Pan Am Worldport in October 2013

Recently, Untapped New York reader Rachel Potter submitted the following preservation query to our mailbag:

I have a question about landmark preservation rules – recently I saw the article about the ‘64 World’s Fair [in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park] and the decision whether to restore or demolish them. I also learned that JFK’s Pan Am Worldport is being torn down. I’m confused though, since both of these sites have historic landmark status, how is it possible to demolish them? Isn’t the point of landmark status to ensure their preservation in the midst of projected redevelopment?

First, to clarify, Pan Am Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport was unable to get landmark status, a topic we covered in our article about preservation at JFK Airport. It was listed on the 2013 11 Most Endangered Places List but interior demolition had already begun a month after Delta vacated the terminal in May. Looking at the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s clear that Worldport isn’t a slam dunk for any of the specifications, some of it related to extensive modifications to the building. You can read more of our analysis here.

Regarding the structures from the ‘64 World’s Fair, the Unisphere was landmarked by New York City in 1995 but the Philip Johnson designed Tent of Tomorrow and Observation Towers are not city landmarks. The Pavilion also made it onto the New York State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. This all begs the question: What’s the difference between city, state and national landmarking?

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has a great piece on the distinction, in which they state the economic benefits to being listed on the State and National Registers:

Unlike local landmarking, the State and National Registers in most cases do not regulate buildings, but recognizes their significance and enables owners of historic properties to take advantage of beneficial programs.  Owners of State and National Register listed properties can make alterations to their building without going through a review process.  The only regulation associated with State and National Register properties applies if the owner is taking advantage of state or federal money available through special programs for historic structures. Listing on the register also serves to “certify” significant buildings as historic.  This certification is an eligibility requirement for many great funding programs for historic buildings.

Buildings that fall under the NYC Landmark Law have more specific regulations. The city landmark law prevents historic buildings from “inappropriate changes or destruction” through an approval process by the Landmark Commission. According to GVSHP:

Individually-designated landmarks get some special treatment under the NYC Zoning Code in order to help facilitate their preservation — for instance, the air rights of individual landmarks can be transferred across the street as-of-right, which cannot generally be done for non-landmarked buildings, and they can receive exemptions from zoning restrictions regarding allowable uses and height and setback requirements if it can be shown that such exemptions would help preserve the landmark. The New York City Landmarks Law also includes a hardship relief provision for owners unable to maintain their historic properties due to economic reasons.

As the New York State Pavilion is on the State and National registers, this means the structure itself is (probably) not going anywhere but without city landmarking there is still some risk. The New York Daily News piece cited the cost for demolition ($14 million) only to compare it with the cost of maintaining the structure (estimated between $43 and  $72 million). According to the article, the structures are in need of repair but are structurally sound, opening the path for possible rehabilitation plans. That being said, such discussions have been going on for at least a decade to no avail. At the very least, they will be “preserved” as a ruin, like the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital. In these cases, ruins can be still be used by the public if the structure is sound.

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