November 14th, 2006
The landmark quality of any building is not always immediately or easily visible. If the presence of elaborate ornamentation is clear, recognition is easy. In some cases, however, a more nuanced judgment is appropriate. I believe this to be the case in the matter of the Dakota stable. I consider designation a matter of great urgency for reasons that I will explain that go beyond its inherent worthiness as an important architectural, historical, cultural AND social landmark. Sadly, this is one more example of the Landmarks Commission being tested as to how firm we will defend our city’s landmarks.
First, why is this urgent? It is clear today that when property owners recognize the landmark potential of their building, they go for a permit to strip. It is ipso facto recognition of something they seek to destroy before designation occurs. To deny the obvious is to be naïve. As one person testified, “this is simultaneous acknowledgment and rejection of design significance.”
We saw this with P.S. 64, with Lapidus’ Paterson Silk or Crawford Clothes building on 14th St., Cinema I & II on Third Avenue and currently, The Colonial Club on W 72nd and, potentially, City and Suburban Houses. Only designation of the Dakota Stable can send a signal that the Commission will no longer let this strategy work as a designation-ducking device.
Second, cultural vandalism, in the past, has not always been purposeful. Sometimes, it was plain stupidity or misguided economics. But even a defaced landmark does not totally lose its inherent quality. I have argued repeatedly of late that a critical element of our internal standard of deciding whether to consider calendaring a building is erroneous – that is, the degree to which it has been compromised. As Christopher Gray noted in 1987, the LPC ignored pleas for designation of the Dakota stable because its ground floor had been “’severely compromised’ – although a designated landmark a block away, the Belleclaire Hotel, has no original ground floor left.” Misguided interventions, as we see and deal with on a weekly basis, are reversible. In fact, what we do more than anything else each week is approve plans that reverse misguided interventions.
It would be fascinating to survey how many once severely compromised buildings designated as landmarks have since been restored to, if not precise original glory, close to it. These are landmarks in an earlier time we might have lost.
Third. We have heard that the building is too far gone to designate. That is not the case. I don’t know how much original fabric is left of the Dakota Stable and I’m not suggesting we could enforce total recreation. But, if a designated landmark, any new project on the site must come before us. And, indeed, we can require something be incorporated in the design that reflects the architectural, historical, cultural and social importance of the lost landmark. It may be a few elements, the two-tone brick, some arched windows but whatever it is, the memory will not have been erased. The building is not yet stuccoed nor totally effaced. We will face this very challenge with PS 64 and what we do here will affect what we can do there, no matter how much we like to think there are no precedents.
Fourth. I have saved the architectural qualities of this landmark for last because you heard considerable testimony in this regard at the hearing. I have read most of the testimony and was struck by how many people pointed out that the understated nature of the design was a signature of the architect, Bradford Gilbert. “Visionary simplicity,” one witness noted. “The warm orange walls are set off by rich, salmon-colored trim at the windows and cornice…Its simplicity gives it a fresh, even modern, character despite its age,” noted Christopher Gray. “It is not only representative of an important and increasingly rare 19th century building type but a major work of architecture in its own right,” observed Andrew Dolkart. And of its minimal ornamentation, another observed, “the building is a work of color and line rather than applied ornament, in contrast to most buildings of the period, which were often overloaded with ornamentation.” This makes it all the more possible to retain enough of the architecture to be a significant remnant of what once proudly stood.
And fifth. We should not assume these stables were omitted from the historic district designation because of the lack of worthiness. We all know too well how many important buildings were purposely left out of districts all over the city because they were potential big development sites. Together these two stables on what was importantly known as “stable row,” represent a rare remnant of the commercial livery stables so important to the middle class.
Together they help tell the story of the West Side’s development in a way that one alone does not. It is not enough to designate the one and think we have done enough. Preservation is not, and should not, be about the last, the best, the only, etc. The field is way past that kind of thinking.
I wish we would worry about the preservation community’s concerns about the undermining of the landmarks law as we worry about “owner support for historic preservation.” We did the right thing by calendaring this important building. Now let’s do the right thing and designate it an official landmark.