Published: February 16, 2012
I wish I could say I remember Penn Station, but all I can recollect is walking down some broad stairs to a train to a summer camp where I was being sent against my will. I do, however, have inchoate memories of my mother denouncing its demolition, one of the few opinions about public policy she ever expressed.
But I know that from my midteens I liked old things, the heft of them, the burnished quality, the evident history of an artifact — perhaps I should have grown up to be Ralph Lauren’s window dresser. I am not sure what really tipped me toward architecture instead of vintage polo mallets, but I do remember a sense of indignation maturing during the demolition of four buildings around 1970.
In 1969, the developer Burton Resnick began work on what became the 28-story 900 Park Avenue, at 79th Street, which is easily the sorest thumb on the avenue, with its dead-modern facade, double the height of the surrounding buildings. It replaced the handsome 1917 mansion by Howells & Stokes for the philanthropist John Sherman Hoyt. The walls were fieldstone, the style Tudor, and enlarged 40 times it would be worthy of Downton Abbey. I. N. Phelps Stokes wrote the massive six-volume “Iconography of Manhattan Island.” Ultra-refined, he would have winced at this replacement.
Before the Presbyterian Home for Aged Women on 73rd Street between Madison and Park Avenues, was demolished in the early ’70s, it was a trove of medical oddities for the architectural scavenger.
When I encountered scaffolding and guys with crowbars around the house, I was aghast. Here was a certifiable Neat Old Thing — how could someone tear it down? A mansion, on Park Avenue — what millionaire wouldn’t want to live there? It had seemed so permanent. I was shaken. That the co-op had received a decadelong tax exemption only rubbed salt in the wound.
In the summer of 1970 or 1971 I had an experience that did not involve a landmark-type building, but was formative nonetheless. I lived in a railroad tenement at 81st and Third, and the Kalikow family firm was about to demolish a tenement at 80th and Third. One weekend I got through the demolition fence and went through it, top to bottom, looking for … things. Stuff. Old wall-mounted can openers. Green glass juicers. It was harmless enough — entering, if not breaking — until one leg went full through a rotten section of flooring, and no one was within calling distance. If there had been nails sticking through the joists …
After demolition the developer placed a billboard on the vacant lot, prominently visible to uptown traffic, promising the usual “luxury building.” Over the Fourth of July weekend, I painted my own big sign, “Another Ugly Monster Coming Soon” and hung it in front of the billboard.
It remained up the entire weekend, and I felt proudly subversive. I confess this here for the first time.
Sometime in 1971, demolition began on the 1870 Presbyterian Home for Aged Women, on 73rd between Madison and Park, a wonderful old pile that the Presbyterians quite naturally wanted to replace with a new, practical building. It had a memorable Charles Addams mansard tower, and here began my devotion to 19th-century institutional buildings. In retrospect, I should have founded Friends of Firetrap Architecture.
Here I discovered that furtive visits on weekends were not necessary; the only qualifications for entrance were work clothes and the ability to look as if you knew what you were doing, so I had absolutely free rein. I found little nursing kits; a 1930s wheelchair with Bakelite arms; a battlefield-quality oak-handled canvas stretcher; medical supplies. It was a bonanza.
I discreetly ganged things up at the front door, but then I was struck by doubt, the fatal bane of all great ideas: “Do I really need a wheelchair, no matter how cool it is?” “How am I going to get this stretcher home?” In the end I took a few tables and other minor equipment. Now that I am old enough to think about needing a wheelchair, I question that decision.
Around 1973 demolition loomed for another great firetrap, the 1898 Home for Old Men and Aged Couples, at 112th and Amsterdam. This was a Tudor-y thing, designed by Cady, Berg & See, not really great architecture but comfy and endearing, and it formed a nice little suite with the aqueduct gatehouse and fire station next door.
Even though a new structure was eminently sensible, it still seemed a waste. As I recall it, I wept when I saw the first bulldozer take a mouthful, but I was such a cynical slacker that it must be an invented memory.
By this time I was aware of preservation as an actual political movement, although I never picketed, wrote letters or complained. Orthodox preservationists rarely focused on vernacular buildings like these. But as I left college, I thought I might try to bring attention to buildings that would otherwise be ignored — too late for these four.