New York City 'computerizing' its landmarks

There's a bunch of people wandering around this city, counting almost everything that isn't hidden inside a building or doesn't move. And they're not only counting things -- buildings, bridges, trees, hills -- they're writing down detailed descriptions of them, taking photographs, and storing the information in a computer, so that someone who comes along in a few years and asks for a list of all the 10-story, 1850-era buildings below 15th Street in the baroque revival style with terra cotta collumnettes can get an answer -- and quick.

To be sure, there are better uses for the massive, computerized Urban Cultural Resources Survey being conducted on the 850,000 buildings and vacant lots in New York by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Among other things, the data base will enable city historians to identify irreplacably rare building specimens. And it will become a model for similar systems around the country.

But Meredith Sykes, who designed the system, likes answering the most esoteric questions in the blink of an eye, just by punching a few buttons on her computer terminal. So when you ask her for a list of all the beaux arts-style buildings in the computer so far, she pecks at few computer terminal keys and comes up with a lengthy printout that tells you there is a beaux arts, classical police station in Brooklyn that has been made into a community hall, a 1895 beaux arts factory in Manhattan, and beaux arts banks in various places throughout the five boroughs.

According to "The Liveble City," a publication of the Municipal Art Society, the system that gave these answers is unique because it (1) is fully computerized, (2) will be comprehensive in that it will include data on every single building lot in New York City, and not just the designated landmarks and potential landmarks, and (3) is open-ended; once a file is established on a building, information can be added as it is discovered.

The system will provide comprehensive data on the extent, quality, and complexity of the city's architectural heritage.

It also will enable landmarks commission staffers to review the status of buildings without driving around the city. And the computer system will aid in determining how destructive construction projects -- bridges, highways, etc. -- might be to historically significant structures.

The task of the landmarks commission is prodigious: New York City is continuously chewing up its treasured relics and replacing them with modern buildings -- a process that guarantees continuous changes of record in the system.

So far the computer system can only anser questions about tiny slices of the city, since the survey has been under way for only a little over a year. Although 10,000 sites have been entered into the system, representing 1/85 of the total city, it will take at least a decade for every single physical object of any dimension and significance in New York City to be cataloged.

It takes a lot of time and money ($350,000 a year) to send small teams of highly specialized people out into the streets of New York to painstakingly circle each city block, studying every building and jotting down, among other things, the address, present use, original use, architectural style, significance, present name, original name, original date, massing of structure, number of stories and window bays.

Will all of this dedicated counting be worth the effort? Will urban planners and architectural historians in future decades really be able to go downtown, press a button, and call forth detailed descriptions of any building, lot, dam, bridge, park in New York City?

"Good luck," observes one city official. "They'll have to start over again by the time they finish. Things will have changed so much."

And a member of the survey team itself admits, "There is some doubt that it will ever be completed. A lot depends on the presidential election. Whether it is politically viable to use federal moneys to keep a program like this alive.

"But," the member adds, "even if we only do 10 percent, it will be a useful 10 percent, because we are choosing significant parts of parts of the city. And it will serve as a model for other cities."

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