March 16, 2021

Demolition? About the McGraw-Hill Lobby

In the depths of a pandemic when many are facing hardship or death, perhaps no one wants to know if the agency trusted to protect our New York City landmarks forgets its mission. But reportedly, short-sighted investors are demolishing what should have been a landmark, the extraordinary lobby of the McGraw-Hill Building. Such demolition had (and retains) the blessing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the form of a demolition permit. Now, as social media lights up and costly public relations firms rush in for damage control, we hear that perhaps nothing has happened, yet.

But “the” Landmarks Commission should not be condemned without correctly distributing the blame: its operations are not simple. Governed by complex law negotiated years ago, and freighted with a thousand rules and regulations, the agency does have the power to preserve, but also the power to destroy.

In this Rashomon moment of varying reports, perhaps broken shards of the emerald green glass walls that Raymond Hood designed for the Art Deco lobby of his 1931 landmark, smashed, were gathered up, and shipped to a dump–perhaps the same dump that received the sculptures decorating the original Pennsylvania Station–a very classy dump, as Ada Louise Huxtable noted at that time. Or not?

Opportunities for destruction do exist in the administrative detail of our landmarks law, a compromise in 1965 between idealists and investors, with key roles for elected and appointed officials. It is widely regarded as a model statute, nevertheless.

It created a small agency with limited resources: the LPC cannot save all potential landmarks at once. But there are practical expedients, warnings that work if the agency chair wants them to work–and work in ways that the founders intended. Take the decorated lobbies of individually designated New York skyscrapers. Interior demolition requiring a Buildings Department permit cannot proceed in a landmark without a Certificate of No Effect on Protected Features (CNE) from the LPC. When the applicant files for that CNE, the agency has warning that the lobby is threatened, and if that CNE is issued anyway, the chair’s signature is on it, literally and figuratively, and demolition is next. This does not have to happen. An Operation Policy and Procedure Notice of the Department of Buildings (OPPN#19/88) can provide a window of opportunity for landmark designation. The LPC has 40 days to act. If the chair and the commissioners believe that landmark designation is warranted, notice can be given, and there is just time to calendar the statutory hearing and vote. If the lobby of an individual landmark is demolished under a CNE, that is an action of the chair who issued the CNE, as surely as if the chair had personally driven the jackhammer.

There is also a catch. The chair is not required by law to tell the commissioners, the public, or the press that demolition was requested. Obviously, a mayor is quite free to appoint a chair willing to condone the destruction of potential landmarks in secrecy. Even if some civil servant endangered his career by speaking out, it might not help, since by law the chair, acting alone, can control the scheduling of the hearing and the vote.

Administrative arcana like the OPPN have little appeal for the concerned public, who love their landmarks and want to love (or on occasion, hate) their governmental caretaker. A crafty person with civil service experience can play this mindset like a violin. What former commissioner Joseph Mitchell described as the “save this, save that people” (and he added that he was one of them) are often missing in action at some critical moment that they know nothing of, like September 24, 2020 when demolition of the McGraw-Hill lobby was authorized by the LPC without public notice. A failure of good government, perhaps, but also a failure of many distinguished, even brilliant, well-meaning people, who wanted to participate according to their lights, but didn’t know how, because they were shut out and betrayed by a leader they had trusted. Too late, many individuals, experts and preservation organizations petitioned the LPC to save the McGraw-Hill lobby, only to learn that its fate had probably been sealed much earlier by a valid demolition permit. The public is left with a bitter disappointment. Now it would be up to ownership to recognize the public concern, and respond by accepting designation, followed by a move to preserve and restore whatever may be left of their wonderful asset.

Editors’ note: Citing Engineering News/Record, October 8, 1931, “How the New McGraw Hill Building was Built for Economy and Efficiency,” by J. A. Fouilhoux and Andrew J. Eken, Theodore Grunewald comments that the material of the lobby walls was probably not (as we thought) tinted structural glass but rather enameled steel. This raises further questions about their demolition.

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