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A Tale of Two Buildings: Historic Preservation and The Destruction of Lower Manhattan

Barbara Tannenbaum
Chair, Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Curator of Photography

Aerial View of Manhattan, 1966–67. Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 25.2 x 25 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2011.236. © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

When native New Yorker Danny Lyon returned to the city in 1966 after living in Chicago and the South, he moved to Lower Manhattan. As he settled in, he learned that his neighborhood was one of several in Lower Manhattan marked for destruction in the name of urban renewal. This project involved leveling 60 acres, which included one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Lyon said he felt impelled to use photography “to save [the buildings], to be witness, to pass on to the future, forever, what they looked like, at their best, alone in the light. Often, within a week or even days of my making the pictures, the buildings were demolished.”[1] He concentrated on the Washington Street Market and Brooklyn Bridge Southwest urban renewal areas. Among the resulting images, 52 are on view in the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition Danny Lyon: The Destruction of Lower Manhattan in the Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery through October 7.

Lyon said he felt impelled to use photography “to save [the buildings], to be witness, to pass on to the future, forever, what they looked like, at their best, alone in the light. Often, within a week or even days of my making the pictures, the buildings were demolished.” — Danny Lyon, The Seventh Dog (London: Phaidon Press, 2014), 134.

Historic preservation was something of a novel idea back then. In 1963 Pennsylvania Station farther uptown was demolished, despite having been, “one of the largest and finest landmarks of [New York’s] age of Roman elegance,” according to an editorial in the New York Times. The loss of that distinguished edifice marks the beginning of the modern architectural preservation movement: the creation of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Law in 1965. The following year, the federal government followed suit by passing the National Historic Preservation Act, which established the National Register of Historic Places.

View South from 88 Gold Street, 1966–67. Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 25.4 x 25.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2012.417. © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

In 1967 the new Landmarks Preservation Commission was tasked with reviewing all 25 of the areas marked for urban renewal. It found little worthy of saving except for 10 buildings in the Washington Street Market area: a block of nine townhouses and the Edward Laing Stores at 258 Washington Street. Photographing in 1966–67, Lyon documented these locations, along with many others deemed unworthy of preserving, before any landmark designations were awarded.

The Laing Stores building at 258 Washington Street was constructed in 1848 by architect-engineer-inventor James Bogardus (1800–1874). Among his innovations include a cotton-spinning machine, a mechanized engraving machine used to create the dies for banknotes, and the eccentric mill, which was based on principles still used today to finish ball bearings and grind lenses. Most importantly for our interests, he popularized and patented cast-iron construction in the United States.

258 Washington Street at the Northwest Corner of Murray Street, 1966–67. Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 25 x 24.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2011.251. © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

When 258 Washington Street was awarded landmark status in 1970, it was the first complete cast-iron building front erected in the United States, and thus an important forerunner of the modern steel-framed high-rise office building. Amazingly, it took only two months to construct the five-story building and two adjoining structures, which shared a single, unified cast-iron facade. This was possible because Bogardus used standardized, interchangeable units that were prefabricated at his factory and assembled on-site.

Since the building was in poor condition and the city wanted to create a “superblock,” Bogardus’s signal work had to go. The Smithsonian requested one entire structural bay to add to its collection, but in the end, the commission arranged to reerect the facade as part of a new building for the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Conveniently, Bogardus’s system, which he patented in 1850, could be easily taken apart, moved, and reassembled elsewhere. Construction on the college would not start until 1974, so the ironwork was disassembled in 1971 at a cost of $80,000. Each part was individually catalogued and inventoried, then put in storage.

In 1974 the contractor arrived to check on the pieces and found three men hauling them away. Over the past few weeks, the thieves had removed two-thirds of the facade and sold it for scrap at $90 a truckload. The remaining panels were rescued and stored in a “secret” location for inclusion in a different building. In 1977 the architects went to measure the remaining pieces and found they had disappeared from storage. Only a few individual parts of the facade have surfaced. An homage to Bogardus’s facade was built at South Street Seaport in 1983 using aluminum instead of cast iron and substituting modernist severity for the graceful, curvy vegetal ornamentation of the 19th-century original. It’s just not the same. Thieves robbed us all of the opportunity for an authentic experience of this hallmark of American architecture.

Image courtesy Untapped Cities, by Michelle Young.

The nine townhouses, located a little farther north on Washington Street, had a happier fate. They were designed by notable architect John McComb Jr. (1763–1853), who was responsible for New York’s city hall, Gracie Mansion, and many other landmarks. The oldest was built in 1796 as McComb’s own home. Most were constructed in 1827 and 1828 when the Washington Street Market, now part of Tribeca, began to dominate the area. This was the city’s wholesale produce market from 1812 until 1962, when it moved to the Bronx. Since the market district was one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, most of the warehouses and wholesale and retail establishments dated from the 1800s. As the market expanded, the townhouses’ elegant Federal-style facades were converted into storefronts. By the time Lyon captured the dilapidated, deserted structures at 327, 329, and 331 Washington Street, no trace of their original dignity or residential character remained.

327, 329, and 331 Washington Street, between Jay and Harrison Streets, 1966–67. Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 23.5 x 30 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2011.253. © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

Fortunately, the Landmarks Commission saw the buildings’ worth beneath the grime, but the houses could not be left in place without disrupting the city’s plan to incorporate that part of Washington Street into a “superblock” development. They were moved to Harrison Street and returned to their original residential function; the storefronts morphed into re-creations of Federal brick facades. The AIA Guide to New York City opines that the units were perhaps too lovingly restored: “the patina from the passage of time has been totally erased.” McComb’s four-story, 4,000-square-foot home, now 27 Harrison Street, is again home to a prominent, or at least prosperous, individual. In 2012 it was on the market for $5.4 million.

Image courtesy Tribeca Citizen.

Each doomed building — whether grand or humble — in the two redevelopment areas had its own saga, but few of the structures or their stories survived. The new, consolidated “superblocks” offered wider streets and thus better traffic flow, but they lost the historical resonance of the intimately scaled grid that originated in the 1700s.

Dropping a Wall, 1966–67. Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 30.8 x 20.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2012.421. © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

It could be said that the only constant in cities is change. They are not museums but living, mutating organisms. The desire to preserve our architectural heritage, especially modest and vernacular structures, still loses out much of the time to the forces of progress, economic development, and practical needs. European cities have found a way to harmonize these desires, but in America, preservation remains a pitched battle.

[1] Danny Lyon, The Seventh Dog (London: Phaidon Press, 2014), 134.

Additional reading: A Revered Photojournalist’s Chronicle of Lower Manhattan on the Brink of Transformation, The New Yorker

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