Most people might think of buildings like the Empire State Building when they think of cherished landmarks, but interiors of structures — the spaces where we live, work and go for entertainment — can also be treasures worth saving for future generations.
“Even though building exteriors are the most obvious things that we look at, interiors are really where we live,” said design historian Judith Gura of the New York School of Interior Design.”They’re where we spend most of our time, they’re where we’re entertained, where we have our political situations, where we study. They are really recording our history so that, more than exteriors, they show the changes, they show social practice.”
Gura and Kate Wood of Columbia University, wanted to remind people of that.
First, with a photo exhibit, Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmark Interiors, and then with the book, Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York, which features photos of 47 of these preserved spaces.
“There are very few designated interiors in New York City, so that automatically makes them rare and precious,” said Wood, who also leads the preservation group, LANDMARK WEST. “That’s really the most important first step, recognition of this valuable historic resource that we have, which we might take for granted.”
New York has been designating landmarks — like the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York City Public Library building — since 1965.
The book is being released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law. The demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963, which The New York Times called a “monumental act of vandalism”, triggered the adoption of that legislation.
However, interiors have only been preserved since 1973. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 117 public interiors as landmarks.
In order to be preserved, interiors must be at least 30 years old and have special historical or aesthetic value to the city. These spaces must also be open or accessible to the public, which explains why a number of libraries, museums and theaters are on the list.
For example, the rather plain building on Ellis Island where America’s immigrants were received from 1892 until 1924 is probably of greater historic significance than anything else. The Registry building’s interior — which was restored in the 1980s — has been designated for preservation.
The interior elements of a designated structure that must be preserved include fixtures and anything that’s fastened to the walls, including built-in furniture.
Many of the interiors designated as landmarks feature examples of lost artistry.
“Many of them you look at the elaborate ornament. People don’t do this kind of thing anymore,” said Gura. “Part of the reason is that it’s too expensive and the other part of the reason is that we don’t necessarily have workers who are trained to do the intricate mosaic work or very elaborate plaster work and painting.”
A particular challenge of saving interiors is to preserve the integrity of the original design, while still rendering the space usable for today’s generation.
Anything built before 1985 is eligible to be preserved, but Gura and Wood express concern that more modern spaces are being overlooked.
“We’ve got two decades of interiors that haven’t been preserved yet,” said Wood, “and I think that tells us something about our city as well, about our culture, that we value things that we can understand in context with history but we don’t necessarily appreciate the qualities of the recent past yet.”
Both worry that these important modern interiors could be forever lost if people don’t begin to rethink their views of what constitutes a landmark and come to the realization that spaces don’t necessarily have to be old to be worth saving.