By Margaret McMahon
What makes a place special? How do you know when you’re there? In New York City, you can turn the corner and find yourself in a place that “feels” different. Preservationists call this a “sense of place”, and it’s more than a feeling. It’s a carving over a doorway, an arched window with a star above it, a street lined with fire escapes. It’s that row of buildings that look the same but different. Why is one of them five stories, not four? Why does this one have all those little panes of glass in the windows? Why do some of them have steps up and some of them have steps down? Each physical element has meaning, and all together they contribute to make a place special.
New York City contains many areas with a distinctive sense of place. Some have been officially designated as historic districts by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and some have not. They may be notable for blocks of brick residences built in the early nineteenth century, for cast-iron commercial buildings built in the mid-nineteenth, for industrial structures from the early twentieth, or for a mixture of buildings built and altered as the neighborhood developed over time.
Whatever the buildings, they reflect the needs and aspirations of the people who built, lived, and worked in them. Over time, the stories that tell us about these people are written into the structure, stories about how they lived, what they bought, what they made, and how they worshiped. Stone workers carved those figures on the arch over this window. Did they carry their craftsmanship with them from another country? From what pattern did they work? Where did they live? Where are their great-grandchildren now? Preservation keeps the stories readable, by ensuring the continuity of the physical features that tell those stories.
When a historic district is officially designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, these features are protected. This doesn’t mean they can’t be changed at all. The thousand of permits to perform work on designated properties issue by the Landmarks Preservation Commission each year attest to that. It does mean that changes will occur thoughtfully and will maintain the significant features of the building. It doesn’t mean the random, careless, ad hoc destruction of stories told and heard for many years.
Landmark designation benefits all of us who now live, work in, or visit a historic district. The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s careful consideration of changes makes it possible for us to continue hearing the stories, and to continue to recognize the historic district’s special sense of place.