On March 6, forty-nine years ago, munchkins from the Downtown School in the East Village grabbed their banners and wended their way to the steps of the Merchant’s House Museum, singing protest songs all the way. This was the sixties, after all, and when you saw an injustice, that’s what you did, even if you were just a little kid.
Here’s why the children did what they did, and how it all turned out.
For several years, a small group of New Yorkers had become alarmed at the number of architecturally significant old buildings that were falling victims to the wrecker’s ball. In June of 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner had appointed a committee to come up with recommendations on how New York City’s old buildings could be protected. Their advice was that the mayor appoint a permanent advisory Landmarks Preservation Commission to survey potential landmark buildings and draft legislation to help preserve them.
Then in October of 1963, in what the New York Times called a “monumental act of vandalism,” the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, one of New York City’s most glorious structures began.
Public opinion was galvanized. And as more and more architecturally important old buildings were replaced by monotonous glass and steel boxes, there was a growing understanding that old buildings give character, dimension, and beauty to the city.
By the spring of 1964, the advisory commission had finished drafting the landmarks legislation. It called for a permanent Landmarks Preservation Commission of eleven members, which would have the power to designate buildings of historic or aesthetic significance as landmarks. Such designated buildings could not be demolished until a series of alternatives had been explored, and then only with permission of the Commission. It also empowered the Commission to designate historic districts. The Commission would have the power to determine whether proposed new structures or modifications to the exterior of existing structures in these districts were appropriate to the aesthetic and historic character of the district. There was teeth in the proposed law, for the commission would have the power to impose criminal sanctions to enforce its decisions.
Months passed without action on the proposed legislation, and then on September 17, 1964, it was announced that a prized New York City landmark, the former Brokaw Mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, was going to be demolished.and replaced with a high rise apartment building. The public was outraged; the press was outraged; pressure for action became intense.
At the same time, a developer who hoped to assemble East Fourth Street lots for commercial use offered to buy the Old Merchant’s House. It had survived as a museum for three decades, most of those years by the skin of its teeth and now it was on its last legs. The Board was tentatively eyeing the offer.
In spite of intense objection and because the Landmarks Preservation Commission still had no legal authority to prevent it, on a Saturday morning in February of 1965, demolition of the Brokaw Mansion began. New Yorkers winced and howled as stained glass, carved architectural moldings and marble ornamentation were shattered.
AND THAT’S WHEN THE CHILDREN MOBILIZED
Children from the Downtown School were aware of the outrage of their parents. They understood that somehow the final enactment of the Landmarks legislation might help save the Old Merchant’s House—the destination of many of their field trips. So they, too, were outraged. And with the encouragement of their teachers, they decided to do something about it.
Lilliputian protesters, some playing guitars, some carrying placards, marched through the East Village singing, “Where have all the landmarks gone? Gone to ruins, most every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” After weaving their way through East Village Streets, they gathered at the Old Merchant’s House, where they collected petitions of protest to be sent to the mayor and recited original poems on the steps: “Save the Old Merchant’s House, please. Or else it will fall on its knees.”
Whether it was the destruction of the Brokaw mansion or the Children’s March that finally prompted action on the part of the City Council and the mayor, I really couldn’t say. But on April 6, 1965, the legislation passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it into law on April 16, 1965.
The children had their wish. On September 21, 1965, the Commission met for the first time all day and into the night. By nine o’clock , 20 structures had been designated. The Old Merchant’s House was one of them. Though it did not exactly have a new lease on life just yet, the designation had bought it some time. It had escaped being sold and razed. For seven years, it limped along and beginning in 1972, it was closed for almost a decade while a thorough structural restoration was undertaken. Today the Merchant’s House is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.