Few public buildings grab you by the lapels quite like Grand Central Terminal—the blonde stone and marble, the light pouring in through vast windows, the starry night of constellations on the ceiling. Crowds surge and flow around the bulbous four-faced clock at the center of the cavernous main hall. It’s astonishing to think that the 1913 Beaux Arts building, lovingly restored and creatively re-invented in recent years, was almost destroyed.
As the Municipal Art Society of New York reminded us in a recent special exhibit, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of cities to restrict development in the name of historic preservation. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it a landmark decision in every sense, a triumph over the wrecking ball and bulldozers that had laid waste to so much else in the metropolis over the 20th century. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis famously helped lead the campaign against the redevelopment of the site, inspiring other cities to celebrate and renovate their historic structures.
But while the rescue of Grand Central seems like a clear-cut case of good over evil, the role of historic preservation in the 21st-century city can be more complex. In the years that followed the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of buildings and neighborhoods have been given landmark status, protecting them not only from rapacious developers but from other, less ill-intentioned forces of change. Some argue that the preservation impulse can sometimes go too far, with unremarkable buildings, gas stations, and even vacant lots barred from any alteration: the city under glass. In the darkest view, historic preservation has become a front for NIMBYism—not in my backyard—curtailing affordable housing, green building, jobs, and economic development.