CIVITAS has joined our neighborhood partners Carnegie Hill Neighbors and Historic Park Avenue in supporting an application to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for historic designation for Park Avenue from 79th Street to 96th Street. Park Avenue between 63rd Street and 79th received local historic designation in 1981. At present, only a few blocks of the avenue between 86th Street and 96th Street fall within the boundaries of the Carnegie Hill Historic District. In June 2010, the New York State Historic Preservation Office determined Park Avenue between 79th Street and 96th Street to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and that application is under way. A listing on the State and National Registers is more of an honorific title than a locally protective measure for historical structures, but it does add a layer of review for proposed alterations that receive state or federal funding.
Historic Designation: For and Against
Local historic designation for Park Avenue to 96th Street is long overdue, and a matter of some urgency to many people who see the all-too-obvious outcome of non-designation, as demonstrated on both eastern corners of 87th Street. One is the site of a new entirely glass-fronted building that is glaringly insensitive to the look and feel of the avenue. The other is a tower in a plaza that was completed in 1974 and is hugely out of scale with its surroundings. The publicized and unstoppable plans for that tower spurred the better-late-than-never establishment of the Park Improvement Special District in 1973. The district set standards for building height and adherence to the avenue’s predominant streetwall, although it doesn’t protect low-rise 19th and early 20th century buildings from demolition or radical face-lifting.
Some of the arguments that have been used against landmark status include: the time and expense of additional bureaucratic paperwork for building permits, and of committee review of exterior alterations that must be historically appropriate; the stringent contextual regulations for new buildings that may preclude opportunities for innovative architecture; stricter city building codes that may mandate and enforce sustainable design in construction and building maintenance, as well as eco-friendly retrofits of older buildings. These are cogent issues, but they don’t address another reasonable bottom line: the past matters, especially in a city that has only patches of its irreplaceable historic fabric still standing.
It is Time to Get the Job Done
The grounds for Park Avenue’s historic designation are visible and compelling. Apart from 19th century mansions and row houses, small flats buildings, religious and educational institutions, Lenox Hill Hospital, and the Seventh Regiment Armory, residential Park Avenue from 63rd to 96th Streets is pretty much all of a piece. Most of the apartment houses were constructed between 1913 and World War II. Different noted architects designed buildings with entrances, cornices and ornamentation in different idioms, Georgian, Italian Renaissance Revival, and Art Deco among them, but the similarity of height, 12 to 17 stories, and of building materials, stone and brick, on both sides of the broad boulevard gives Park Avenue an overall and palpable coherence. There is a sense of harmonious scale on residential Park Avenue, and a sense of place that has both historic and architectural significance. Several of the 19th century structures belong to the wide avenue’s past as a busy open rail corridor with at-grade tracks in the middle of it. Between 1871 and 1877, a tunnel was constructed for the lowered tracks from 97th Street to Grand Central Depot, bridges were built over the sunken tunnel for pedestrians and vehicles, and row houses and tenements sprang up along the still-gritty avenue. The tunnel wasn’t covered over until 1913, when the new and present Grand Central Station was completed. At that time, the median malls were landscaped with grass, trees, paths and benches, transforming the newly parklike avenue into a prime area for luxury apartment houses, and soon making it the world-famous iconic boulevard we know today.
Park Avenue between 63rd and 79th Streets has been landmarked for over a quarter of a century. It is time to finish the job by designating the entire stretch of residential Park Avenue to 96th Street. This will make it possible for future generations to enjoy its architectural quality and balance, its historic allure that evokes the early and still important connection between transportation and urban development, and its continuing presence in a constantly changing city.