Though I spent my adolescent years living within an hour’s journey of New York City, such long-term close proximity exposed me to little more than glitzy entertainment, professional sports, glamour, fashion, and trendy-pseudo-art. I knew the city promised authentic high culture, but it was easy to overlook it in comparison to experiences in Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Paris. What I discovered more recently was that New York is not just a center of high culture in literature, music, theater, and opera. It also has a significant presence of first-rate architecture grounded in traditions from the Italian Renaissance to the English country house—architecture which represents uniquely American developments within a broadly defined classicism.
One useful introduction to the city’s glories is Judith Gura and Kate Wood’s Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York . The book provides a chronological presentation of 44 (in most cases) excellent architectural works from the City Hall of 1811 to the Ford Foundation Building of 1967. All are selected from among the 120 officially-designated “interior landmarks” that give the book its title, and whose preservation is legally regulated.
Age is not a requirement for this status. Exemplification of a particular architectural style or some other aesthetic, cultural or historical significance is the key criteria which must be met, in addition to which the buildings (or segments of buildings that receive such status) must be regularly open to some form of public use. The standard for what constitutes preservation is not unbendingly strict, though the conditions under which alterations can be permitted by New York’s Interior Landmarks Commission are appropriately rigorous. In addition to essential repairs, alterations can be authorized to accommodate a change in the purpose for which a building is used on condition that they are minimized as much as feasible, sufficiently conform to the original style and, in some case, easily allow for reversal.
A central theme of Interior Landmarks is the near limitless potential for repurposing wherever the will for preservation exists. But its account of increasing efforts to preserve New York City’s architectural heritage also reveals an unfortunate shift in broader social attitudes, a shift to which architectural preservation and repurposing recorded in the book are linked. One finds in the book not only buildings originally constructed as museums, theaters, and aristocratic homes, but also as customs houses, armories, centers of transportation—and even a residence for indigent retired sailors. Photographs the reader might think depicts opera houses in reality show what were once movie theaters. Such a sheer multiplicity of purposes shows the extent to which beauty was once expected (or least desired) to permeate as much of life as possible, and for people of as many social classes as possible.
Repurposing these landmarks largely involves a transition from everyday usage to special occasion venues. Such transitions cannot be entirely explained by the legal prerequisites for interior landmark status. Customs houses and armories serve the most practical of purposes. But in the past, unlike today, buildings for such purposes were not designed in a purely utilitarian way. It is hard to avoid the impression that such transitions are part of the broader tendency to isolate beauty. One should not be surprised that a society in which men widely wore jackets and ties as a matter of routine was one in which charitable housing for retired sailors was more beautiful than that now sheltering the affluent.
In addition to isolating beauty, this narrowing runs the risk of reducing beautiful architecture to what are almost like museum pieces. Such a reduction completely violates the spirit in which the works shown in Interior Landmarks were first created. Most of the interiors included in the book represent both stylistic and technological evolution within broadly traditional aesthetics. Most were a blend of such historical influences as the baroque, federal, Greek Revival, Gothic, Renaissance, Italianate, Romanesque, and Rococo traditions. Beaux-arts was more of a unified architectural movement rather than the odd mixture found in many building in Interior Landmarks but itself added Gothic and Renaissance elements onto a foundation of French neoclassicism. Art nouveau was largely an evolution out of aesthetic medievalism. Only a few strictly adhered to one or another older style. Only a few others embraced such unfortunate fashions as art deco and architectural modernism.
The materials used in construction that depict the book show similar creativity. The interior of the Tweed Courthouse conforms closely to the Italianate aesthetic but its use of cast iron (the only such interior surviving in New York City) was hardly a decision based on excessively rigorous traditionalism. Indiana limestone and Maine granite are among the materials that were able to give a North American “twist” to aesthetics grounded in the old world, and can be found in the same rooms as Greek marble and English oak.
Despite the skyscrapers and outer-borough kitsch popularly associated with New York, the city is filled with much fine architecture. Gura and Wood admittedly show that classic architecture must be searched for in New York as much as they show that it is present there. But they do demonstrate that architectural beauty is possible in the most modern of cities, that it can be created using the most modern materials and methods, and that only minor alterations can transition from outmoded uses to more contemporary ones.
James Baresel is a freelance writer.