Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

By Max Page; Randall Mason | Go to book overview

5

HISTORIC PRESERVATION, PUBLIC MEMORY, AND THE MAKING OF MODERN NEW YORK CITY

Randall Mason

Within the limits of our own city, in the dramas of the past, have been enacted tragedies that are inspirations to lofty undertakings, the memories of which are fast fading from mind and of which no visible memorials have yet been established. Such landmarks are too rapidly yielding to the obliteration of time, and to preserve them is a sacred duty, akin to that of teaching the children of our public schools or maintaining libraries for the education of our people.

Andrew Haswell Green, the "Father of Greater New York," 1901 1

This chapter debunks two myths about the origins of historic preservation in New York City, and places preservationists' efforts to construct a usable past in the context of early twentieth-century urban modernization and reform. The first myth is that New York City preservation began in 1963, after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station. Contrary to this popular and heroic protest story, there was a thriving preservation field in New York City by the turn of the twentieth century. The creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 was an important, but not the original, chapter in the preservation history of New York City.

The second myth holds that preservation emerged in the nineteenth century as the marginal gesture of a dying elite, and has stayed that way. 2 On the contrary, by the 1900s preservation was thoroughly embedded in broader economic, cultural, environmental, and other social processes driving urbanization. 3 Preservation was among the several types of social-environmental reform that took hold under the rubric of the Progressive movement around the turn of the twentieth century. These reform movements fundamentally changed the trajectory

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