Author Tom Wolfe has been prominent in a neighborhood movement to prevent redevelopment at 980 Madison Avenue New York City – a plan to renovate the 1949 building, and add new apartment towers nearby in this tony part of midtown Manhattan. Wolfe called on the East Side Historic District to block the construction on grounds of incompatibility of the new Norman Foster design with the existing mid-century modernist style, now ‘historic’ under the 50 year test frequently used by historic preservationists.
Callahan and Blumfeld in Mises Daily drew attention to ironies in the opposition.
“One is that the building they are attempting to preserve represented a change in the character of the neighborhood at the time it was built, as, indeed, did every other structure presently in the historic district. If today’s preservation laws had been in place 100 years ago, it is likely that little of what the preservationists are trying to preserve would even exist.
“The other irony is that, if the innovative design for the new construction at 980 Madison Avenue is realized it is probable that, in a few decades, it will be regarded as the very sort of landmark requiring protection by preservation laws.
“We can imagine hypothetically, past preservationists preventing the construction of the Athenian Parthenon: ’It will ruin the natural beauty of the unspoiled acropolis!.’
Of the Roman Coliseum: ‘A massive structure, out of keeping with the neighborhood!’
Of the Empire State Building: “It blocks the views of residents in the vicinity!’
Any other edifice that is today considered as an important part of our cultural heritage, they point out, could have been opposed at the time of its planned construction on grounds of “historic preservation.”
Extreme historic preservationism and its drive to preserve as much as possible of all old buildings everywhere flies in the face of practice over the millennia – it is ahistorical. Historically most civilizations have had a pragmatic approach to old buildings, focussing longterm preservation on a very few that are outstanding – ‘landmarks’ – reusing most when the original purpose no longer has priority and demolishing when maintenance of the old has become more burdensome than building anew.
Pragmatic preservation doesn’t apply control to whole tracts of a city. It focusses on particular landmark buildings and distinct well preserved streetscapes – at least outside tourist museum-like historic towns like Colonial Williamsburg VA. Total preservation there was only made possible by Standard Oil magnate John D Rockefeller buying up the whole town a century ago and then providing philanthropy on a massive scale to pay for its painstaking recreation.