The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City
By Randall Mason. Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; 344 pp., paperback, $27.95
There is far too little scholarly attention to the history of historic preservation in the United States. However, Randall Mason has made a significant contribution to this field by examining how residents of New York City preserved historic places, parks, and landscapes from 1890 to 1920. Drawing upon records of civic groups and government agencies, historic maps, photos, the archival collections of New York’s civic leaders, and period newspapers, the author has crafted a narrative that successfully places the early years of American historic preservation within the Progressive era reforms of the early 20th century. This contextualizing enables him to debunk some of the myths surrounding preservation. Chiefly, the work disavows the notion that historic preservation emerged in New York in the 1960s after the destruction of Penn Station. He argues that preservation “began in the late nineteenth century” and not “in opposition to urban renewal in the postwar period.” (p. x)
While clarifying the beginnings of New York City historic preservation, Mason also refutes historic preservation as an anti-modernization movement. Rather, he states that preservation in New York at the turn of the century was “really part of New York’s modern approach to city building.” (p. xvii) Preservationists concerned themselves with the built environment because the city, in the face of changes brought on by rapid industrialization, needed what Mason calls a “memory infrastructure” that would be “anchored by buildings, parks, and memorials representing noble, celebratory narratives of past achievement.” (p. xiv) These memory sites would “stabilize urban culture . . . against the countervailing threats of immigration, radical politics, immorality, and ‘the street’.” (p. xv) The New York City preservationists, Mason argues, saw preservation “as part of the development of modern cities, not as a reaction against city building; preservationists connected their work to the fields of city planning, landscape architecture, and urban design emerging in the same historical moment.” (p. xi)
Five chapters outline these trends by examining case studies that support his conclusions. In the first chapter, the role of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS) and its advocacy in the preservation of buildings, landscapes, and other memory sites is discussed. Organized in 1895, the ASHPS participated in a failed attempt to preserve St. John’s Chapel, an Episcopal Church, which Mason describes in Chapter Two. In Chapter Three, the author recounts how early preservationists, including members of the ASHPS, played a role in developing City Hall Park, the seat of New York City’s government, and how preservationists selectively decided what structures should remain in order to “guide New Yorkers in the present toward better citizenship and morality.” (p. 125) The fourth chapter discusses how the Bronx River Parkway, the nation’s first automobile highway, constructed between 1906 and 1925, that connected New York City’s Bronx Park and the Kensico Dam in Westchester County, embodied the type of preservation work advocated by ASHPS. However, ASHPS was not directly involved with the construction of the parkway but, according to Mason, the project “fell in line with the preservation ideology of the time, as projected in the ASHPS’s work.” (p. 181)
This work gives a historical context to historic preservation in New York City from 1890 to 1920; however, one wonders whether or not Mason has too narrowly defined the actual preservationists in New York City. It is unclear who he considers a preservationist. He defines members of the ASHPS as such. He also acknowledges other groups engaged in similar activities during this period, like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). However, he does not explore their impact on New York City’s preservation landscape. Mason convincingly argues for the idea of the ASHPS broader focus and the organization’s effectiveness as compared to groups like the DAR. He believes one important reason to be the ASHPS focus on more than just the preservation of individual historic sites. But he does not offer a compelling argument as to why DAR members could not be considered preservationists as well.
Despite this one inconsistency, Mason has made an important scholarly contribution in erasing our lack of knowledge about the history of historic preservation in New York City and has offered new avenues for other scholars to examine how historic preservation has been practiced in the United States. As the author notes in his introduction: “Preservation is a product of its times, interpretations of the past are contested, and the places and narratives constructed by historic preservation are meaningful cultural documents.” (p. xi) Mason convincingly explores those “cultural documents” in this book; hopefully, others will continue to explore them and allow a better understanding of historic preservation in the United States and what this important movement means to the nation’s history at large.
University of Central Missouri