Letters to the Editor> Readers respond to AN’s Municipal Art Society editorial

East Letter to the Editor
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(Courtesy MAS)

Editor’s Note: In The Architect’s Newspaper’s December issue, editor-in-chief William Menking published the editorial, “What Happened to the Municipal Art Society?” In it, he questioned MAS’s commitment to architecture and New York City, saying: “What was once one of the fiercest and most devoted New York City organizations that would litigate when it thought the best interests of the city were threatened, has now become a de-fanged developer and real estate–led organization that serves as a cheerleader for major development projects…” Many of you responded and we are sharing a few letters below.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor do not necessarily reflect the opinions or sentiments of the newspaper. AN welcomes reader letters, which could appear in our regional print editions. To share your opinion, please email editor@archpaper.com.

I was the executive director of the Municipal Art Society (1975 to 1984) when the idea of locating a space where we could have our offices and also be able to have public programs was suggested by board member Fred Papert in 1976. The MAS Board at that time was chaired by Brendan Gill with Doris Freedman as president and, immediately seeing the possibilities of bringing our urban design and preservation concerns to a broader public, they got behind the idea enthusiastically.

The MAS was founded in 1893 and had always been a group of enthusiasts inspired by the City Beautiful movement. For decades it didn’t have a full-time staff, and its projects were led by board members who were architects, lawyers, philanthropists, civic activists, and people who had influence with government agencies.

At the time, our offices were located on the remote 45th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. We were looking for a new home that would be as different as possible.

There was a real estate depression in Manhattan, so there were endless possibilities available. I looked at about 50 East Side locations from 35th to 65th streets. We could even have bought a whole—semi-decayed—building in Midtown for $650,000. Then we learned that the North Wing of the Villard Houses might be available and were excited by its possibilities. At 51st and Madison the location was at the crossroads of the city.

We approached the Helmsley Organization, which owned the buildings (on land owned by the Archdiocese of New York). What emerged after a period of negotiation was an initial lease for approximately 25 years, with relatively small escalations, starting at about $2.00 a square foot, and another 25 years of optional extensions with periodic escalations to market rents. I signed the lease for the space in 1977 with Harry Helmsley, who evidently didn’t think it had much potential.

While searching for the real estate, I did a survey of all of the citywide land-use organizations to determine which ones would be compatible with MAS in housing their offices in the building and sharing the public spaces for gallery exhibitions and public meetings. There were more than ten such nonprofit organizations, but some were far too large to fit, while others did not want to leave where they were. We finally ended up with the Architectural League, the Parks Council, and the New York AIA, which acted as an umbrella for the planning and landscape organizations.

Then, as a way to keep the relationships open with all of these organizations, Doris Freedman suggested that MAS create an informal breakfast club to which only the top official of each of them was invited to meet monthly and share intelligence on development proposals before various city agencies.

When the Urban Center project started, the MAS was raising its funding month by month. It had no endowment and almost no cash on hand.

On the strength of the concept of an Urban Center (totally original at the time) we raised the funds (nearly a million dollars) for the renovation for programming. We finished the work in the fall of 1979 for the offices, the public spaces, and Urban Center Books (which was funded entirely by Joan Davidson and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.) We and our nonprofit sub-tenants were all subsidized by our commercial tenants.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual meeting in New York in late 1979, and we were able to open the doors of The Urban Center in time to welcome them.

It is interesting that MAS, an organization with a passionate, involved board, a tiny staff and no financial strength at the start, could carry off such a grand plan. It was the only organization that perceived the vacuum in unified civic leadership and undertook to fill it. The pioneering donors like CBS, Brooke Astor, Mobil Oil, and the National Endowment for the Humanities took a big leap of faith to back the effort at the beginning.

In its time, The Urban Center did much to balance the combined strength of the real estate community and the public agencies with the concerns and desires of local citizens and enlightened professionals.

The MAS organized and managed The Urban Center in its thirty years of existence with a lively program of exhibitions, presentations, bookstore, and celebrations, as it became a destination and meeting place for design professionals and students from all over the world. It is still missed by many.

Margot Wellington, Urbanist

I did not recognize the Municipal Art Society described in the December 11th Editorial.

As a partner for the past three years in improving the safety, health, and prosperity of Brownsville, Brooklyn, MAS has brought attention to preservation, livability, and resilience concerns that it and other outer borough neighborhoods, particularly those with the highest rates of poverty, have long needed.

In its work with residents and organizations in Brownsville, MAS has combined the best of its advocacy tradition with emergent tools and smart urban strategies aimed at helping local residents thrive. It’s an impressive evolution for an organization that continues to stand fundamentally for a more inclusive city.

Rosanne Haggerty, president of the Community Solutions/Brownsville Partnership

I worked up there. I learned about “social loafing,” which I teach in my management courses.

Val Ginter, former MAS Tour Guide

I worked, consulted, and partnered with the MAS for many decades and think you may have underestimated the value of the work it has been doing over the past years. For credibility, I was the professional advisor to the legendary MAS Time Square Competition recently revisited at the Skyscraper Museum. More recently, during my term as president of the AIA New York Chapter, I partnered with the MAS and the Architectural League on a public forum addressing the then immediate and contentious future of the American Folk Art Museum. But the most important work the MAS has been doing is related to the future of the city, the region, and the globe starting with its immediate and intimate involvement with the post-Sandy activities. The MAS was present at the 20 agency meeting at the AIA NY Chapter and was central to the HUD/RBD activities and runs right up to the recent Urban Thinkers Campus and organizing of programs like the critical multi-agency, multi-institutional one held recently at the National Museum of the American Indian dealing with the ever more critical issues of Climate Change. Not to recognize the importance of these activities is not giving credit where credit is due. Yes, we all look forward to a new home for the MAS and to robust new leadership, but this should not eclipse the contributions MAS is making while these new opportunities are being addressed.

Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, Architect

Your article is on target. The MAS is currently a sad situation given its long and distinguished history. For more than a century, MAS acted as advocate for zoning, planning, and historic preservation. It has since the 1950s provided first-rate public programs and tours to help the public reach a greater understanding of both planning and preservation issues. The Historic Districts Council has filled the preservation advocacy vacuum for the entire city and is more in touch with the issues and concerns all residents than MAS, which is generally perceived as “Midtown Manhattan- centric” and a “blueblood” organization. The HDC is responsible for so much fine work, but lacks the high profile of MAS. However on other issues such as planning and zoning, there is still is an important gap to be filled by MAS which was able to make the transition over the decades from a “City Beautiful Movement” organization of the 19th century concerned with “Municipal Art” to a dynamic advocate for rational zoning, planning, and preservation and the education of the citizenry in these issues through the 20th Century. I truly hope MAS can continue and find their way in the 21st.

John Kriskiewicz, Architectural Historian

Points well taken. We need a watchdog and you remind of us of the former and important role played by the MAS.

Anthony Alofsin, Architect

I joined MAS in the past year, and was asked to serve as chair of the preservation committee in the last six months. I feel the responsibility to respond to your article. This committee’s focus is the basis for the formation of MAS nearly 125 years ago, so the weight of the position was not lost on me.

In taking stock of our preservation activities I came away with an external view, which was consistent with what you are saying. However, the internal evaluation yielded a different result. From an outside perspective, MAS had stepped away from the active preservation forum. We were not walking the halls nor shouting out loudly or early enough. We had lost direct touch with our constituents when the Urban Center was closed. However, in my internal research I learned that MAS became spread thin, overcommitted financially, and carried hefty legal bills to fight these fights. The outgoing director dedicated much of his tenure to streamlining programs, reducing costs and creating a fiscally viable organization. He focused on organizational health and moved us from reactive battles to proactive planning.

If there was a loss of voice, I do stand by a leader who created focus and organizational health.

My recommendations were to increase our financial commitment toward staff in preservation; to get into the fight earlier; to use new tools to engage a broader audience; and to support the broad array of smaller preservation organizations. Those recommendations were supported by the Board. And so, this fall we hired an experienced, highly respected preservation professional to support our efforts.

We have formalized our areas of focus—Penn Station, supertalls, East Midtown, landmarks, and loss of character in neighborhoods across our five boroughs. Considerable planning has gone on in these core areas for the past three years.

As we appoint a new president, MAS has a huge opportunity to be owned by all who care about its work. Many of the most frustrated voices are also those who have been a part of our history and care deeply about the Society. The sweep of a century has moved from no preservation to our first preservation policy, to tools that allow us to merge preservation with design planning. Through the leadership of a new President, the Board, our staff, and members, MAS is committed to an ambitious future for the city, which includes the fundamental importance of preservation. MAS has a huge opportunity to become owned by all who care about its work and thus drive the agenda. It is a membership organization and ownership should grow to encompass ALL New Yorkers.

Christy MacLear, executive director at Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Has MAS lost its fight? An important question, but we could equally ask: “Have we lost our fight?” William Menking’s editorial poses a question that the media, advocacy organizations, and the profession itself should be asking. As an example, AN itself used to be known for publishing the latest gossip from the upper boardrooms of design and architecture, aiming to break down walls. But controversy is hard to sustain. For both not-for-profit and for-profit concerns, the fight seems to be for relevance. The many organizations that are committed to what makes New York New York, struggle with how to inspire New Yorkers to fight the continuing loss of variety in our city and its places. The struggle plays out through individual fights for buildings and larger fights for policy change, but what remains lacking is investment in and support of a platform to coordinate, combine, and focus these efforts, large and small. In our own experience, MAS sponsored The Next 100 initiative to communicate what was at stake for Grand Central. Since the teams presented these architectural visions in 2013, there has been almost no reaction and certainly no sign of a larger movement galvanizing interest around campaigning for any of the elements of the visions proposed for Grand Central and its district. Is this because we don’t see projecting a vision and building excitement about the future as a critical part of the preservation battle? Or maybe it is too hard to accept, that we need to work on the battles you cite, as civic issues that bring together organizations and their resources.

Claire Weisz, FAIA, principal, W X Y architecture + urban design

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