The Preservationist Instinct Run Amok


shutterstock_105789410This year, the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. While the law that originally created the Commission was well-intended, the current rules under which the Commission operates regulate everything from the process by which landmarks are designated to the extensive restrictions on the ability of their owners to make any exterior or interior changes in their structures, down to the last ventilation duct, awning, window opening, and fire escape. The simplest way to think about landmark designation is that it puts the city in the position of part owner of the affected buildings, which then lets it decide how these buildings are maintained and altered, without having to bear anything close to the full financial burden of its decisions. As I note in my new column for Defining Ideas, the result is a deluge of government meddling in what surely ought to be private decisions. From the piece:

Rest assured that the behavior of landmark commissions and landmark preservationists alike would change rapidly if they had to raise public or private money to fund their prized projects. At this point preservationists, like everyone else, would have to learn to live within a budget, at which point they would moderate their demands so that only the best projects would be landmarked, and only in a way which minimizes the financial burdens to their owners.

…The key to any sensible reform is to put all the government claims on budget, so that the public can deliberate sensibly about how much should be spent on landmark preservation and which projects should be selected for their the aesthetic and civic virtues.

The only way to achieve that focus is to require the state to pay for whatever it takes. Once that is done, grandiose claims will no longer be sustainable. In addition, fiscal restraint will compel public bodies to look for better ways to minimize the dislocations on current owners. With government resources limited, private groups can raise money to preserve key structures and monuments, spurred on by a charitable deduction that operates as a matching public grant.

What instances of government overreach in the name of “preservation” have you seen in your communities?

There are 13 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. user_519396 Member

    As currently imposed in the District of Columbia, historic preservation laws often serve to promote the aesthetic tastes of incumbent property owners in a historic district, at the expense of “newcomers.” This stifles investment in historic properties. In some cases, it makes properties unsuitable for owner-occupiers and families, since large additions are deemed “incompatible” with historic districts. The downside is that costly interior-only renovations just don’t make economic sense, and these properties continue to be rentals, maintained at only minimal levels. DC is also problematic in that the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) decisions can only be challenged through costly litigation before an administrative law judge, and the law is crafted in such a way that grounds for relief are very narrow. You have to prove either economic hardship–the government will inevitably argue that no hardship exists if some value is retained–or that the project is one of exceptional merit. Property owners are often at the mercy of whatever evolving standards of “compatibility” the HPRB chooses to impose, and they are left with little recourse if they are turned down.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member

    My dad had to rush to get the house in which he grew up demolished, rather than trying to renovate and modernize the building, because he was afraid the city was going to declare it a heritage building.

    Of course, it’s hard to guess if this was merely an outlier or part of a larger trend.

    Anybody know of any statistical data on classic buildings being demolished in order to avoid being targeted by preservationists?

    • #2
  3. user_2967 Inactive

    Downtown Charleston, SC has very strict historical preservation rules that even extend to historical review of the new shade of paint property owners may want to put on their homes.  And forget removing an old structure to make way for a new building.  These restrictions have reportedly spawned a phenomenon called “demolition by neglect,” whereby the owner of an old home rents it to a gaggle of frat boys for a school year and encourages them to run amok on the place until the city has no choice but to condemn it.

    • #3
  4. skipsul Inactive

    Misthiocracy:My dad had to rush to get the house in which he grew up demolished, rather than trying to renovate and modernize the building, because he was afraid the city was going to declare it a heritage building.

    Of course, it’s hard to guess if this was merely an outlier or part of a larger trend.

    Anybody know of any statistical data on classic buildings being demolished in order to avoid being targeted by preservationists?

    Sounds like the unintended consequences of the Endangered Species act.

    • #4
  5. Elephas Americanus Member
    Elephas Americanus

    I’m all for historic preservation when sensible, and Los Angeles, where I live, may be one of the most notorious cities for destroying its great old buildings (the Brown Derby, the Ambassador Hotel, Pickfair) to put up really ugly new ones.

    L.A.’s archrival for California hegemony, San Francisco, largely takes the opposite approach and seems loath to build much of anything new. As such, it has a distinct “preserved in amber” quality to it, like a city in a vitrine. That’s great for tourists, I guess, but to me, it feels more like a studio back lot or living theme park than an real, vibrant place where people in the modern day live. There comes a point where too much preservationism tips over into Disneyland-like artifice.

    • #5
  6. Elephas Americanus Member
    Elephas Americanus

    The state of preservationism in Los Angeles: “Bulldoze first, apologize later: a true L.A. landmark”

    What is this “true L.A. landmark”? The nondescript tract home science fiction writer Ray Bradbury happened to live in:


    This is what should be preserved forever.

    It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood infamous for litigious residents who have fought a light rail line going on an old rail right-of-way hammer and tongs in the courts for years, and they would not be happy with anything that sends hordes of science fiction fans flooding into their secluded streets to gawk at some ranch house, taking up street parking and bothering their children. Why does anyone think this is something that needs to be a monument?

    The article’s author writes, “There’s no doubt that it was a cultural site of real importance in Los Angeles, though the city had never marked it with so much as a plaque.” No doubt? Really? The city probably never marked it with a plaque because Ray Bradbury didn’t want a big sign on his house that read, “Hey, everybody! Ray Bradbury lives here!”

    • #6
  7. Autistic License Thatcher
    Autistic License

    It never used to be a problem to find a policeman in our neighborhood: you could just walk a few doors down to the house rented by the latest drug-dealing, wife-beating slob renting a particular house on our block, and wait for him to come out.

    Then the landlady got tired of the drama and sold the asbestos-clad, uninspiring wreck to a nice young couple in their early 30’s, slaving away at multiple jobs while raising kids. Well, besides being really beat up, the place opened to the outside without a porch or awning, flat-fronted, like a child’s drawing of a house. The rain came into the living room as it pleased and it was just like the Great Outdoors you’re always hearing about.

    They fixed up the house and then drove around the surrounding blocks photographing the fronts of other homes. They then used the help of an architect friend to devise a porch or portico compatible with the rest of this historic neighborhood. Because, yes, this was a historic neighborhood, and everyone paid a certain amount of tax the year before it became one, and then it paid less, as if the objective worth of each house had changed, or as if there were a Lord of the Manor who could trade obedience for relief from levies.

    Well, the City historical board didn’t like the portico at all and used highly-studied architectural terms of art to explain how it wasn’t quite the thing. We neighbors couldn’t talk them out of it, even by pointing out how before it had been a nightly source of low entertainment, and a wreck, and a fitting counterpart to the abandoned house across the street, which my lords had also not taken much of an interest in. No, the portico had to come down, because the couple were not Experts and this was lese majeste. They took it down, and submitted plans and humble apologies; and then the couple was permitted to spend more of their limited funds building a more suitable one, which I might distinguish from the previous portico, if I had a better sense of what’s proper, and a textbook. The house across the street is still abandoned, and I don’t recommend it unless you know the right people.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    I like historic buildings and like to see them preserved for their historical value, which is not so much their aesthetic value but the way they remind us of our connections to our history.  They serve that purpose even if they are an incongruent mix of old and new, elegant and trashy.   (The main problem with trashy is they are less likely to be preserved for the future.)  I like to talk about this topic, and will mention that many of my long-distance bicycle rides are for the partial purpose of taking photos of old buildings that remind us of our history.

    I like when they are preserved for their aesthetic value, too, but it’s harder to take pleasure in a building when it’s accompanied by the knowledge that it was preserved through liberal application of chains and the lash.

    Similarly, I like attending classical music concerts, choral concerts, and such. But these days it’s hard to go to one that doesn’t give credit to government funding.  It’s hard to sit there and put out of my mind the fact that people had to produce under the threat of guns and prison in order to provide for my listening pleasure.  So my wife and I seldom go to concerts any more.

    • #8
  9. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans

    It is not all about dollars, Mr. Epstein! I am glad your discounted cash flow approach to preservation is not popular in Europe. Or they might turn Versailles and Schoenbrunn into condominiums for rich oligarchs. I am certain they would be more profitable.

    There is always an opportunity to extract more dollars from a certain site, say by allowing higher buildings in Boston’s Back Bay. But we have to account for the intangibles that make a city more attractive and more livable.

    No one is forced to own a building that may qualify as a landmark. The cost of upkeep is certainly reflected in the price at which such property is transacted. I agree that a problem may arise if an unsuspecting owner finds from one day to the next that his building has been designated as a landmark. On the one hand, the value of his building is depressed by the maintenance of a landmark. On the other hand, the value is enhanced by the designation. At any rate, this probably impacts a very small percentage of owners.

    • #9
  10. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya

    I had a run-in with the NYC LPC.  I suspect that it began due to one of my nosy, liberal neighbors in Park Slope, Brooklyn ratting me out.  I got a letter in the mail stating that the aluminum windows of my brownstone were flat on top, when they should have been curved.  I called the LPC and explained to them that I did not install the windows; it had been done by a previous owner.  No matter.  I was to replace each and every window, even though they were virtually new.

    I was able to drag out the matter for years.  Ultimately, I got access to the LPC’s system that keeps track of violations.  There, I saw that my address was listed incorrectly; my next-door neighbor’s address was listed, instead, with the violation reference number I had been assigned.  At this point, I went ahead with my plan to sell the house, and because (incorrectly) there was no outstanding violation shown against the house, I was able to complete the closing process with no problem.

    • #10
  11. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya


    How could I do this ethically, you ask? Well, I knew my neighbors planned to retire in their home and had no intention of ever selling it. Furthermore, their windows were original and in compliance. Could the LPC turn its attention to the new owner of my house and cause him problems, instead? I doubted that such a thing would occur. The LPC’s resources for enforcement were limited, which they admitted to me. They didn’t have the correct address, and their leverage comes mostly from the ability to halt property sales and renovations. Furthermore, the new owner planned extensive renovations, which would have to be approved by the LPC and which he was better-positioned financially than I to do; that’s partly the reason why I sold the house. These renovations included replacing the aluminum windows, which actually were rather ugly. The only thing that would have been accomplished by my coming clean would have been an agonizing and expensive delay in my closing.  Instead, it was a win-win-win.

    By the way, in the midst of the nightmare, I asked a hypothetical question of the liberal fascist in charge of my case at the LPC: If, when I was preparing to buy the house, I had asked the LPC to come and inspect it and tell me whether or not it was in compliance, would they have done so?  “No,” I was told, “we don’t do that kind of thing.”

    • #11
  12. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya

    Elephas Americanus

    I’m all for historic preservation when sensible, and Los Angeles, where I live, may be one of the most notorious cities for destroying its great old buildings (the Brown Derby, the Ambassador Hotel, Pickfair) to put up really ugly new ones.

    It was, in fact, the tearing down of the spectacular old Pennsylvania Station in NYC (replaced by the hideous Madison Square Garden) that led to the creation of the hideous NYC LPC.  Someone once wrote that in the old Penn Station, one entered Manhattan like a god, and in the new station, one enters like a rat.  As one of the thousands of “rats” who pass through Penn Station every day, I can attest that is true.

    • #12
  13. iWc Coolidge

    I live in a designated historic district. It is nothing more than an excuse for city regulators and nosy neighbors to exert power over other people.

    I had a neighbor who had lousy windows. Big, old house. 65 windows. The City would not allow her to get windows that looked the same as the old ones – they insisted that she replace them with the same flawed and obsolete technology that was used when the house was built.

    The cost? $2k, each and every one. Same story with the roof, etc.

    The house helped bankrupt her, and she moved out. The house sits, unoccupied and rotting.

    • #13
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.