Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Sep 4, 2023
Confessions of a former landmarks commission preservationist
A former staffer for New York's Landmark Preservation Commission gives us a glimpse at its inner workings
The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission is the largest municipal preservation agency in the nation, responsible for protecting New York City’s architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings and sites by granting them landmark or historic district status.
It sounds like a lovely gig, peaceful, contemplative. You get to enjoy pretty old buildings, but as with anything staffed by humans, things can get complicated. They can get political, mired in bureaucracy, neglected.
This week, we’re trying something new on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” We’re speaking with a former preservationist who worked with the Landmarks Preservation Commission for six-and-a-half years, and we’ve granted her anonymity to speak freely and openly about her time here and about the inner workings of the LPC. She was, to be clear, a staff preservationist and not one of the 11 appointed commissioners.
“I think that it is more political than people realize,” she says. “In the past, preservation can be kind of this old white lady gig. And that’s part of some of the innate, inherent problems with it that I think are being reckoned with in a lot of ways now.”
There are roughly 38,000 landmarks properties in New York City’s 156 historic districts, according to the city. And today, we’re going to focus on a few recent Brooklyn episodes — the good, the bad, the ugly — that help us understand better what the LPC is and how it operates.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity and, to a lesser extent, concision. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
So just to establish your bona fides without totally giving your identity away. You were working for the LPC for six-and-a-half years. You left a couple years ago, and you didn’t leave with sour grapes or anything. You actually just left the state. You’re not someone with an ax to grind or anything like that. What’s your background? How does one become a landmarks preservationist?
There are a few outlets. My outlet was started in architecture school and then I worked as an architect, and the practice of architecture and architecture school are really different. So I had always been drawn to historic buildings, and this was a way to continue to be able to talk about architecture without having to be an architect.
I have a cousin actually who was an architect. Went to architect school, was an architect, and ended up working at the Gap and just designing cookie-cutter Gap interiors, and she hated it. She’s a forensic, CSI investigator now.
Oh, sick. Yeah. Architecture school makes you think it’s all this glam, but really you’re just doing what the client wants, and sometimes that’s picking out which $300 tile they want to lay on their 10-square-foot kitchen or whatever.
As we can hear from your accent, you’re not a native New Yorker.
I’m not, but I did ultimately live in New York for 15 years with all said and done. And 12 of those were in Brooklyn.
Let’s get to what the Landmarks Preservation Commission does. It consists of 11 commissioners. These are unpaid people. They serve three-year terms. Who is on this commission? Are they appointees, political appointees? Who is the LPC?
There’s definitely a political element to it. They’re required to have a person from each borough of some form. They tend to have some sort of real estate or architecture background. So they have some sort of connection and understanding what landmarks means for neighborhoods or for individual buildings. They can look at a plan and see what somebody’s trying to change. But ultimately the commission is invested in maintaining the cultural and built heritage of New York City, all five boroughs.
And it does this by granting them landmark or historic status, historic district status. And what is the process for that? Let’s say, how does one have a building become landmarked?
There’s a few different ways for it. Sometimes with historic districts, sometimes community groups get together and come to landmarks. So we also have an executive director. That’s the other piece to the commission. There’s the 11 commissioners and then there’s all the staff, and the executive director is really like working directly with the commission and then with the staff. So to get something designated, a community group can come in and say, “Hey, we’ve got this area of town that we want to see as a historic district.” Or a community member submits a building that they think deserves historic district or landmark status.
And then it is taken and we look at it. There’s a large preservation advocacy community in New York, so sometimes the advocacy groups like Historic Districts Council, Village Preservation, some of those come in too with their ideas about what should be designated. And then the research departments just goes through those suggestions and looks at the buildings themselves in terms of integrity and how much they look like they did when they were originally built and what their age is and who designed them, who constructed them, all those kinds of things that make some of the buildings unique.
And then it’s determined whether it’s eligible to be considered or not? And from there, if the research department determines it is, it goes to the commission and is voted. That process kind of kicks in, and it has to go to city council and so forth.
We sort of flicked at this, but how political is this process? How easy or hard is it? And we’ll get into specifics. And I have some examples I want you to unpack for me a little bit here locally. How political is it? How, depending on what neighborhood you’re in, easy or difficult is it to get something landmarked? And how much of a guarantee is protection of a building once it even is landmarked?
I think that it is more political than people realize.
And how transparent is it? It doesn’t feel like there are a ton to people who are super paying attention.
I would agree with that. I think that there are opportunities for there to be more. But also I think that in the past couple of years, I’d say they’ve done a better job about being more transparent with some of that. But I do think it can be very political. It just depends on the neighborhood, how big the project is, and then also there’s factors like staffing. So if we’re doing a historic district and that historic district has 700 buildings in it, there’s only 12 people in our department. That becomes a lot of work because you have to research; all 700 buildings get their own period of research. And so there’s a lot of just sheer time and manpower that you forget about that portion of it when people are trying to get something designated. I do think that sometimes things are about timing and political timing. New mayors, new council members, things like that that play into it.
I think they sat for a while before Adams got elected because nobody wanted to push any buttons to keep or not keep their job kind of thing. So I think there’s a political aspect to it in that way. I don’t know that that’s always the case. I mean, after George Floyd, we definitely looked into more landmarks that tell a more comprehensive story. We were starting to do that before, but then that gets reprioritized as this political shift begins to happen across the country. So definitely it’s politicized in a way that you don’t always realize.
I can get into a couple of examples, but the most recent one that comes to my mind was earlier this summer in Bushwick, and this goes to my question of how safe is a building once it’s landmarked anyway? We have the Lipsius-Cook Mansion on Bushwick Avenue. It’s landmarked. I think it was landmarked in 2013. And it’s deteriorating. It’s deteriorating to the point where it’s triggering something called demolition by neglect. Basically a property owner intentionally allows a property to suffer deterioration to the point where demolition may become necessary. We’re talking about 130-year-old Romanesque Revival structure in Bushwick. It’s gorgeous, it’s crumbling, it’s landmarked. What’s going on there?
Oh, man, that building… I first moved out to Bushwick, used walk by it every single day. I treasure that. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with it. But demolition by neglect is kind of a funny thing. It can be beneficial because it allows landmark, LPC or other landmarks agencies to say, “Hey, your building’s falling apart. We’re monitoring this now. You’re going to start getting fined.” Or, “We’re watching it.” And things of that nature. And so it can actually get people to fix their property versus intentionally letting it rot away. But then you have shitty homeowners that are just like, “Well, I don’t care. I’m just going to let it rot away. It’ll still be cheaper for me to absorb these fines for as long as I need to and then I can just tear it down.” In New York City, land is so expensive, that’s kind of how that ends up happening.
I don’t know what’s happening with the Cook building. I think that is honestly a problem of the fact that LPC is underfunded and understaffed and has been perpetually since they were probably formed in ’66. So I mean, when I was there, there were four people on enforcement, and they’re in charge of all boroughs, and you’re looking at like 30,000 plus buildings that they’re supposed to be monitoring in terms of enforcement and making sure they’re following guidelines. And that just becomes kind of impossible to really keep track of. So then buildings get into the condition that the Cook building is, and there may just not be any hope for it.
It’s so tragic. Just death by bureaucracy in some ways. It’s awful. There are other examples too. There are two that I want to point out. Last year in Crown Heights, advocates sued the LPC to block new construction of this very contested condo development. People are calling it a “monstrosity.” It’s on the site of a 133-year-old landmarked church and school. There’s obviously in New York tension between development and preservation and we’re in a housing shortage, and one of the ways to get out of housing shortages is to build. Can you talk about what’s going on in Crown Heights building on the side of this landmark church?
We live in a less religious society. There’s less people going [to church], but their building costs are just the same as they have been when people were going and donating a lot. And so they’re trying to figure out ways to fund their own buildings and selling off property and things like that are part of it. Change is really hard for all people, and I think that’s always something with preservation to keep in mind. Preservationists really struggle with change. To them, it’s a “monstrosity,” but to the guy that designed it, he probably liked it a lot. [Laughs.]
One group’s opinion doesn’t make it what it is, and I think because maybe it was open space, and then here we are filling in housing because we need it, and because this church needs to sell off their land because they need to be able to continue to keep their church even there. I mean, otherwise what’s the option, right? The church is going to fall apart, it’ll get abandoned and then have to be torn down. So I think there’s always a balance there to find. And sometimes it’s easier in some situations than others. I think with that church building or that building beside the church, I would say he’s trying to make nods. I think that he’s attempting some volume and repetition with window fenestrations and things like that. So that’s helpful. There’s not one right answer, which is the problem.
This is the church on Sterling Place in Crown Heights. Moving on now, this one is a real sad one for… Well, for me and for a couple of our listeners that I know this has come up in the past. Last year, the Jacob Dangler mansion in Bed-Stuy was …
Yeah, you’re groaning and rolling your eyes. Despite efforts from neighbors and electeds to preserve the building, this gorgeous French Gothic architecture … The building had actually entered into the landmarking process, but the LPC appears to have dragged its heels. You alluded to bureaucracy. I guess there was a 40-day window that they had to act in. And on day 42, the mansion started coming down. What happened there?
Man, what a fun building. When I first moved to Brooklyn and went to that Home Depot and came out and there was that mansion, I was mesmerized by it. I think that there is a huge disconnect between the Department of Buildings and landmarks. And city planning as a whole in New York. And that is how these kinds of things really happen.
My interpretation is that, from what I can guess, landmarks got slow because they were trying to work with a developer in some sort of way or come up with some sort of creative solution, whatever that may be in that site. I don’t know what the possibilities were, but they dragged around about it and then the building department probably screwed them over. And just like, “Yeah, go ahead. Here you go.” The building department has the authority to have held it even past the 40 days. But instead they give it up, and then ultimately LPC looks like the bad guy when I’m not sold that they weren’t dragging their feet or probably being slow. It’s not malicious, but I think that they’re the bad guy a lot in situations like that and it’s not always them.
It’s just again, these systems that are playing against each other, and they’re so large and soulless, I guess, that ultimately the system decides.
And I really do think it’s because there’s a big disconnect between the Department of Buildings and planning and landmarks. All of those things really should be under one umbrella, and they’re not. And so they kind of operate in their own agency, and then the city comes up with some new giant comprehensive plan that maybe has a paragraph about landmarks when there’s opportunities to really incorporate landmarks into your redevelopments. And it just gets brushed under the rug, kind of thing.
We did have one of the planning commissioners on our podcast not too long ago. She’s the lone tenants’ rights attorney on the Planning Commission, which I guess is a first as well. It’s interesting that these departments don’t really talk to each other in a way that they should. So we have an understanding of what the Planning Commission does through this podcast. We’re learning about the landmarks through you and what does the buildings department do then?
With the amount of construction and things that go on in New York, you’d have to have your own entity, but how there’s not some sort of staff liaison? I don’t know. They’re in charge of issuing permits and ultimately signing off on buildings and making sure that when a new construction is done that its plumbing meets all the plumbing’s safety code regulations and things of that nature.
It has to go through the city council too, right? Is that part of the process or …?
Not with the buildings department. It’s literally just a place to pull the permits and get approvals for your new construction. Or you’re redoing the interior of your house, those kinds of things. It doesn’t necessarily require city council. To my knowledge, doesn’t at all. They’re really just the permitting resource. In reality, there should be an LPC staff person or a building department person, and literally their jobs is take all the building department permits that come in and make sure that they have the proper LPC approval, kind of thing. And it worked pretty good all things considered, right? I mean, there’s so many fucking buildings in New York.
It’s a big city.
So it worked pretty good. But then you do have situations like the Dangler Mansion, and it just is one of those kind of bureaucratic things that just sucks.
What can we infer, if anything, from the Dangler example and the church in Crown Heights, the Bushwick situation? These are historically, especially Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Black neighborhoods, very rapidly gentrifying. You already said there’s no maliciousness involved, but these are underserved communities compared to other neighborhoods in the city. Is there anything we can infer from that without sounding like a conspiracy theorist?
I mean, I like to pretend I’m a little conspiracy theorist anyway, but sure. I think that because these neighborhoods have been ignored for so long. Like with Bushwick, it’s probably pretty comfortable with being ignored because since the ’70s we can say it’s been ignored. Or prior to that. But I think that’s a good starting point. So I think that they almost don’t want you around.
So then that is why things like that happen. Because they’re kind of the Wild West out there. They’re not monitored as much, and things like the mansion do start to fall apart. There’s been in the past, preservation can be kind of this old white lady gig. And that’s part of some of the innate, inherent problems with it that I think are being reckoned with in a lot of ways now. Which is in their way to do it, right? Is to go into underserved areas. Also, you run into problems with, underserved areas don’t want to be landmarked because it costs them more money or they think it costs more money. It costs more time to get permits for sure. Because you’ve been ignored so long, you’ve pretty much just done whatever you want. Maybe gotten a permit, maybe not gotten a permit, but now you’re under the watch.
And there’s deep distrust for any sort of oversight or government interference.
Exactly. So I think that’s where some of it comes in. Bushwick has got that group now that is pretty active in trying to get some stuff designated and has the right people with the right tools to help that, which is… I think that’s what you need. You need these grassroots advocacy groups that can fight for those kinds of things. I think that some of the preservation rules are starting to shift a little bit to be more economically friendly, and I always dreamed that there would be another tier that would be less than such strict landmark designation and historic district designation where it’s just kind of some sort of overlay where you’re like, you recognize that this area is historic, these buildings are important, but we’re going to not let people do things because they can’t afford that governmental push.
There have been some recent coups, though. It’s not all bad news out there. One of the stories out of Brooklyn, specifically around the LPC last year: The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope became the first LGBTQ+ landmark in Brooklyn. Were you familiar with that or the work that was going into that?
That was a great project. The lady that wrote the report for that project is wonderful. So, the research department has a stock of a fuckton of buildings that we’ve determined are eligible to designate.
Is that the official city term for it? “Fuckton?”
[Laughs.] It means more than a thousand and less than 10 [thousand]. Somewhere in there. We did so much survey work, and then when Covid happened, it was an opportunity to really do survey work. Because there are more important things than designating buildings as landmarks during Covid. So it gave us an opportunity to really dig into some of these surveys that had kind of gotten started and hadn’t had time to go somewhere. And LGBTQIA was one of those kind of broader themes. And so when we got that and recognized that it was going to be coming up as an age, and all that magical timing — its anniversary. We can do it during June when it’s Pride Month. All those things make it even magical and more special, but it also looks good for the mayor.
And the mayor likes looking good. We know this.
For sure. But that building’s great. It’s exciting to see. It’s really hard with women’s history specifically because where do you kind of pinpoint things and start, and to be as inclusive as possible can be a little tricky. And so it’s nice to have that as something that not only represents the LGBTQIA community, but also women and how LGBTQ women, different things were happening to them than the broader community. I’m excited for it.
That was a nice story. And another nice story was in 2021, the LPC voted to preserve the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House in Downtown Brooklyn. The building has historical ties to the anti-slavery movement. And it was at risk of being demolished. This is one case where the demolishers and developers did not win. What do we know about this house?
We know that it was some sort of stop within the Underground Railroad. Whether people spent the night there, or whether it was just kind of a place where you could grab something to eat or whatever it was, we don’t know. Obviously the Underground Railroad didn’t keep highly documented records of what they were doing and where they were going. So it becomes a little tricky and requires a lot of research. And when those kinds of situations come up where it’s like, “Oh, we have to do this quickly because this is very important and it’s going to fall down.” Or whatever the case is, I think that it’s a shame that we have to do it fast. Sometimes we’ve known about the buildings and so we already have background documentation. Sometimes we don’t, and we have to spend some time really digging in when you don’t have a lot of time.
And that’s when, like I was saying, those surveys come in. I know with that building it was very much in threat because of those giant mega buildings going up around it. But yeah, now it’s this fun little thing that’s tucked in there and it doesn’t have the same context anymore that it did when it was originally constructed. That whole area has so rapidly changed that I think it’s a nice moment for somebody to go, “Oh, this is what all these houses around used to look like.” And, “Oh, this house is special because these people were abolitionists and were fighting for what is right and good in this world.”
That location is at 227 Duffield Street. If anyone wants to go check it out. One of the things that I’ve learned recently is that you don’t have to be a building or district to be landmarked. There is a tree in Bed-Stuy that was landmarked. We had on an actor who was on “The Wire” who lives in the neighborhood, who’s a big advocate for this magnolia grandiflora tree in Bed-Stuy, and its preservation in itself was championed by a woman in the 1970s that really spearheaded the early environmentalist movement. Are you familiar with this tree?
Oh, yeah. I walked by it many a time. It’s a solid tree. It’s probably the only magnolia tree alive in New York City. That’s such a southern tree. And I wonder how well it blooms these days. But that one’s an interesting one. My question has always been, well, what happens if it dies?
What happens if it dies?
I don’t know. Do you get to plant a new magnolia tree in that spot?
That’s a great question. So you could take a… What is it called when you snip it and then you —
Maybe you propagate a piece of it now. So when it does die, you’d be ready to go. I don’t know. Because trees do have a lifespan. They don’t last forever.
And then there’s also in Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone are both landmarked. What happens when the Cyclone falls down? My kids, by the way, born and raised in Brooklyn, they’re old enough, they’re tall enough, refuse to ride the Cyclone. They’re terrified.
I mean, it’s scary.
It’s terrifying. It’s legitimately terrifying.
I’m a little scared at this age because I think it might throw my back out or something. And I mean, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone are pretty special. You don’t have Coney Island without either one of them in reality. I think that really has more to do with those than them being what they actually are. It’s just more about the connection to what Coney Island once was that they still represent. That is as much a piece of that as anything. What does happen when the Cyclone can’t even run anymore? Where do they go? Think those are questions that shockingly enough preservationists don’t always look into the future.
There are unintended consequences when they designate things like that. Not saying that it doesn’t deserve to be by any means, but how to do it and what it means if you need to make repairs? When the boardwalk was done in Coney Island, there was a lot of time spent in what is historic about it and what we can control in terms of the designation and things of that nature. Because at some point we’re going to run out of materials for it or whatever. They don’t make the parts for it anymore and things of that nature. So what becomes then? And I think that sometimes it’s maybe better just to leave those questions for when it happens.
And this just occurred to me thinking about this because I guess if you have a landmarked building, you have to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops in order to do repairs or any sort of maintenance. You need permitting or whatever. Do they need that at the Cyclone? If they have something that breaks down, do they have to go through all the same red tape?
I think technically they are supposed to. I guess it depends on the amount of repair or what the repair is.
Do you have favorite landmark? Let’s keep it to Brooklyn, but we can open it up around the city. But if you were to take someone on a tour of the borough, where would you go first?
Oh, well, I fucking love Coney Island. It’s the weirdest, coolest place in the world. Just, I love it with all my heart. So if that’s a possibility, we’re always going there. They just redid that Childs restaurant down there on the waterfront a couple of years back. That building is sick.
I ate there. I don’t know if you are familiar with them, but there’s a restaurateur in Bay Ridge. They opened Ayat, which is a Palestinian restaurant. It’s great. They have a few restaurants throughout the city. They even have a halal Italian place. They took over that Childs building. It’s restored and obviously they’re honoring all the landmark status-ness of it, but now it’s a Mediterranean restaurant and club. You can go on the roof and get your hummus and labneh and look over the beach and stuff. It’s amazing.
Amazing. I love that. Yeah, that building is just so cool. And the fact that that’s the first fast food restaurant in America. Things like that, that’s very cool.
Yeah. You know where the Coney Island museum is? So that building was also a Childs, and that was the first one. And then they built the one on the boardwalk. So it’s the second. That’s the first chain of fast food. And that terracotta work that coordinates with the beach is fucking dope. So Coney Island is always one of my favorites. I also am just obsessed with Brooklyn brownstones. Any neighborhood that has a large collection of them. Fort Greene is like an easy one. Flint Hill, that whole little area right there. Those just tree-lined Brooklyn brownstones are so pretty. To now, they’re such a wanted thing; you got to have some money for one. Where back in the day they were spec houses. These are just being whipped up. Just, interesting transformation of those, I think. And they’re just so pretty.
And that also speaks to bigger issues around gentrification and affordability and all that. People have these brownstones in their families for years, and if someone passes away or they have to, for whatever reason, move, the historical residents can’t afford to live here anymore. So as I was reading about this, I learned that sometimes a landmark status granted by the LPC can be revoked. Can you think of anything that’s been landmarked that either might not stay landmarked forever or that you’re like, “I don’t think that should be landmarked.”
That one’s a funny one. There’s got to be something out there that should not be landmarked. Abso-fucking-lutely. I don’t know what it is off the top of my head, but I’d have to really do some digging. But there’s definitely got to be some out there that are questionable for sure. But the preservationist in me is like, “Let’s landmark it. We’ll figure it out.” I can’t think of one off my head that they’ve revoked it. But that seems contentious to say the least. You definitely would have to get somebody that had a lot of money, a lot of time and didn’t care about any of the political or social optics that would go around something like that. Because I think that would be really the kicker.
This is at least on Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong. The Austin, Nichols and Company Warehouse was removed from landmark status just like a month after it was granted, it looks like.
That’s a beautiful building.
On Kent Avenue. Yeah. And then there’s also the second one that was revoked in Brooklyn that I know of is the Walker Theater. And the interior space was landmarked and then only for about, again, a few months.
And that was just the interior? That probably had as much to do with that as anything because interior landmarks are tricky because they mostly need to be publicly accessible. And that’s one of the things with them is you get a few lobbies of buildings and things like that where you won’t get the whole building because they’re not publicly accessible. People’s homes or something like that is not going to get an interior landmark status unless they’re just going to let anybody up in there.
There were some at the U.N. that they did recently, not that long ago, that were interiors and there was a lot of pushback and question about, is it publicly accessible? Do most people have access to it? Things of that nature. And then I think with that, Austin, Nichols, I mean, that’s a development thing that went down. I’m very sure of it. Because that’s a Cass Gilbert building. That guy was the man for a long time. He designed the Woolworth [Building]. And then he designs this warehouse in Williamsburg that’s literally meant for industrial purposes, that now they turned into multimillion dollar apartments. There’s definitely some developer money there that was like, “Nah, no, no.”
Well, speaking of interior landmarks, one that I’m just a big fan of is Gage & Tollner. I don’t know if you’ve been there since —
Oh, man, I didn’t get to go there, but in every picture I see, and everyone I know says, it’s so beautiful and just really magnificent in this way.
You go through those revolving doors and all of a sudden you’re in the late 19th century. It’s stunning. Is there anything about the LPC you want people to know who may not know, or anything about just active preservation that is a common myth that you want to dispel or are excited to let people know?
I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about it with money and things like that, and there are more bureaucratic processes from time to time with projects, but in reality, it helps the value of the property and people are happier when there are historic structures around. It’s like they’ve done all the tests for it and that kind of thing. And they’ve done a bunch of different scientific studies, and people’s happiness is higher when they’re around historic buildings and structures than [when] constantly surrounded by kind of new, generic, modern buildings.
So I think there’s something to be said for that, in general, people’s well-being. I think that if people with the grassroots organizations, I think sometimes they come in at the last minute and then it’s just too late. It’s like looking a little more ahead of what is important and what you expect to be important to the next generation and that kind of thing, and not just what’s immediately happening in front of us is really critical. And I think that sometimes gets a little lost.
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