, Newburyport, MA

January 31, 2013

A consideration for Newburyport's preservation

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

Ada Louis Huxtable died on Jan. 7, 2013. In 1963, she began writing architectural criticism for the New York Times, and later won the first Pulitzer Prize for Art Criticism. She was an advocate and aesthetic educator communicating views on public policy, technology, and politics.

Huxtable believed that the prime consideration in architecture should be how it makes people who use it feel. Architectural critic Edward Lifson remarked that her analysis was “never about the developer, or the theory or new heights, or innovation for innovation’s sake. It was about how [architecture] improves the user. Is this fair, is this just? She compared it to an ideal: Is this the best project that could be on this site? Or is it good enough for us? Is this how we should be remembered? Or are we being sold down the river?”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, a period enthralled by “heroic corporate modernism,” Huxtable emphasized the potential in modernism for the “deathlessly ordinary.” In 1963, she railed against demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, “monument to the lost art of magnificent construction” to erect Madison Square Garden, a “giant pizza stand.” Then, historic preservation was viewed as a fringe concept impeding progress. Development was embraced as serving the public good. Skeptical of dogma, Huxtable challenged developers’ attitude of entitlement. She was an impassioned voice of countervailing opinion.

In 1965, she said that “blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal” was too dominant a force, and she worked to create for New York City the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Over the years, the commission saved many building including the Art Deco treasure, Radio City Music Hall. In 1968, she wrote that “what preservation is really about is the retention and active relationship of the buildings of the past to the community’s functioning present.” She urged us to consider what constitutes sustainable design. Her writing opened readers to meditations on how we live and what legacy we want to leave.

Historic preservation can be controversial, and a public process is needed to assess whether properties have historic value and should be saved. Huxtable declared, “When so much seems to conspire to reduce life and feeling to the most deprived and demeaning bottom line, it is more important than ever that we receive that extra dimension of dignity or delight and the elevated sense of self that the art of building can provide through the nature of the places where we live and work. What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.”

Remembering Ada Louise Huxtable’s contributions provides a context for considering the future of Newburyport. Public discussions on preservation allow helpful exchanges of opinion. The Newburyport Preservation Trust supports education and preservation and is a resource for understanding our community’s “built world.”

Adelaide Carothers