Preservation, Pluralism, and Adaptive Reuse

Author: John Hong | 1995
Academic Advisor: Hashim Sarkis, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Preservation, Pluralism, and Adaptive Reuse

Preservation as Resistance

In the midst of a Federally funded, nationally felt ‘urban renewal hangover,’ Congress majestically ate its own words. The ambitious Model Cities Program of 1966 put into action an effort to “preserve and restore areas, sites, and structures of historic or architectural value in order that these remaining evidences of our past history and heritage shall not be lost or destroyed through the expansion and development of the Nation’s urban areas.”1

Just 17 years prior, urban renewal had been born out of two radically conflicting groups.  Powerful real estate interests pushed for a federal program that would allow them to level ‘blighted’ areas of the city in favor of profitable commercial developments. However, the subtext of their popular utopic version of urbanity, where the ‘new’ city prevailed over the ‘obsolete’ city, was by no means populist in nature: In effect the terms new over obsolete was morally equated with rich over poor, good over bad, right over wrong and in many urban areas ‘white over black.’ On the other hand, progressive housing advocates, concerned with the living conditions of many of the nation’s underprivileged, pushed to get their programs for new low-income housing projects backed by federal funds. The two opposing lobbies came together on the same contested turf just long enough to push through a ‘slum-clearance’ program as part of the Housing Act of 1949.2

In the end it was the large business coalitions that won out by taking advantage of the many loopholes within the poorly written and adjudicated Slum-Clearance Act. The most glaring of which (and most advantageous to large business interests) was that it offered federal aid in demolishing ‘slum’ areas regardless of what was built in its place, as if erasure of marginalized areas was inherently ‘good’ for the community. Furthermore, what constituted ‘blight’ was not clearly defined and thus was open to speculative interpretation: renewal directors ironically searched for the “blight that’s right” which were areas just run-down enough to define as “slums” but good enough to attract developers.3

In this way, Robert Moses set the renewal pace in Manhattan in the 1950s through his New York Coliseum project for the Columbus Circle area. Through a fudging of project boundaries around some nearby tenement housing, Moses was able to define the area as blighted to federal officials. However, according to the testimony of the former chief architect of the housing authority, only 10 percent of the tenements in the area was substandard and only two percent could be considered a ‘slum.’ 4

It is from the coattails of this kind of urban renewal that the agency of ‘adaptive reuse,’ or the recycling of older structures, emerges as a citizen based opposition against the policy of erasure. Jane Jacobs appears as one of the early and most influential spokesperson’s. She served twice as a community leader in first saving Washington Square Park from the construction of a freeway, and next by organizing a tight neighborhood activist group to block any effort of renewing/razing Greenwich Village. Although these were not directly a technical strategy at saving any one building per se, the work of the early activists of the 1960’s laid the political groundwork for the liberalized version of the preservationist position: a belief that existing historical structures of an urban area work to empower a community from marginalization, that saving these structures is actually an act of resistance against the capitalizing efforts of urban erasure.

Therefore, preservation as a movement, usually understood as a stodgy, conservative force that works to strengthen the idea of a linear, univocal, ‘American’ history, originally emerges in the 1960’s to put forth a more radical proposition: That preserving a structure by instilling it with a new use is a method of political empowerment. By bringing in program to re-use and revitalize the structure, the use-of-the-structure is being passed into the hands of local urban participants. In this light preservation as a mode of resistance has a strong political undercurrent that both metaphorically and physically works against the metaphor-physical symbol of the Moses-era business coalitions: the bull-dozer.

Above: Astor Hall at the Shakespeare Public Theater: Georgio Caviglieri, architect

Cavaglieri on History

It is the work of New York architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, author of the term ‘adaptive-reuse,’ that first materially sets forth the original intentions and terms of the preservation movement. In his early projects, in particular the Jefferson Market Library (formerly Jefferson Market Courthouse), and the Shakespeare Festival Public Theater (formerly the Astor Library), he is able to reengage audiences by bringing together issues of aesthetics, politics, and program together on the same table. As I will argue, however, this original impetus and potential of adaptive-reuse has failed to be carried forth in more recent examples of the preservationist movement, exactly because these later works are unable to align the aesthetic with the pluralist project.

Before the Landmarks Commission was even established to formally protect historic structures, members of Greenwich Village’s community were attempting to stave off the demolition of the Jefferson Market Courthouse. This eclectic, almost clumsy Victorian-Gothic government building and former police academy had become ‘obsolete’ and was vacated and sealed in 1946. In 1961, when renewalists moved to demolish the building, private members of the community began a counter-movement to save it: by forming the ‘Committee of Neighbors to Get the Clock on the Courthouse Started,’ the organization raised enough money to electrify the old clock tower as a symbolic gesture.  This small move brought the endangered building much attention in the news: at once the courthouse became a politicized territory that represented the voice of a community under attack.

Subsequently, a committee that included historians Alan Burnham, Morgot Gayle, Lewis Mumford, and Greenwich poet e.e. cummings was formed to urge the city government to recycle the courthouse as a community branch library to replace the one nearby that was looking for a new building (a far-fetched proposal considering that the New York Public Library system had no intention of moving into an existing building but rather wanted a new structure built to their standard specifications).5  Through a sustained effort by the committee and the Greenwich Village community, Mayor Robert Wagner at last moved his support in favor of the preservationists and against both the renewalists and NY Public Library.

Preservation, Pluralism, and Adaptive Reuse
Jefferson Library renovation: Georgio Caviglieri, architect

However, It was the work of architect Giorgio Cavaglieri that successfully mediated (but not merged) the courthouse form with the library program. Sometimes mistaken as too ‘functionalist’ for historical work, his design ethic, more existential rather than practical, unfreezes the historical monumentality of the building’s iconography by allowing it to read both against and alongside the current political discourse. By simply restoring existing elements, while allowing the new construction to register the programmatic shift without replicating the original historical forms, the architect separates and makes autonomous history from the present. For instance, in one of the library’s main reference rooms, his design at once calls for the meticulous repair of the elaborate woodwork of the Gothic-revival windows by knowledgeable craftspersons, while simultaneously inserting crisp, abstractly rectilinear, dark bronze light fixtures on the interior coffered ceilings. Moreover, an opened circulation between reference and stacks is expressed as abstract, travertine lined cuts within the wall, in direct relation/irrelation to the adjacent existing opening restored in its dense Gothic detail. In this way, the new elements, not found in the building’s original idiom, are placed in their own autonomous, programmatic context. The connection between old and new is neither repressed nor naturalized, but expresses the difference and autonomy of multiple histories.

This very autonomy of pieces produces a relationship or dialogical measure between existing and new which works in at least four different ways:

  1. If iconographic form is the means by which ideology travels, the iconography of one era is never borrowed by another. It is this conceptual and physical distance between forms that allows the audience to understand the signification behind the icons.
  2. In this way, the building is set in historical motion. The representation of autonomous histories releases the structure from a frozen ‘museumization.’
  3. Because it is in historical motion, one can read the building’s shift from one use to another, one political context to the next. Therefore, the building exists tangibly, even viscerally in the present tense. Its shift into a structure that gives a voice to community needs is readily legible.
  4. History is placed in horizontal rather that hierarchical relationships. Instead of reading the original condition of the building as a ‘master-narrative’ that administers timeless values, the narrative of the building is multiplied: the moments of the building’s history present themselves autonomously and so is navigable by the audience. The fact that there is no singular inherited and institutionalized text, now allows the structure to be reappropriated programmatically by the users.

Imagistic Dilemma

In the next years to follow, the preservation movement gained still more momentum, feeding off citizens’ anger against their loss of representation in the face of urban renewal. After the destruction of Penn Station in 1963, concerned citizens helped enact the Landmarks Preservation Law in 1965, which was the medium through which the newly founded NY Landmarks Preservation Commission was to practice its policy.  However, even though its stated purposes were sufficient to convince the new left that their “recycling-as-reengangement” policy now had the legitimacy to meet any urban-renewal threat head on, the law was vague enough to avoid any serious political commitment to the pluralist project:

“The purposes of the law are to effect and accomplish the protection, enhancement and perpetuation of such improvements… which represent elements of the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history; foster civic pride in the beauty and noble accomplishments of the past; protect and enhance the city’s attractions to tourists and visitors and the support and stimulus to business and industry thereby provided; strengthen the economy of the city; and promote the use of historic districts and landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the city.”6

Preservation, Pluralism, and Adaptive Reuse
Jefferson Library reading room: Georgio Caviglieri, architect

The statement belies the cross-roads at which the preservation movement had arrived:  On one hand, it makes a provisional attempt to reengage the individual citizen as a participant in urban history, while at the same time she is positioned as merely an observer of a safeguarded, untouchable iconography in the service of a generalized version of “civic pride” made available to tourists as retail exchange. In the example of South Street Seaport, near Manhattan’s Wall Street, it is this problematic between preservation’s political appeal to give a voice to the margins through reengaging buildings through a new practice, and its more populist appeal to construct a unified, but abstracted version of “urbanity” through the iconographic image of history, that gets played out.

The South Street Seaport Museum began from a modest adaptive-reuse effort. In 1967, having staved off the demolition of the crumbling yet unique warehouses and storefronts in the historical six-block precinct by successfully lobbying for their Landmark status, funds were not available for restoration through the museum program alone.  In 1976, a plan to reengage the historical retail in the area as a secondary economic resource for the museum, became a full-blown commercial development project coordinated by the Rouse Company of Boston’s Faneuil Hall fame.7 The developer’s basic strategy to turn the historical clock back to regain a section of ‘old New York,’ seamlessly meshed with the more imagistic leanings of New York’s Preservation Commission:  a 20.5 million dollar federal and city grant made the scale of the project possible.

Streets once filled with a density of multivalent activity were turned into pedestrian zones, even though cars and horse-drawn carts were once part of the congestion here; the scale of small-scale commerce intersecting with the life of the street was brought back, although franchises now actually managed many of the shops; even the previously utilitarian fish-vendor market stalls in the street were glamorized into festive street vendor carts.  And although the original buildings were carefully preserved and reinstigated with multi-use program, New York preservationist Kevin Wolfe observed, “they are now buffed and polished to a point where they hardly look their age anymore.”8

The buildings ‘not-looking-their-age’ is ultimately realized in the recreated ‘facadism’ of the Fulton Market building, the scheme’s commercial anchor.  The original cast iron structure of 1883 that occupied the site had been demolished in 1959 and its metal facade stolen piece by piece over the years. The new building, conceived merely as an elevational strategy that would ‘recall’ the original building, mimics the original metal work of its cast iron face, its fenestration image and roofline, as if “attempting to sit in its neighborhood as if it had always been there.”9 There is no seam between now and the history of now, what was constructed a century ago and what was constructed just a decade before.  The artifact of the past is simply reduced to its image, flattened into a notion of the facade and represented to us as a historical concept.  It is this image that works back on its audience through a second order semiology:  the concept of America’s ‘venerable history’ is attached to an iconic form, and is mirrored back to us in the service of a ‘civic’ publicity.

Although this may sound like another argument against simulacrum and imitation, it is more a critique of the assumption that recycling iconography per se can also assume the work of a political project. By merely presenting the image of the past in the present tense, the citizen is forced into a position of being merely an observer, instead of participant, a reader instead of the writer, of a continuing history where she has had no involvement in shaping what the iconography has come to signify. Iconography can work if it is created once within a particular context. As a doubling, recurring theme, it acts to legitimize the dominance of an inherited form of life, while the individual’s access to the future of her environment is stunted. 

Furthermore, in the freezing of a building’s iconic exchange value, the political project must ultimately be abandoned. The potential for program to act as the empowered inhabitation of a building as we witnessed in the Jefferson Market Library, is merely locked into, and severely limited by, a necessity to represent the signification of the building’s image as a master narrative.  In Seaport, where is the beginning and end of the museum? If the museum looks like an historical maritime structure but acts like the mall, how do we draw a relationship between our current practice and our history? The way in which Seaport privileges image over practice shows that it is the evolutionary other end of the preservationist project set out by Cavaglieri: The Jefferson Library’s working metaphor was the electrified clock tower, restarted by a citizen group to move the history of the building forward into the hands of community, while the Seaport project attempts to wind the clock backwards in time in order to regain a version of urbanity that is assumed as lost.

When the Preservation Law was passed, this retroactive, imagistic dilemma was written into the subject of the Law’s procedure, disarming adaptive re-use’s active political agenda. The Commission’s influence shifted the discourse of preservation to only the ‘skin deep,’ which essentially meant that one could change the interior of a historic work (or even gut it) but must ‘museum-ize’ the exterior face.10 Legally defining the protection of a building through the separation of the ‘interior’ condition (practice) from the ‘exterior’ (image), is again drawing a heavy line between aesthetics and politics. In this way, the law negatively defines the agency in which the preservation movement must operate, by locating it only within the iconographic status of the historic work.  Meanwhile, the potentially empowered role of the Landmarks Committee is reduced as merely the safeguards of iconic representation. 

It is interesting to note that even after the shift the Preservation Law put into motion, Cavagalieri, in his design for the adaptive-reuse of the Astor library into a public theater for Papp’s Shakespeare Company, maintained a resistance toward the iconographic that Seaport was not able to uphold. The programmatic and the imagistic, reduced to arguments of interior and exterior, again threatened to separate aesthetics and politics:  On one side, the client requested a large theater that would require a tearing and rebuilding of the library interior, while the Preservation Commission required that the exterior iconography of the building be renewed. Cavaglieri side-stepped this separation between image and program by neither scaling down the requirements to ‘fit’ the existing space or by tearing apart the library hall to make additional space. By considering the issue of inhabitation, he set the specific theater program of Papp’s company – which had its own experimental and political momentum – into a dialogical relationship with the existing fabric of the large reading room. What resulted was the editing out of the classic theater proscenium resulting in a closer distance between stage and seating as well as an expanded number of seats. Most importantly, this move actually reinforced and gave voice to the ideological stance of Papp’s company: the innovative group had only performed outdoors in Central Park for the last seven years, attempting to bring theater closer to the everyday space of the audience.

Preservation, Pluralism, and Adaptive Reuse
Fulton Market preserved facade


With the preservation movement having lost its radicalized momentum, Cavaglieri’s work has remained all but poorly documented and underrepresented in today’s discourse. However, in the September 1993 issue of Metropolis, 30 years after he helped materialize a modest revolution, his brief, two page letter to the editor resurfaced like a ghost, urging us to remember the original impetus of the preservation movement:

“The continuos changes we see in the forms of buildings indicate to us the progress – or at times, the step backward – that a society makes through the centuries.  Preservation permits us to see this development and to study it.  For this reason, our own work should express our own time.  When it’s necessary to make additions or modifications to old buildings, the concept of simply reproducing forms of the past denies this premise.  Such an addition denies the creative power of the designer and his duty to express his own time and culture…  Preservation is not, and should not be, a stage set for historical reconstruction.”11

His response comes at a time when recent rulings by city councils have dismantled preservation’s pluralist agenda in the interest of maintaining its singular, imagistic version of history in areas of mainly white affluence. Take the recent example where the Jamaica, Queens council vetoed the landmarks designation of the Jamaica Savings Bank, long regarded as one of the most important Beaux-Arts style buildings in New York. City councilman Spigner summed up the outwardly racist stance of the jury: He claimed that the building was not worth adaptively reusing because the ethnic composition of the neighborhood had changed since it was built in 1898, and so it has “nothing to do with its constituents who are now mostly black and Hispanic.12

In attempting to continue preservation’s empowering agenda, one must understand first how it was successfully implemented and secondly how it has failed. It was the Jefferson Market Library and the Shakespeare Festival Public Theater by Cavaglieri, through the equal representation of the existing history and the newly programmatic, that first set into motion a methodology of giving the building back to the community.  Issues of iconographic, aesthetic, and political dimensions were able to be implemented under the term ‘adaptive-reuse.’ However, in tracing the legitimization of preservation under a central, quasi-governmental agency, it lost its momentum as a liberating political medium because its mode of operation became merely within the iconographic.  By procedurally separating issues of image and inhabitation, what the building looks like and what it does became separate issues, effectively disarming the political project.  Spatial translation, however, offers one alternate means to continue the pluralist agenda of adaptive-reuse. Beginning with Cavaglieri’s attempts at disjoining programmatic shifts from the building’s historical status in order to recognize the present tense, translation works to further release the fixity of the original as the dominant narrative, and offers it up to the process of change.


1. Frieden, Bernard J., and Marshall Kaplan, eds. The Politics of Neglect: Urban Aid from Model Cities to Revenue Sharing (MIT Press, 1975)
2. Frieden, Bernard and Sagalyn, Lynne.  Downtown, Inc., How America Rebuilds Cities.  Cambridge:  The MIT Press, 1992., p. 22.
3. ibid. p. 23.
4. ibid., p. 24.
5. Diamonstein, Barbaralee.  Buildings Reborn:  New Uses, Old Places.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1978, p. 150.
6. Pyke, John.  “Landmark Preservation.”  A Pamphlet prepared by Citizens Union Research Foundation, Inc. of the city of New York, 1969, p. 16.
7. Cantacuzino, Sherban.  Re/Architecture:  old Buildings/New Uses.  New York:  Abbeville Press, 1989, p. 188.
8. Wolf, Kevin.  “Who Saves What and Who Benefits?”  Metropolis, June 1993.  p 66.
9.Cantacuzino, ibid. p. 120.
10. Pyke, John, ibid. p. 18.
11. Cavaglieri, Giorgio.  “Preservation:  letter to the editor.” Metropolis, September 1993.  pp 13-14.
12. Wolf, Kevin, ibid. p64.