We received this letter (along with a generous donation) yesterday, from Robert Clayton, a NYC resident, and a preservationist, who is no stranger to fighting city hall.
I first became interested in preservation in 1974, when, at the age of 20, I fought to save Loew’s Triboro Theatre in Astoria. Our committee was successful in getting the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to designate the building on July 23, 1974, but the designation was overturned by the Board of Estimate at the behest of then-Borough President Donald Manes. Manes didn’t believe in preservation at all.
In 1980, I formed the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s of Flushing. Donald Manes’s old buddy, former Deputy Borough President Lawrence T. Gresser, Jr. was trying to build a shopping mall on the site of the theatre, all on the public dime. The City of New York Public Development Corporation (PDC) was pushing very hard for Gresser’s mall (to be called Flushing Plaza), and applied for an Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) in Gresser’s behalf. In 1984, after years of meetings, hearings and petitions, the LPC finally designated the theatre’s lobby, grand foyer, men’s and women’s lounge’s, mezzanine promenade and auditorium. Essentially all the major public spaces in the building. The designation only happened after Gresser’s mall project fell through. While claiming to have Venezuelan investors, no private money was ever shown, and Gresser’s application for a UDAG was denied.
Manes then offered the LPC a compromise (to rescind the auditorium’s designation), which was rejected. The LPC preferred instead to rescind the entire designation, but the Board of Estimate, again at Manes’s behest, pushed through an amended designation which excluded not only the auditorium but the mezzanine promenade and the lounges as well. That was Manes’s way of showing the LPC who was boss and that next time they had better work with him.
Well, Donald Manes’s evil eventually caught up with him, but after going through such disappointments, I stayed away from preservation projects for a long time. However, the Hotel Pennsylvania situation, and my own recent retirement, has renewed my dedication to fight again. I am just appalled and outraged over the LPC’s inaction. If their reason is that too much of the hotel’s original interior has been lost, well, I remember when interior landmarks didn’t even exist. Designations originally only applied to a building’s exterior. The Pennsylvania is one of the last hotels from a golden age. The Astor, Savoy-Plaza, the Commodore and many others are gone forever. (Do you have Nathan Silver’s book, Lost New York?) The Hotel Pennsylvania’s history and close association with the original Penn Station alone should make the hotel worthy of preservation.
Well, we who would like to save the Hotel Pennsylvania seem to have been given a second chance due to the “stay of execution.” But we mustn’t squander this opportunity. We can’t let the grass grow under our feet. If it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the right people must be timely reached. The LPC needs to be pushed into making designations which they would prefer to avoid. I saw how their deliberate inaction resulted in the gutting of the Biltmore. Where do the Municipal Art Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy stand on this issue? Has anyone contacted met with them yet? I’ve worked with them before, over the RKO Keith’s.
Thank you Robert, for your tireless effort, and support of NYC history!