Preserving Landmarks

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which protects more than 36,000 landmark properties in New York City, can serve as an example for specialists trying to save India’s historical structures.

New York City is the largest and one of the oldest cities in America. So, it is not surprising that the city has the country’s biggest municipal agency dedicated to protecting its historical heritage. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has the job of designating and safeguarding New York City’s architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings and sites.

Historical preservation is still a work in progress in America. New York City’s preservation commission was created only a little over 50 years ago.

Many Indian specialists see the work of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a model that can help to inform India’s efforts as it develops its own framework to conserve the built vestiges of its rich past.

“India is lagging by at least a few decades” behind the United States, says Suresh Sethuraman, state convener of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a nonprofit organization with 190 chapters across the country. “We are losing our heritage at a very fast pace.”

For several years, the Tamil Nadu state legislature has had before it a proposal to create a Heritage Commission that would function similarly to the one in New York City, a first for any Indian state. “We’re hoping it will come soon,” says Sethuraman, a 2010-11 and 2015-16 Fulbright scholar.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965 after a groundbreaking law was adopted by the city in response to the outcry over the demolition of a number of historically significant buildings, most notably Pennsylvania Station, a major Beaux Arts-style railroad station completed in 1911.

The first building to be designated a New York City landmark was the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, a mid-17th century Dutch colonial house in Brooklyn. The commission has gone on to give protected status to a range of significant structures, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Trans World Airlines Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Churches, firehouses and two individual trees have received landmark status too.

In all, more than 36,000 New York City properties are now designated as landmarks, which means they cannot be altered without express permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The majority are automatically protected because they are located in the 141 historic districts named by the commission. In addition, the commission has designated 1,398 individual structures, 119 building interiors and 10 scenic landmarks, mainly parks.

The commission can name any property as a landmark as long as it is at least 30 years old. The decision is not up to the owner of the property, but the owner may appeal against the designation if they do not like it. When a property is designated a landmark, the owner has the obligation to keep it in “good repair.” In addition, the owner must obtain permission from the commission before any alteration, reconstruction, demolition or new construction affecting the designated building.

In India, landmark designation is often opposed. Some “owners don’t want it,” says Sethuraman, since they feel it will limit their possibilities of making a profit out of the property. But attitudes are a bit different in America, where landmark designation is seen as prestigious, he says.

Protection of historic properties remains widely popular in the United States and supporters say it has a positive economic impact on the city by promoting tourism and investments in creative businesses. A recent study by the New York Landmark Conservancy found that $800 million (approximately Rs. 5,118 crores) is invested annually in New York City’s historic buildings.

India’s built heritage is much older and more diverse than that of the United States, representing an astounding range of civilizations and cultures. Preservationists say interest and support for protecting India’s legacy has grown significantly in the last two decades. Yet, they often face the argument that in a developing country like India, meeting the needs of the poorer sections should come first.

“They are both equally important,” says Ketan Shah, president-elect of the Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects, a New York-based nonprofit organization. While efforts must continue to raise living standards, “it is important to preserve the culture too,” he says.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is composed of a panel of 11 commissioners appointed by the city’s mayor and supported by a staff of approximately 70 preservationists, researchers, architects, historians, attorneys, archaeologists and administrative employees. Ten of the commissioners are volunteers, only the chairperson is paid.

The current chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, is an urban planner of Indian origin who earned her bachelor of architecture degree from the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. Many Indian specialists are hoping that her efforts to preserve the unique built heritage of New York City will serve as an inspiration to the efforts of her peers who are trying to do the same for India’s rich historical heritage.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.