Because There’s No Such Thing As Undemo

At Overlawyered, Walter Olson notes that the former Mercedes Benz dealership on Park Avenue in Manhattan, one of a mere three Frank Lloyd Wright projects in New York City, is gone.

“On March 22, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called the owners of 430 Park Ave. to tell them the city was considering designating the Wright showroom … as the city’s 115th interior landmark. … on March 28, the building’s owners, Midwood Investment & Management and Oestreicher Properties, reached out to another city agency, the Department of Buildings, requesting a demolition permit for the Wright showroom. The permit was approved the same day, sealing the showroom’s fate.”
Aside from the rather remarkable juxtaposition of the length of time it takes to save something versus the speed with which it can be destroyed, itself a social commentary on what we value in America, the story is offered as an example of how the monumental burden of landmark preservation forced the owner’s hand to destroy it before the commission could grab hold of it.

That’s only the latest in a series of incidents in which the prospect of city intervention under Gotham’s famously cumbersome preservation laws has precipitated teardown instead.
There is no question that landmarking a structure presents an overbearing burden on an owner. It impairs a property owner’s right to do as he pleases with his property. Instead, it forces an owner to do as he’s told by a bunch of well-intended but generally uncompromising folks who find it remarkably easy to make demands they don’t have to pay for. It reduces the value of the owner’s property, since future buyers take it with the burdens of landmarking, limits its potential uses and increases the costs by imposing requirements of maintenance that may well fly in the face of utility.

No question, landmarking can suck.

But then, how to preserve history in the face of big money?  Some (many?) won’t lose any sleep over the demolition of Wright’s interior, built in 1947 to house Max Hoffman’s showroom for newly imported German automobiles. Hoffman has vision, pushing Mercedes to create such icons as the 300SL gullwing and the Porsche Speedster.  The interior Wright created for him is so, well, perfect.

But in 2012, Mercedes moved out and the owners needed to rent the space. They didn’t own a museum, dedicated to guys like me who love old architecture as well as old cars.  They were in the business of being property owners, and while it might have made folks happy had they embraced the history of the space and chosen to preserve it because, well, that was their choice, it would have been great.

But do we force the owner of private property to eat the cost, eat the loss, and keep historic space as we, the people who don’t have to pay the price, would like them to?  That’s a problem.

Granted, trying to preserve a bit of history in Manhattan isn’t easy.  Its a tough place, where property owners will sell their mothers for a an extra half point increase in a rent stabilized apartment.  There are some who will keep a landmark alive because they think it worthwhile. There are some who will do so because it’s valuable as a landmark.  And then, there are some who will rip it out, destroy history, without blinking an eye.

The problem is that it only takes one of the demo crowd to destroy a piece of history, whereas it takes an unending series of owners and managers to keep history intact.  Like entropy, it only works one way when demolition is on the table. There is no changing your mind after some Philistine has had his way with a landmark, and hitting the undo button. Once something is demolished, it’s gone.

Is there a middle ground, a way to preserve history without impairing a property owner’s right to do as he pleases with his property?  Or at least providing fair compensation to the property owner for taking away a portion of his rights?  Sure, a purchase of rights can be done, but what if it the owner isn’t interested in selling?  Can there be a taking, a Park Avenue Kelo, where some committee of people who, like me, adore history so much that it matters more than property rights?

Being of that weird ilk that prefers to suffer to preserve, whether it’s property, cars or table manners, stuff like this matters to me, and it breaks my heart to hear of a loss of history that can never be recaptured.  I am willing to do it with the things I possess, but that’s my choice.  I don’t know that it’s right to force anyone else to feel as I do, or to put fundamental rights on the alter of preservation.

Yet, I mourn the loss. It isn’t good enough to see history in an image on an iPad, and if nothing is preserved, it will eventually all give way to more financially productive uses, as somebody down the road will not love the landmark as much as the cash.

4 thoughts on “Because There’s No Such Thing As Undemo

  1. John Burgess

    Historic preservation really can limit one’s options as an owner. Having had a few properties in historic neighborhoods in DC, I’ve found that — as you note — it seems ridiculous easy to force others to spend money on what you like. Color of paint, style of windows, even the style of a front door, a fence, or even plantings can be ordered by unelected ‘historic preservation societies’.

    I like history, too. But I don’t particularly care to be forced, as an individual, to foot the bill for a city-wide or even neighborhood-wide preservation effort. I like it even less when those with connections get to avoid the problems and costs by getting special waivers because they’re better political game players than I am.

    I don’t think there’s a single, one-size-fits-all solution to balancing the equation between true ownership and historic preservation. But perhaps some of the bite could be taken out of it with tax credits. But I don’t really like that, either, as screwing around with tax exemptions and credits is what helps explain the thousands of pages of tax code.

    Maybe we all just need to be rich…

Comments are closed.