**Become a member of The Art Deco Society of New York at www.artdeco.org. With over 25 events per year, ADSNY is an active cultural and social non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating architecture, decorative arts, fashion, and music from the 1920s and 30s! I look forward to seeing you at the next event!**

27 May 2011

I beg your pardon, Rem Koolhaas

Dear Rem,

I am a major fan of your work and theories and believe that you are truly a revolutionary designer with positive contributions in the built environment. However, after reading "An Architect's Fear That Preservation Distorts" in the New York Times this afternoon and walking through your "Cronocaos" exhibition at the New Museum, I must beg your pardon.


If New York Times journalist, Nicolai Ouroussoff, and I have interpreted your exhibition at the New Museum correctly then you have been ill-informed about what preservation really is. For starters, the term 'preservationist' is used completely out of context and is not properly defined
. A preservationist, if I may borrow the definition from Merriam Webster, is "one who advocates preservation (as of a biological species or a historical landmark)." To preserve is "to keep alive, intact and safe from decay."

I consider myself a preservationist, thereby advocating, first and foremost, to save buildings from demolition. Your exhibition touches on this aspect as you chose an old restaurant supply store as your setting instead of building a new gallery from the ground up, but beyond this example your views are skewed. Claiming preservationists use white walls and minimalist spaces as techniques to 'preserve' a structure are solutions developed by developers, certainly not preservationists. Nor is the popular opinion among preservationists to convert historic and culturally significant spaces into monuments of mass consumption as Ouroussoff skirted with his example of CBGB transforming into John Varvotos. This is where my frustration comes from.

Your vision of the system miscategorizes the many moving parts related to the practice of preservation. Now, assuming we are solely concerned with architectural preservation, you should be the first to know that to erect a new structure or to demolish and old one takes an army of professionals with different specialties. Planners, developers, engineers, city regulators, and policy makers are consulted on most architectural projects that we see go up in major urban centers. The last person to be notified, if at all, is the local preservationist. In fact, s/he usually represents a small neighborhood non-profit with limited resources to even begin tackling such issues as permits and property values and boundary lines. What this preservationist is armed with is a deep understanding of the history of the building and the cultural context of the place s/he is trying to save.

My point is, the preservationist is not to blame for the product you call, "low-grade, unintended timelessness." Instead, the client and the architect or interior designer who "renovates" is causing this phenomenon more commonly referred to as ersatz nostalgia. Rem, surely you are familiar with Ajrun Appadurai's theory on the social imaginary. If not, I suggest you read Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy which outlines this phenomenon as a way of digesting and maneuvering culture in today's globalized world.


Appadurai considers the idea of preserving the past a marketing ploy especially in fashion; however, this concept has already existed for years in architecture as a form of the practice of adaptive reuse. This is what you are essentially criticizing, Rem--NOT preservation. Adaptively reusing historic properties is what Ouroussoff means to blame when he states, "historic centers are being sanitized of signs of age and decay."

I agree that to reuse a building in a new capacity has its disadvantages.
But to correct Nicolai's final sentence in his article, "we seem to have become a world terrified of too much direct contact with reality," the truth of the situation is quite the contrary. As a preservationist, one is forced to accept the interior changes of a structure for the mere sake of saving the physical building shell. Preservationists and historians, especially in the United States, rarely fight to preserve historic interiors because our government does not have any policies regulating historic interiors. And because it is too costly politically, preservationists rather cut their losses early on and stick to saving the facades. Exteriors powerfully shape our experience of the built environment. Whether you live in a metropolis or the rural countryside, the spaces we encounter force us to respond to them. When you have an area such as the East Village in lower Manhattan and new development popping up every day in the form of glass high-rises for luxury apartment living, this generates a certain opinion and reaction not only to the building, but the entire block and neighborhood.

Indeed, these glass boxes are the very source of what you call gentrification. Take the example of the Second Avenue Kosher Deli which opened in 1954. After years of fending off his landlord, Jack Lebewohl was forced to shut down his famous shop after he was subject to grossly increased rents. The site was an institution, not only as a deli, but as a memorial to the once prominent Yiddish Theater District that Second Avenue used to be. The building was spared, but the new tenant is now Chase Bank. Preservationists did not invite Chase Bank. In fact preservationists, including the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, are in the process of proposing the East Village as a historic district which has taken years of research and dedication to prepare. You have argued that the wealthy have flocked to these historic sites and homogenized the spaces so greatly that they now resemble cultural wastelands. Rem, you are absolutely correct! But again, your attack on preservationists as the culprits for gentrification is unjust and flat out wrong. I believe you mean to disparage the Guiliani's of the world who cracked down on the drug addicts in Tompkins Square Park and forced the homeless and artists out to make way for a new generation of yuppies and upper middle class NYU graduates.

Preservationists accept adaptive reuse as a means to obtain what they really want to keep which is the building. They also compromise by settling with adaptive reuse of a building, block, or neighborhood as a means to appease owners, developers, and city governments. But to reuse a historic space by adapting it for modern day living is quite sustainable and has other advantages that counter the negative effects of gentrification. Take Donovan Rypkema for example. He is a staunch believer in sustainable development via historic preservation and heritage management. His speech "Sustainability, Smart Growth, and Historic Preservation,"
http://www.preservation.org/rypkema.htm outlines ways in which a few improvements to a historic structure outweigh new construction in terms of economy and livability. "A frequently under-appreciated component of historic buildings is their role as natural incubators of small businesses. It isn't the Fortune 500 companies who are creating the net new jobs in America. 85% of all net new jobs are created by firms employing less than 20 people. One of the few costs firms that size can control is occupancy costs/rents. In both downtowns, but especially neighborhood commercial districts a major contribution to the local economy is the relative affordability of older buildings." It might be hard to tell that this is happening in New York's East Village with Chase and other major retail operations crowding St. Mark's Place and Astor Square, but this neighborhood is one of the last in all of Manhattan to retain appreciation for mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. More accurately, Rypkema focuses his attention and research on smaller American towns where main streets and city centers are the only source of economic activity.

Preservation should not be about stopping time. Preservation is the celebration of a significant place, not in one time, but many. Post-modernism taught us that there is a multiplicity of histories we should honor. So, although I'm jealous of the young New Yorkers living in $10 million luxury condos in the old beaux-art building that once housed downtown's Police Headquarters, I am truly pleased that I am still able to enjoy the sight of this turn-of the 19th century structure on my way home from work everyday instead of another glass box without any historical relevance.

In conclusion, your concerns are completely valid. But I was disappointed in your exhibit for its lack of clarity and the fact that by your reputation museum-goers will assume without question that preservation and preservationists are the root of gentrification which has caused our cities to become sterile. Preservation is about sustainability. Sustaining culture, sustaining multiple histories, and protecting the built environment.


JJ Markas
Preservationist and resident of the East Village in New York

23 May 2011

Luxury Hotel Conversions

This week's post is inspired by a recent article in the New York Times about the sale of the MetLife Insurance Tower to Tommy Hilfiger. It got me thinking about what a (mostly) great adaptive alternative it is to outfit former structures as hotels compared to new luxury hotel construction (see Donald Trump article in "Articles of Interest").

As the article outlines, Hilfiger purchased the property from Africa Israel USA Group for $170 million with plans to turn it into a luxury-concept hotel like those created by Ian Schrager, Andre Balazs, and David Rockwell. Although the market might be inundated with hotel rooms, the process of a hotel conversion could prove to be advantageous to the historic property in the long run rather than leaving it lie lame. Factors such as daily maintenance of the interior and exterior of the building, preservation of the interior decorative finishes, and increasing overall exposure of the property to the public might very well be the answer to its survival as a National Historic Landmark.

I've highlighted two well-known hotel conversions in landmarked buildings around New York City, though the list could go on and on. It makes me glad to think these beautiful structures are still being enjoyed by New Yorkers and tourists alike, albeit not in their original form. Then again, this blog embraces adaptive reuse as a successful form of historic preservation.

Bryant Park Hotel:
Known as the American Radiator Building, the Bryant Park Hotel is situated inside the 23 story structure built in 1923 that once housed the headquarters of American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Company. Designed by one of the company's employees, Raymond Hood (who designed the company's radiators among other things), the building speaks to the golden age of Art Deco. Its gilded terra-cotta ornaments, bronze plating, black granite, and black brick exude radiance and luxury. Landmarked in 1974, the building now houses 128 hotel rooms dreamed up by Brian McNally and architect, David Chipperfield, in 2001. It is frequented mostly by fashion's elite, especially during fashion week in Bryant Park. For more information click here: www.bryantparkhotel.com

W Hotel-Union Square:
David Rockwell created the interiors of the 270 room W Hotel with attention to light, nature, and craftsmanship. Formerly the Guardian Life Building, this beaux-art structure was completed in 1911 and to this day retains a monumentality which anchors the northeast corner of Union Square. The mansard roof connects it to French architecture, especially the Second Empire style. The W Hotel chain is known for its hip restaurants and, as expected, the Union Square location boasts Todd English's Olives restaurant and bar not only for tourists, but the young after work crowd and trendy Parsons students. For the W Hotel website, click here: http://www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels

04 May 2011

Volunteering Is Good For The Soul, and Preservation

I had a ton going on in my daily life when I first moved to New York three years ago. Starting a graduate program, working full-time, finding a place (more like places) to live, and developing a social circle were my top priorities. Although I am now settled in the East Village, work full-time, and since completed my Masters degree and have a great group of friends, there still never seems to be enough time in the day. I barely see my girlfriends each week and if so it's for a quick drink, my boyfriend and I are bound to a tight schedule given our different working hours and instead of 40 hour work weeks, extra hours always seem to creep in for deadlines or big meetings. There are some activities I have given up altogether (my gym membership lapsed six months ago and I do not foresee renewing it anytime soon) and others I do not dare begin for fear of not having enough time to complete them (sewing school and night-time courses in interior design). Yet, I have figured out a way, despite the madness of a full day or week, to combine my passion for art, architecture and preservation with positive contributions that have helped me and my community. The secret: volunteering!

Volunteering is a perfect way to get acquainted with like-minded people who share the same passions. In addition, it presents the opportunity to make new friends and business connections. You might be thinking to yourself: why would I choose volunteering over exercise or professional courses to help me develop stronger skill sets? These are perfectly legitimate questions. Here are my answers--you might be surprised:

1) Volunteering is a resume-builder 
For nearly two years I have been a volunteer board member for the Society of Architectural Historians--NYC Metro Chapter. I am the official Treasurer for the group and carry all fiscal responsibility including depositing membership checks and tracking expenses. This is one of my greater time commitments and I probably spend 16 hours/month working with them. As of January this year, I was also elected to develop the monthly newsletter which contains a series of events across NYC in relation to architectural history. Not only do I provide our members with a list of lectures, exhibitions and events, but it's also my perk as I can schedule my calendar weeks in advance for those which I plan to attend. When I have gone on job interviews, the first thing I am asked about is my position with the society and how it has helped me hone my financial skills. Working with a non-profit is different than managing the money of a for-profit and these are nuances employers notice and value.

2) Make connections
During graduate school I interned with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) as a research assistant whose responsibility was to survey a block of the East Village for a larger historic designation nomination report. I was able to earn credit for school, learn about my neighborhood, and meet a number of individuals who I can turn to for questions and references. To this day, my internship supervisor is still a dear friend who has helped me understand more about preservation. She has graciously written me references for job applications as well as study tours and I consider her one of my most valuable connections in New York City. After my internship was completed, I stayed on board with GVSHP and now volunteer when I can. Whether I am helping set up a lecture or stuffing envelopes for a fundraiser, I am involved in the process of running non-profit programs. These commitments are usually no longer than one or two hours and I volunteer according to my own schedule. It's a win-win situation for both parties.

3) Exercise
This past Sunday I volunteered for the GVSHP annual house tour. I was stationed in one of the homes for two hours making sure the flow of traffic was not concentrated for too long in one space and that each visitor maintained respect for the owner's home. However, after my shift I was also able to view the rest of the 8 amazing homes owned by art collectors, designers, and other elite residents in both Greenwich Village and West Village. Because it was a house tour organized by GVSHP, the focus was preservation of the historic structures as well as extraordinary renovations conceived by the owners. So, I was also able to learn from the event and take home some ideas for my own space and research. The distance between the homes was not too far, but it gave me the opportunity to traverse 20+ blocks on one of the warmest days NYC has seen to date this Spring. Killing two birds with one stone, I was able to score a free house tour worth $150/ticket and get a bit of exercise outdoors which I would have otherwise paid for to do indoors. This is truly a wonderful event and I urge anyone who is interested in architectural preservation and real estate in general to attend next year. You might want to see if they need any volunteers!

4) Learn something new
I am also a volunteer board member of the Art Deco Society of New York. Although most of the events are coordinated by the president and they already have a seasoned treasurer, I am able to assist with revamping the website and look for grant opportunities. I have never written a grant before, but I am learning more and more each day as I continue to research and apply for grants for ADSNY. I had a friend install the Adobe Software Suite on my computer and in my spare time I fiddle around with Illustrator and InDesign trying to develop a new logo for the society. So, while I am not exactly honing my sewing skills, I am learning valuable computer programs that I might be able to use in the future for other volunteer posts or for paid jobs. And I don't have to pay for classes!

5) Land a new job
Although this example happened a few years ago, it is a testament to the power of volunteering. When I still lived in Los Angeles I had a bleak job as an analyst at a housing company. The position had nothing to do with anything I was interested in so I decided to volunteer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the weekends in order to fill the void. Week after week I lead group tours and attended art training sessions and became well acquainted with the volunteer manager. When a position for a financial analyst posted on the museum's website, a fellow volunteer suggested I apply. Not only did my volunteer coordinator write me a glowing reference, I also landed the job on my first interview! It was the beginning of my career in the arts and I must say one of the smartest (and luckiest) career moves to date.

Go out and volunteer right away! You will not only be helping your community further its goals for preservation and cultural advancement, but you will also benefit from the time your spare in more ways than one!