Andrew Dolkart: Teacher, Author, Advocate

When Andrew Dolkart, Director of Historic Preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, was asked to characterize what it means to be a historic preservationist, he found the question difficult to answer. Upon further reflection, Dolkart described it as “a varied field” based on a value system that “honors the physical fabric of our communities.” Originally intending to pursue a PhD in art history, Dolkart turned to historic preservation, spurred by the works of Ada Louise Huxtable and the first AIA guide to New York City, because he “wanted to make a difference in the world.” The author of several books, including “Biography of a Tenement House in New York City,” and “Morningside Heights,” a comprehensive survey and history of the area’s architecture, Dolkart is also a familiar figure in front of New York City land use agencies, where one might find him advocating for a building’s landmark protection or opposing insensitive development and planning.

Once a theater major as an undergraduate at Colgate University, Dolkart channels his thespian inclinations into guided walking tours, a service he has provided for the past 30 years. Dolkart has seen the tours become increasingly popular, and include international tourists as well as locals. Dolkart finds the tours gratifying because people “notice the city in different ways,” and challenging because “you have to know what you’re talking about and present it in a dynamic way.”

On the City’s approach to historic preservation. Dolkart is a staunch supporter of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, for whom he once worked as a research staffer. He notes that the concept of preservation has grown much more diverse since Landmarks’ inception, when it primarily focused on upper-class residences, extremely old structures like Dutch farmhouses, and outstanding works of architecture like the New York Public Library. He believes Landmarks should be more aggressive in protecting endangered and abandoned buildings, “which may not have an obvious future,” such as the Towers Nursing Home, which was demolished to make way for luxury housing. Dolkart believes Landmarks should focus on identifying buildings that have been ignored, like six-story apartment buildings of the early 20th century, which he calls “one of the quintessential physical forms in New York.” Dolkart points to areas like the Lower East Side as significant “urban landscapes” with compelling histories that merit designation.

“Not a great fan of guidelines.” Dolkart criticizes recent planning decisions that he says have ignored factors of historic preservation. He cites West Chelsea, Williamsburg, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Dolkart has also been a critic of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. As to how planning could be more sensitive to issues of historic preservation, Dolkart says there are no hard and fast answers: “guidelines for Harlem would not be the same as guidelines for Williamsburg.” Dolkart believes that historic preservation should be taken into account by planners in the same manner as transportation needs. He says that historic preservation is not about barring development in historic neighborhoods, and admits that Atlantic Yards is an area “ripe for development.” He thinks, however, that the development plan did not adequately look at adaptive reuse, particularly former industrial buildings that could have been converted to residences. He also believes that developers did not take into account the scale of surrounding neighborhoods, and decries the lack of civic amenities, like schools, in the project.

Projects and passions. Dolkart speaks with enthusiasm about his research on an upcoming Garment District project. He also has a book coming out in Fall 2009, called “The Rowhouse Reborn,” about rowhouses, which were often repainted or torn down, and have subsequently reemerged as popular urban housing.

While embracing every era, neighborhood, and architectural style in New York City, Dolkart confesses to a special affection for the Romanesque Revival buildings of the 1880s. Another area of special interest is the 1920s, which he calls “the period which created the City we now have today,” both for its architecture and the immigration and culture of the time. In terms of contemporary architecture, Dolkart expresses admiration for the work of Richard Meier. Dolkart claims “preservation didn’t stop with buildings built 30 or 50 years ago.” He says he likes to joke with architects that they should be grateful for preservationists, because if they design a great building, 50 years from now, “we’ll be there.”

— Jesse Denno

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