The Vanishing City

The vanishing city
Moviegoers gather at the entrance to the Roxy Theatre in New York, 1935

The Rockettes, when they first became famous, were called the Roxyettes. Named after the impresario S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, they were a regular act at Rothafel’s Roxy Theatre, which opened in 1927 on 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. In the Roxy’s lobby—a five-story rotunda—marble columns surrounded the world’s largest oval rug. The main theater had nearly 6,000 seats. On opening night, Rothafel projected onto the cinema screen letters of congratulation from President Calvin Coolidge and the mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker.

In 1960, the Roxy was unceremoniously razed to make way for an office building. It was just one of many urban erasures that led to the establishment in 1965 of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The story of the agency’s emergence as a powerful force in city politics is documented by a revealing new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks.”

Today in New York there are more than 1,300 individual landmarks, and 114 historic districts encompassing some 33,000 landmarked properties. Other landmarked sites include about a hundred lampposts, seven cast-iron sidewalk clocks, three Coney Island amusement park rides, and a Magnolia grandiflora tree planted in Brooklyn in 1885.

Yet prior to the landmarks law there was no legal means for protecting historic sites like the Roxy. Many had fallen into disrepair. A 1965 photograph in “Saving Place” shows Brooklyn’s Wyckoff House—a single-story wooden frame home built in 1652, and New York’s oldest structure—with a large hole in its roof. It was nearly demolished in the early 1950s to accommodate the construction of a new street. The Wyckoff House survived long enough to be the first building designated for preservation by the Landmarks Commission. But it took the destruction of many beloved places before the law gained the political support it needed. []

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