Lowes Landmark Theather, NJ © Luis Miguel via Flickr

Cicadas of Architecture: Periods of Dormancy and Urban Preservation

Oftentimes the best way to preserve a piece of history is to ignore it for a little while. After all, for something to be most appreciated as history, things must progress around it so that it can slide into the menagerie of collective memory. This is not to say that when the thing in question assumes a place in history that it becomes a dusty relic or stale; quite the opposite, in fact; often, it is only when something enters into the collective memory, or history, that its true character really resonates. This is especially true of architecture.

It is the ghosts, the echoes, the fingerprints that gives the architecture of a city a true quality of sustenance. To be sure, the architecture itself must be appealing to begin with, but, in many cases, this is not enough, especially if it stands in the way of speedy financial gain. A piece of architecture that is too caught up in the stream of progress may find itself quickly swept away, almost before it even gets a chance for a really fine swim.

Consider the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in 1963. It is no revelation to state again the loss that this deconstruction inflicted on the collective architectural consciousness; indeed, it was this very demolition that led to the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The original Pennsylvania Station was an avowed architectural beauty lavished with praise by critics, architects and travelers alike. The station took a beating in its peak years during World War II, and then as airplanes and the automobile gained prominence there was less demand for train travel. Rather than renovate, the original Pennsylvania Station was torn down. After all, there was a stadium that needed to be built and that would bring in an inestimable amount of money.

May 10, 1962, Waiting Room from Southwest
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May 10, 1962, Waiting Room from Southwest

In all fairness, Madison Square Garden, which stands where the majestic old station once did, is in many ways an architectural triumph and a landmark in its own right. But MSG has been established as a landmark perhaps more for what has happened in its bowels than on its face; a whole history has played out within this arena.

Pennsylvania Station was not given a chance to evolve as, say, Grand Central Station has. Grand Central has been saved in large part due to the martyrdom of that other treasured node of railroad transportation. It is not, however, simply about the replacement of one building with another, but how a building can impact its surrounding environment. Anyone familiar with the north part of the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn must admit to the slow and subtle changes that have taken place since the Barclays Center opened in 2012. Generic bars like your average midtown bar have begun to make an appearance where highly characterized neighborhood bars once stood. Say what you will about the design of the arena itself, but the stack of condominiums rising up beside it like a zit ready to be popped is an abomination. Adornments of this kind threaten buildings that are not protected by landmark status because they don’t get the chance to pass into the realm of historicity. They’d be better off going unnoticed for a while, like the Landmark Loew’s Theater in Jersey City.

The Landmark Loew’s Theater opened in 1929 as one of five opulent “wonder theaters” under the Loew’s name. More than just a simple cinema, these were movie palaces, like temples wherein dreams played out on the silver screen. Massive and baroquely ornate, the Landmark Loew’s nonetheless closed in 1986 and a private company bought the building with plans for demolition and conversion into office buildings. A local campaign began to preserve the building, which saved it from being torn down but it would still lie vacant for seven years, its extravagant emptiness becoming home to squatters and pigeons. It would be left alone to dwell on its memories of silver screen glories of yesteryear until the city bought the building in 1993. A group called the Friends of Loew’s was formed and the lengthy endeavor of restoration commenced. The theater reopened in 1995 to play classic films during spring, fall and winter (summer provides rest for the cinema, as there is no air-conditioning), as well as serving as a venue for concerts and even weddings and other special events. It was the subject of a recent court dispute in which Jersey City Mayor Stephen Fulop attempted to take control of the theater away from the Friends of Loew’s, claiming that the lease was invalid. This was followed by controversies over funds granted to the Friends to get the building up to code – funds which were later redirected. The theater, however, remains under the guardianship of the Friends of Loew’s and, to the tunes of a Robert Morton “Wonder” organ, invites one and all to take part in its celluloid fantasies.

It may very well be due to those years of inactivity that this movie palace is still be alive today. It was perhaps necessary for this building to just sit, kind of gather its thoughts, as it were, for a time, and wait for those people who cared enough to constellate around it and serve as its protectors. This filmic treasure trove stands as a testament to the power of community and the rewards of preservation.

But could it offer more than that? What if we looked at this historic cinema as a symbol for many a controversial transformation of various cities, towns and neighborhoods? There are indeed parallels between the story of Loew’s and, say, Harlem or Hoboken. Harlem was home to that vibrant heyday of artistic expression known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following World War II the “dream was deferred” and Harlem fell into a state of urban decay. There were government attempts to tear down buildings during this time and rebuild, but this would have been like pouring salt into the wounds of this wonderful but distressed part of New York City. Community efforts trumped, insisting that buildings that gave a face to Harlem’s character remain. The landmarks of Harlem are too many to mention here, but one need only walk the streets of this neighborhood to understand. Since the nineties, Harlem has again been on a steady upswing and the architecture throughout has been allowed to flourish and gain importance in collective thought and memory. That so many ties to an essential narrative character still stand is one of the main reasons that people care enough about Harlem to continue to foster it even after the bad years.

Similarly, Hoboken was for many decades a throbbing artery of waterfront industry and a haven to immigrant populations who put their indelible stamp upon the landscape. As industry began to leave in the 1960’s and onwards, though, due to the changing machinations of the nation as a whole, Hoboken slowly declined and became what many would consider to be a wasteland. Anyone with the least bit of affluence avoided this little city and left it to rot. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration in reality; various industries like Maxwell House kept on rolling, the Steven’s Institute of Technology kept things ticking and many who felt cultural and ethnic ties to the city remained, but that’s not the point. The point is that the wider public consciousness perceived the city to be hopeless.) But what happened is that, with little attention paid to this city, much of the architecture of Hoboken was left intact. European-influenced storefronts continued to line the main streets, not to be displaced by a strip-mall aesthetic. In a kind of architectural appropriation, warehouses, factories and shipyards maintained their original forms but were put to other purposes such as music venues or the Hoboken Historical Museum. Many latter-19th and early-20th century buildings stand out in a suitable context and provide a cultural continuity that allows one to sense the hands that built the landscape. At Hoboken Terminal one feels as though they have stepped into a film and can feel the great pulse of travelers, even if most of them are only commuting to and from Manhattan. Again, though this collection of architecture was initially attractive, it took a bit of time for it to really instill itself, to romanticize itself, in social memory. As such, it continues to draw people in and Hoboken has seen a resurgence over the last three decades.

Listening to the stories that architecture can tell is the first step in preserving these relics. Remembering their significance to the past reminds us not only of their historical value, but also the way they served communities and fostered the development of cities. Preservation is significant to honoring the work that went into making these cities flourish. It is about what gives a building import to begin with. In historically valuable architecture, among the bricks and mortar and concrete and all the physical aspects of a building, we can feel the hands that built it and see the faces that passed through its interiors. We may be drawn, perhaps, into even deeper interiors; interiors of thought, of memory, of dreams, and, through the connective tissue of architecture, one may, through rediscovery of the past, discover their own dreams of the future.