Here’s a movie cliche: a small group of underdogs must save the building/lot/gazebo on the grounds of saving history. The cliche exists in television, too. A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Season 2, Episode 21, “94 Meetings”) follows Leslie Knopes in her efforts to prevent a gold-digging wife-to-be from “improving” a historic home and gazebo, the site of an interracial wedding (and ensuing massacre/reception). Knopes is too late for the house; the woman has already painted the interior a mint hue. Knopes chains herself to the front gates only to find that it is a gate, singular, and swings open from the side, taking her on a small semi-circular journey whenever it opens and closes. Good comedy.
Preservation through zoning and declaration of landmarks is a relatively new concept. New York offered the first zoning ordinance in 1616 but didn’t get around to the Landmarks Preservation Law until 1965, according to John Loflin. This law’s guidelines for declaring a district historical are: special aesthetic, representative of one or more styles of architecture, and representative of a specific time period. Places in New York City that became historical districts accordingly were Greenwich Village, Hunters Point (along the East River in Long Island City, Queens), and Brooklyn Heights, which has 684 pre-Civil War buildings, and Federal, Greek, Gothic, and Anglo-Italiante buildings. This district offered pleasing aesthetics, but also favorable economics. The purpose of these districts evolved into a trifold goal: education, welfare, and pleasure.
Really, these districts and landmarks develop local flavor. A city is a city until you find its unique nooks and crannies. These nooks and crannies would disappear to gentrification if we were to disregard the past.
Here’s the conundrum, later indicated by Harmon H. Goldstone. Brooklyn Heights would not be the historic district had it been “preserved” in its early years of development. The variety of architectural styles, mass, color, and scale came about because of new buildings and additions to the old. Places are “dynamic organism[s]” and so we need to allow for subtle change.
Therein lies the sticky wicket that Ruskin brings up in his Seven Lamps Of Architecture. How much change can we allow until the original is no longer the original? As a unique solution, laws about new parts on old buildings called for the additions to be “immediately distinguishable” so that the original versus the new is clearly defined.
Street signs. That’s what historical districts mean to me. The green street signs disappear. The names of streets appear in white lettering on brown backgrounds. Whenever I hit that street where the color changes, I look down, I look up, I look around. I know something is going to be different and unique. Perhaps a cobblestone street. Maybe a gothic-style church. No matter what it is, it will evoke another time, another place, and another feel, which is what remembering the past is all about.
Loflin, John J., J. Lee Rankin, Norman Marcus, and Harmon H. Goldstone. “Historic Preservation In The American City: A New York Case Study.” Law and Contemporary Problems 36, no. 3 (Summer 1971): 362-85.