Today, 40 years after their destruction, everyone agrees that New York City’s Pennsylvania Station and San Francisco’s Fox Theater were the sort of architectural treasures that deserved preservation. But with 20/20 hindsight, these are ridiculously easy calls. The real test, as New York and San Francisco both learned through bitter experience, is to recognize the value in buildings we take for granted in our own time. This is still much harder than it seems, in spite of all we think we’ve learned about preservation in the interim.
Why? The reason is best seen through analogy. In 1963, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began demolishing Penn Station amid overwhelming disinterest from New Yorkers, the building was 53 years old–in today’s terms, the equivalent of a structure built in 1951. How many people do you know who would regard a building of this era, however excellent its design or energetic its defenders, as worthy of preservation? Now suppose that this preservation would also cost a lot of money–perhaps more than a replacement structure. Now what are the odds of survival? Viewed in this context, the destruction of Penn Station and a thousand other long-lamented landmarks doesn’t seem so inexplicable. In fact, without extraordinary vigilance, it’s just as likely to happen again in our own time.
Every generation is blinded by its own biases about what constitutes “worthy” architecture. Faced with the preceding scenario, we’re just as likely to make the same poor choices our predecessors did. Our foresight inevitably falls just short of where it ought to be, distorted by the aesthetic lens of the present.
Today, it’s the exuberant “Googie” commercial architecture of the 1950s and