the BLC to preserve Boston’s past, without putting a bell jar over the city.

Flour & Grain Exchange

Flour & Grain Exchange

“Boston is a city of 19th- and 20th- century neighborhoods. While there are currently eight local districts with over 7,600 buildings and more than 40 National Register districts in the city, there could be many more. “Preservation is important and change is difficult for many, but stasis isn’t good for cities either. It’s all about the balance and the realization that reuse and rehabilitation are powerful development tools along with new construction. Change is inevitable. Historic preservation helps manage change appropriately.”

Lipsey also notes, “Preservation is the ultimate form of sustainable design, however, the current green building trends in energy conservation favor new construction and new products such as replacement windows. Manufacturers of these new products brandish their energy-saving statistics, but don’t share the numbers that show how one can use storm windows to insulate historic windows, or insulate the wall space around historic window frames, to achieve equally good or better results than those achieved with replacement windows.”

Historic Preservation

State Historic Preservation Offices Protect America’s Architecture

55 Central Park West, New York City, designed by Swartz & Gross, and completed in 1930.

55 Central Park West, New York City, designed by Swartz & Gross, and completed in 1930.

The ultimate recognition that a historic building or district may achieve in this country is a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation acknowledges the importance of a particular building or community to America’s history and opens the door to a variety of tax incentives intended to help property owners protect and preserve their historic buildings in perpetuity.

There are thousands of historic districts in this country. In New York State alone, there are 823 historic districts and buildings, among the most in any state in the nation. Kathy Howe, historic preservation program analyst for Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, is employed by the New York State Historic Office of Preservation (SHPO). She is in charge of all historic preservation projects in those communities. One of her many responsibilities is seeing that the historic buildings and districts in her communities that are nominated for the National Register are successfully listed and remain worthy of their designation.

Howe’s role in historic preservation is not unique. Every state has a SHPO to certify the historical significance of its buildings, and to prepare the buildings’ National Register reports for submission to the National Park Service (NPS), the government body that oversees the National Register. Upon approval by the NPS, the properties are listed on the National Register and become eligible for historic preservation easements.

Owners of historic properties and buildings in districts listed on the National Register donate preservation easements on their historic structures to organizations, such as the Trust for Architectural Easements, that promise to preserve and protect the exteriors of the buildings forever. In exchange, the buildings’ owners receive tax deductions based on the values of the structures. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program is one way that the government encourages us to preserve our national heritage.

Howe, and SHPO officers like her, face daily decisions that are critical to the preservation of their city’s historic architecture. They review state- and federally-funded construction projects, and those on government-owned land, to assess their impact on their city’s historic resources. They also work with historic property owners to help them comply with federal preservation guidelines, all in the interest of preserving those buildings and communities that define our oldest and most famous cities.

Historic Buildings Spotlight

Protecting Connecticut’s Big Red Barns

Red Barn

A classic American barn.

It’s hard to think of rural Connecticut and parts of Greenwich or Westport without envisioning the pleasant landscapes, rolling hills, covered bridges, and the iconic red barn. But every day these characteristics that make Connecticut such a desirable place for country homes are in danger of being lost to neglect or new development.
Most prominently among them are the big red barns.

According to statistics from the US Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 barns in Connecticut in 1920; by 2002, less than 5,000 working barns remained.

As Todd Levine, architectural historian for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and co-director of the Historic Barns of Connecticut project, points out, Connecticut’s barns are simply not protected in the same way as other historic structures. When the state experienced a decline in its agricultural business in the 20th century, many farms went out of business and historic barns fell into disuse or were neglected. Rapid development in the area, high taxes and zoning laws that often restrict how barns can be adaptively re-used, contribute to the challenges involved in saving these historic treasures.

A few people still have hope. Levine and his colleagues at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation are documenting historic buildings and their outbuildings, and finding creative solutions for endangered barns throughout the state. Some barns have been turned into offices, while others have become artists’ studios or storage space. The organization has partnered with the Face of Connecticut, a nonprofit organization chartered to preserve Connecticut’s land and built environment. Together, they are considering administering a grants program to provide funding directly to private owners for the rehabilitation of historic barns.

“Development,” Levine says, “is one the greatest challenges facing historic preservation in rural areas because less attention is drawn to the community’s resources.” However, as sustainability becomes increasingly mainstream, he believes more preservationists will recognize the synergies of preserving both buildings and land.

Architectural Ambler

Tony Robins’ Art Deco Walking Tour of New York City

“The Chrysler Building is among the hundreds of Art Deco monuments that during the 1920s and ‘30s helped create the image of New York City as the world’s modern metropolis. Coined in the 1960s to describe a style of French decorative arts, ‘Art Deco’ now refers to almost anything from saltcellars to skyscrapers, produced anywhere in the world during the early decades of this century, using abstract, stylized floral, geometric, or streamlined design. In New York City, Art Deco evolved through a series of Manhattan skyscrapers into the city’s chief architectural language of the time,” explains Tony Robins, an architectural historian, writer, lecturer, and expert on the architecture and history of New York City.

Robins, a life-long resident of the City, served for 19 years on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as deputy director of research and director of survey. He has authored two books, The World Trade Center and Subway Style; the latter earned a New York City Book Award. He also has written articles for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Gourmet, and The Forward. The Educational Press Association of America awarded him a Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Educational Journalism. Robins leads tours for the Art Deco Society of New York, of which he is a founding member, and for the Municipal Art Society. In addition, he is a frequent lecturer at New York University and Williams College.

It was during the Art Deco era, Robins says, that New York City evolved from a Victorian city into a modern metropolis. Art Deco, a fresh new approach to architecture and design, helped change the face of the city. Today, Art Deco is not only universally impressive and easy to understand, but it is also full of optimistic invention, emotion and joy. Here are some of Robins’ favorite examples of Art Deco architecture in New York City:

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building: Located at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and commissioned by Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler automotive conglomerate, the Chrysler Building is 1,050 feet tall, and stands 77 stories in height. Constructed between 1928 and 1930 to the designs of William Van Alen, the Chrysler Building is one of Manhattan’s major landmarks. In advertisement of the Chrysler automobile, some of its decorative motifs are derivative of Chrysler automobile design. At the 31st floor, for example, Chrysler metal hubcaps pierce a gray-and-white brick frieze with a car tire motif, suggesting automotive motion; large, stylized eagles resembling Chrysler radiator ornaments perch upon the corners of this frieze. Larger, gargoyle-like eagles with prominent beaks project outward from the corners of the 63rd floor. These eagles, along with the receding circles with triangular windows that rise into the building’s six-floor spire, are made of a non-rusting nickel, chrome, and steel alloy novel at the time of the building’s construction. The spire, six stories in height, was reserved for Mr. Chrysler’s personal use during the building’s earliest years.

The American International Building: Originally the Cities Service Building, this 1932 skyscraper is located at 70 Pine Street. It is the tallest building in Downtown Manhattan, and the fifth-tallest building in the city. Robins praises its lobby, and notes that the stone scale models of the building that are incorporated above the entrances at Pine and Cedar Streets are not to be missed.

The Majestic

The Majestic

The Century

The Century

The Century, The Eldorado and The Majestic Apartments: This group of three twin-towered apartment skyscrapers on Central Park West sets the tone for the city’s residential skyline of variegated outlines and uniquely shaped towers. The Century, located at 25 Central Park West and built to the designs of Irwin S. Chanin in 1931, is stylish and sophisticated, with delicately rounded window bays. The Eldorado, located at 300 Central Park West and built to the designs of Margon & Holder, with assistance from Emery Roth, between 1929 and 1931, is the most intricately detailed of the three buildings. It features tall, vertical window strips, elaborate tower finials, bronze reliefs, and a beautifully arched metallic entrance. Lastly, the Majestic, located at 115 Central Park West and constructed between 1930 and 1931 to the designs of Irwin S. Chanin, incorporates design elements such as corner windows and curved tower tops that are now considered classic Art Deco motifs.

The Eldorado

The Eldorado

The Goelet Building: Located at the southwest corner of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue, this building, constructed to the designs of Victor Hafner and Edward Faile between 1930 and 1932, is faced with Dover white and antique green marbles. Inside, the lobby features a variety of marbles – aurora rossa, samosa golden, American pavonazzo, bleu belge, numidian red, and Belgian black. The Goelet family crest, consisting mainly of a large swan, adorns the lobby’s ceiling.

Historic Home Care

2007 Easement Monitoring Report

The strength of a historic preservation easement is directly linked to the quality of an easement-holding organization’s annual monitoring. Preservation easements that are not monitored are not enforced. The Trust for Architectural Easements’ director of operations and stewardship, Heather Massler, is responsible for monitoring the protected portions of every building on which the Trust holds a historic preservation easement.

In 2007, Massler and her team visited and photographed 761 historic buildings in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland,  Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. The photographs of these buildings were carefully compared with photographs taken in previous years to identify changes to the historic architecture, as well as any concerns regarding building maintenance. Only 19 percent of the properties in the Trust’s easement portfolio triggered cause for concern regarding exterior changes or upkeep.

Almost half of the issues of concern resulted from owners failing to request permission from the Trust prior to making changes to their buildings. In many of these cases, the Trust worked with the property owners to obtain full details of the modifications, when necessary, and was ultimately able to conclude that it had no objection to the alterations. Each property owner was reminded of his or her obligation to obtain prior approval from the Trust before beginning work on easement protected facades. Changes at 17 properties were previously approved by the Trust through the standard process. The Trust is working to gather additional information about ongoing work at ten properties. Trust prohibited changes to the exterior may include the addition or the removal of shutters, the enclosure of porches or entry vestibules, the alteration of door and window configurations, and the alteration of the building’s footprint.

The terms of the easement also give the Trust limited authority over a building’s maintenance. Ivy growth, for example, is detrimental to historic building materials and can undermine a building’s structural stability. Failed paint, exterior cladding and roofing allow water infiltration that can quickly cause rot and other structural failures. The loss of architectural details diminishes a building’s historical character. Twenty-two easement-encumbered properties required maintenance to prevent further deterioration. The Trust will continue to monitor the condition of 32 additional properties that do not warrant immediate intervention but are of concern.

Monitoring is the focus of the Trust’s operations each spring and is at the heart of the Trust’s mission of protecting America’s historic architecture.

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