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The Harrison, a luxury condominium project that supplanted the Dakota Stables and is to open next spring (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

Hours before the sun came up on a cool October morning in 2006, people living near the Dakota Stables on the Upper West Side were suddenly awakened by the sound of a jackhammer.

Soon word spread that a demolition crew was hacking away at the brick cornices of the stables, an 1894 Romanesque Revival building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, that once housed horses and carriages but had long served as a parking garage.

In just four days the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was to hold a public hearing on pleas dating back 20 years to designate the low-rise building, with its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, as a historic landmark.

But once the building’s distinctive features had been erased, the battle was lost. The commission went ahead with its hearing, but ultimately decided not to designate the structure because it had been irreparably changed. Today a 16-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern is rising on the site: the Related Companies is asking from $765,000 for a studio to $7 million or more for a five-bedroom unit in the building.

The strategy has become wearyingly familiar to preservationists. A property owner — in this case Sylgar Properties, which was under contract to sell the site to Related — is notified by the landmarks commission that its building or the neighborhood is being considered for landmark status. The owner then rushes to obtain a demolition or stripping permit from the city’s Department of Buildings so that notable qualities can be removed, rendering the structure unworthy of protection.

“In the middle of the night I’m out there at 2 in the morning, and they’re taking the cornices off,” said Gale Brewer, a city councilwoman who represents that part of the Upper West Side. “We’re calling the Buildings Department, we’re calling Landmarks. You get so beaten down by all of this. The developers know they can get away with that.”

The number of pre-emptive demolitions across the city may be relatively small, but preservationists say the phenomenon is only one sign of problems with the city’s mechanism for protecting historic buildings.

“This administration is so excited about the new that it overlooks its obligation to protect the old,” said Anthony C. Wood, author of “Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks.”

In an interview Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, called end-run alterations and demolitions “a terrible situation and a complete misuse of the process.”

He added that the commission was trying to address the issue. Before putting a property on the calendar for landmark consideration, for example, Mr. Tierney or the commission’s staff members meet with owners to explain the potential benefits of landmark designation —a federal tax credit for repairs or improvements, for example — in the hope of enlisting cooperation or even support.

“Owner consent is not required, but I strongly try to obtain it whenever possible,” Mr. Tierney said. “It helps the process going forward. It’s not a continually contentious relationship.”

But some owners pay little heed. In one of the most memorable cases, a wrecking ball destroyed a corner tower of the former Paterson Silks store near Union Square on March 8, 2005. The double-height glass tower was the signature feature of the building, designed by the architect Morris Lapidus, known for his flamboyant Miami Beach hotels.

A few hours later the commission, seemingly oblivious, agreed to schedule a hearing on the building’s future.

Preservationists were outraged, particularly because they had been trying to bring the building to the commission’s attention for at least three years. Yet the owner, Donald J. Olenick, vice president of BLDG Management, then a co-owner of the building, said he did not understand the objections. “This is certainly not the Plaza Hotel,” he said the day the tower toppled. “I’m a little surprised anyone was concerned about it.”

Robin Pogrebin
New York Times


Lewis Hyde

In the late 1990s, [Lewis] Hyde began extending his lifelong project of examining “the public life of the imagination” into what had become newly topical territory: the “cultural commons.” The advent of Internet file-sharing services like Napster and Gnutella sparked urgent debates over how to strike a balance between public and private claims to creative work. For more than a decade, the so-called Copy Left — a diverse group of lawyers, activists, artists and intellectuals — has argued that new digital technologies are responsible for an unprecedented wave of innovation and that excessive legal restrictions should not be placed on, say, music remixes, image mashups or “read-write” sites like Wikipedia, where users create their own content. The Copy Left, or the “free culture movement,” as it is sometimes known, has articulated this position in part by drawing on the tradition of the medieval agricultural commons, the collective right of villagers, vassals and serfs —“commoners” — to make use of a plot of land. This analogy is also central to Hyde’s book in progress, which looks closely at how the tradition of the commons was transformed once it was brought from Europe to America.

For the Copy Left, as for Hyde, the last 20 years have witnessed a corporate “land grab” of information — often in the guise of protecting the work of individual artists — that has put a stranglehold on creativity, in increasingly bizarre ways. Over dinner not long ago, he told me about the legal fate of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Dickinson died in 1886, but it was not until 1955 that an “official” volume of her collected works was published, by Harvard University Press. The length of copyright terms has expanded substantially in the last century, and Harvard holds the exclusive right to Dickinson’s poems until 2050 — more than 160 years after they were first written. When the poet Robert Pinsky asked Harvard for permission to include a Dickinson poem in an article that he was writing for Slate about poetic insults, it refused, even for a fee. “Their feeling was that once the poem was online, they’d lose control of it,” Hyde told me.

In highlighting the absurd ways in which intellectual copyright has overreached, Hyde brings to mind such iconic Copy Left figures as Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional-law scholar at Stanford. Yet Hyde’s new book, which he allowed me to read in draft form (it is unfinished and untitled), addresses what he considers a more fundamental issue. We may believe there should be a limit on the market in cultural property, he argues, but that doesn’t mean that we have “a good public sense” of where to set that limit. Hyde’s book is, at its core, an attempt to help formulate that sense.

If this sounds like a heady goal, it is. But it is also eminently practical, and eminently American. For Hyde, redressing the balance between private (corporate, individual) and common (public) interests depends not just on effective policy but also on recovering the idea of the cultural commons as a deeply American concept. To that end, he excavates a history of the American imagination in which the emphasis is not on the lone genius (Thoreau scribbling hermetically in the Massachusetts woods) but on the anonymous pamphleteer, the inventor eager to share his discoveries. In an essay that offers a preview of his book (posted, fittingly, on his Web site), Hyde posits that the history of the commons and of the creative self are, in fact, twin histories. “The citizen called into being by a republic of freehold farms,” he writes, “is close cousin to the writer who built himself that cabin at Walden Pond. But along with such mainstream icons goes a shadow tradition, the one that made Jefferson skeptical of patents, the one that made even Thoreau argue late in life that every ‘town should have … a primitive forest …, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever,’ the one that led the framers of the Constitution to balance ‘exclusive right’ with ‘limited times.’ It is a tradition worth recovering.”

For nearly 10 years, Hyde has devoted himself to that task.

Daniel B. Smith
New York Times

2 Columbus Circle in 1964, with Huntington Hartford, left, and Robert Moses

2 Columbus Circle in 2008

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

2 Columbus Circle

Edward Durell Stone’s building, which opened as the Gallery of Modern Art in 1964, incited one of the most bitter preservation battles in recent memory. Its defenders hailed its faux Venetian exterior as a slap against the prevailing standards of mainstream Modernism. Detractors denounced its swanky décor and cramped galleries as an urban eyesore.

The result? Everybody lost. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was too cowardly to render a verdict and never reviewed the case. The building was turned over to the Museum of Arts and Design, which gutted it to make room for new galleries and stripped away its white marble exterior.

Its mild, overly polite renovation offers us nothing breathtakingly new.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

Astor Place

Nearly a decade ago Cooper Union had ambitious plans for a small parking lot between the school’s main building and Lafayette Street. Ian Schrager, the hotelier, agreed to develop the site, hiring Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog. But the budget quickly spun out of control, and Mr. Schrager eventually fired his architects. A few years later he tried again, hiring Frank Gehry. But then came the World Trade Center attack. The hotel business died, and Gehry too was dumped.

Frustrated, the school turned to the Related Companies, one of the city’s biggest developers, which hired the New York firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates to design a luxury residential tower.

Though the tower’s curving glass-and-steel skin is an obvious reference to Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt 1922 Glass Skyscraper project, the crude quality of its execution is an insult to Mies’s memory.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

375 Pearl Street

The Verizon tower at 375 Pearl Street is a unique kind of horror. Seen from the Brooklyn Bridge’s elevated walkway it blots out one of the world’s greatest urban vistas.

So when I learned a few months ago that a proposal was in the works to transform the building into an office tower, I went to take a look. The design, by Cook & Fox, would strip away the tower’s gray limestone cladding and rewrap it in glittering sheets of glass.

Unfortunately, what is needed is beyond the capacity of an upbeat developer and an enthusiastic architect. Anywhere else, the proposed redesign of this building would be a revelation.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ Javits Center was never considered one of the firm’s best designs, due to budget constraints. And the black glass exterior gives it the air of a gigantic mausoleum.

With the continuing redevelopment of the Hudson River, the convention center stands on some of the most promising — and valuable — land in the city. The site would serve better as housing than as a shed for dog shows and car fanatics.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

Trump Place

You may find the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue gaudy, but doesn’t its cockiness makes you grin?

So how to explain Trump Place? A cheap, miserable contribution to an area of the city already in need of some mending, this luxury residential complex is about as glamorous as a toll plaza and resembles Soviet-style housing.

It could be that Mr. Trump was out of his element on the Upper West Side, which until recently at least was culturally distant from the glitzy boutiques of Midtown. But what is more likely is that it was a cynical effort to cash in on the Trump name.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.



Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station

No site in New York has a darker past than this one. The demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station, the monumental McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts gem that stood on this site until 1964, remains one of the greatest crimes in American architectural history.

What replaced it is one of the city’s most dehumanizing spaces: a warren of cramped corridors and waiting areas buried under the monstrous drum of the Garden.

Over the years the city has entertained dozens of proposals to improve the station, but none have amounted to much of anything, thanks to New York’s byzantine development politics.

I propose we demolish the Garden. As arenas go, it is cramped and decrepit. And with it gone we could begin to imagine what a contemporary version of the old Penn Station: a monumental gateway to the 21st-century metropolis.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

Met Life Building, New York

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

Even the most majestic cities are pockmarked with horrors. There are countless dreadful buildings in New York; only a few (thankfully) have a traumatic effect on the city. So I propose we knock down the structures that not only fail to bring us joy, but actually bring us down.

Here, then, are my top candidates for demolition. To be included, buildings must either exhibit a total disregard for their surrounding context or destroy a beloved vista. Removing them would make room for the spirit to breathe again and open up new imaginative possibilities.

Note: Nicolai Ouroussoff’s other candidates for demolition will be posted here periodically.

To view the complete slideshow at the New York Times site, click here.

The composer Milton Babbitt, one of the mandarins of atonalism, once wrote an article called “Who Cares if You Listen?” It argued that the absence of a large audience for modern classical music really didn’t matter much, because most people were incapable of understanding it anyway. In some quarters of the modern music world commercial success is still a black mark, and no one there is more suspect (and more secretly envied, probably) than John Adams, who, along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, is one of the few contemporary composers who have actually managed to attract a popular following.

Mr. Adams is best known for his so-called CNN operas: “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic.” But he has also written chamber works, symphonic pieces, oratorios and the deeply affecting “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His music combines the Minimalism of Mr. Glass and Mr. Reich — small figurations repeated over and over — with Romantic harmony and tonality.

The results, as the subtitle of his new memoir, “Hallelujah Junction,” suggests, sound particularly American. His music is both lush and austere, grand and precise. To make an analogy to two poets whose work he has set to music, it’s Walt Whitman on the one hand and Emily Dickinson on the other.

How Mr. Adams, who is now 61, arrived at this particular harmonic language is largely the subject of his absorbing book, which at times reads like a quest narrative that travels through the whole landscape of 20th-century music. His favorite records as a child were the “1812” Overture and an album called “Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches.” He listened to jazz and classical music in his dorm at Harvard, but also hour upon hour of Hendrix and the Beatles.

As a young composer, he wandered for years in the desert of atonalism and then, following the example of John Cage, he detoured through the wilderness of music based on an aesthetic of randomness and anarchy. In California in the ’70s he built a synthesizer and began playing electronic music at “happenings.” He liked to use ambient sounds, and once recorded the buzz of flies hovering over dog feces.

His breakthrough, his conversion moment, came in the spring of 1976 while driving through the Sierra foothills and listening to Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” He was struck, he says, by the music’s expressive depth of feeling, its “sincerity.”

“This was not just music about desire,” he writes. “It was desire itself.” It would take him several more years to find the proper vocabulary to express his own desires, but he knew at once, he says, that atonality, far from being the promised land that Schoenberg and Babbitt had predicted, was a dead end.

Mr. Adams is not related to the Boston Adamses. His grandfather was a Swede, who changed the family name from Adamson. His mother was of Irish Catholic descent. But like his music, his book depicts an experience that is profoundly American — the story of the dreamy, artistic young man from the provinces who loses his way for a while and then makes good — and it begins with a New England childhood that is like something from a Capra movie. His father played jazz clarinet, and his mother sang with big bands, though neither was ever able to make a living at music. Mr. Adams grew up outside Concord, N.H., in a house with no central heat and only rudimentary plumbing. He was a musical prodigy, inventing a Sibelius-like alter ego for himself named Bruce Craigmore, who lived alone in an imaginary cabin and wrote world-famous music, and in elementary school he was a good enough clarinetist to play in adult orchestras. One was sponsored by the local mental hospital, where during concerts an inmate sometimes stood up and improvised.

Mr. Adams attended Harvard on scholarship and while there smoked pot, dropped acid and protested the Vietnam War. He beat the draft by jacking up his pulse and blood pressure with NoDoze and sinus spray. After moving to California he even had a sort of Beat period, hanging around bookstores in Berkeley and swilling cheap wine.

His autobiography talks movingly, and sometimes quite funnily, about being depressed, solitary and creatively blocked before he found a way out of aimlessness and self-doubt. He brings to the book the Wagnerian “sincerity” he so admired, but without Wagnerian self-importance.

Mr. Adams writes so well that it’s a little dismaying for someone who clings to the notion that writing, like composing, is a calling developed over years, and not a hobby picked up in middle age. It’s a relief to see him (or his copy editor) let a few amateurisms slip by. And as good as his prose is, you wish the book could have come wired with a soundtrack illustrating his points and sampling some of his hits. Even readers who know Mr. Adams’s music would welcome turning the page and hearing a snippet of, say, “Hallelujah Junction,” a piece for two pianos that gives the book its title, or “Grand Pianola Music,” which is so outrageously over the top that it simultaneously takes your breath away and makes you laugh out loud.

Charles McGrath
New York Times