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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Saving Carnegie Hall: A Case Study of Historic Preservation in Postwar New York City

  • Author(s): Schmitz, Sandra Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Morton, Patricia
  • et al.

In 1960, a passionate committee led by violinist Isaac Stern succeeded in saving Carnegie Hall, a building the New York Herald Tribune described at the time as “a concert hall that everybody loved but nobody liked.” Stern's intervention ensured the famous concert hall’s longevity even though its demolition had appeared inevitable a short time earlier. Carnegie Hall is a unique case study within this history of postwar architectural preservation because it offers an unusual success story. Stern, and his committee of musicians, politicians, and lawyers, prevented demolition of the renowned concert hall prior to passage of the Landmarks Preservation Law and formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. They overcame a number of obstacles: simultaneous construction of Lincoln Center’s new Philharmonic Hall, Carnegie Hall’s perceived lack of architectural significance, and an economic incentive to redevelop the site for commercial use.

The nature of this preservation success prompts a number of questions. How was Carnegie Hall’s preservation accomplished in the progress-driven culture of postwar New York City? Why was the Hall’s “mediocre” architecture protected at a moment when more widely admired structures, such as Pennsylvania Station, were destroyed? What characteristics of Carnegie Hall — architectural , social, or historical — gave the building value in the eyes of its preservationists? Through two complimentary case studies, Carnegie Hall and Pennsylvania Station, I will demonstrate that focusing too heavily on aesthetics, at the expense of formulating a feasible economic plan, can prove detrimental to the success of a preservation attempt. An emphasis on economics means that preservation cannot be viewed as solely the work of architects and historians but requires a deeper look at who is leading preservation attempts and the nature of the political structure involved.

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