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.