The Frailty of Architecture

Lost Penn Station

Perhaps the greatest threat to noted historic buildings are the politics and economics of the moment. Here in New York City this is best exemplified by the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station. This wondrous, grandiose structure designed by McKim, Mead and White, was built in 1910, only to be torn down a half century later to make way for Madison Square Garden. I’m a Knicks fan and it may be the world’s most famous arena, but it’s far from the world’s finest arena. To add insult to injury this prime piece of New York real estate is property tax free while owner James Dolan and company have mastered the fine art of throwing money away.

A New York Times editorial from October 30, 1963 noted, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

Instead we were given a rat maze in replacement and a terrific space that had other potential applications, conference and exhibition center for example, was lost. Ironically, the daily traffic of the underground Penn Station replacement has become so great that an extension into the massive Farley Post Office opposite the Garden has been proposed. An extension designed by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill that I helped visualize in 2001 at KDLAB, (SOM Journal 1, pages 36/37). The Farley Post Office, also designed by McKim, Mead and White, will be the last example of their work in the area as the 1918 Pennsylvania Hotel is also slated for demolition. One beneficial outcome of this incident, it resulted in the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, spurring historical preservation throughout the United States.

Unfortunately this remains a common worldwide issue.

In Athens, an Art Deco building designated a protected historical monument, had its listed status revoked in July so it could be demolished to provide views of the Parthenon from the restaurant and lower levels of the new Tschumi designed Acropolis Museum. The four storey building constructed in 1930 was designed by architect Vassilis Kouremenos and is one of Greece’s last historic Art Deco monuments, adorned with mosaics, pink marble and statues carved into the facade. The building is slated to be torn down along with another house owned by famous composer Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire). This problem was anticipated and the protection of these buildings originally assured; a height increase for the Acropolis Museum was even permitted to allow it “a dialogue with the Parthenon”. A blog has been established in an effort to save this Athenian Art Deco landmark.

As with many nineteenth century government buildings throughout the United States, the Seneca County Courthouse situated in the middle of historic downtown Tiffen, Ohio, is the latest to face the threat of imminent destruction. Designed by a starchitect of the 1880’s, Elijah E. Myers, the fireproof building designed to last has floors built of “black carbonized limestone and white vermont marble”, the latter so rare it is irreplaceable. Elaborate ornamental cast iron details, pillars, cornice and glass fill the entire building. Unfortunately as with many historic government buildings, the Courthouse is suffering from neglect and a shoddy repurposing of space from the 60’s. Whilst restoration offered the least costly solution versus a new courthouse, commissioners offered the dubious explanation that they considered the estimate… dubious. The Toledo Blade is providing in-depth coverage of the legal battle that has ensued. Article 1, Article 2


Athens Art Deco Building
Seneca County Courthouse

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