Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Can the view from NYC's famous Cloisters museum be preserved in accord with donor John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s wishes?


This is the view of New Jersey's Palisades -- across the Hudson River from what is now Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park -- which John D. Rockefeller Jr. thought he was preserving for all time when he bought it and donated it to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in the 1930s.

by Ken

Folks who have the good sense to be on tour leader extraordinaire Justin Ferate's mailing list got an e-mail yesterday from Justin recalling a point he made to those of us who had the good sense to be with him on a recent tour of the Cloisters, the medieval wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art built on land perched above the Hudson River in what is now Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park on land donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr.
I indicated that the Rockefellers had wisely purchased the property across the Hudson River with special codicils to forever protect the vistas of that remarkable place of solitude. Foolishly, I failed to take into account the pressures of real estate.
As Robin Pogrebin reported yesterday in the New York Times ("A Timeless View From the Cloisters Faces a Modern Intrusion"):

After John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land for the Cloisters museum in northern Manhattan, he went a step further in the 1930s and bought the cliffs across the Hudson River in New Jersey to preserve the museum’s pristine view of the Palisades.

Now his grandson Larry Rockefeller; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the Cloisters; and other groups are fighting to preserve that vista, which they say is threatened by a new corporate headquarters to be built in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

As designed, the headquarters for LG Electronics USA, a major employer and taxpayer in that borough, would be 143 feet tall and rise several stories above the tree line.

"The Palisades really rests at the heart of the conservation legacy, if you will, which our family has left, and is leaving, to America," Mr. Rockefeller, 68, said in a telephone interview from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, which his family also helped preserve. . . .

Larry Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Jr., told the Times he's encouraged by a meeting he had just before Christmas with executives of LG Electronics USA, which has announced plans to build this building atop the Palisades. He says: "I don't think they'd been aware of the larger context, the historic context, the geographic context. I think LG really wants to do the right thing, and I'm hopeful that will lead them to redesign it."

A spokesman for the South Korea-based company, John Taylor, said of the project, scheduled to begin construction this year and be completed by 2016: "We're listening to their concerns. We're very proud of this project. We're creating an iconic green structure that we think is going to be among the most energy efficient corporate campuses on the East Coast."

Larry Rockefeller, who served for 27 years on the Palisades Interstate Park Commissions and is now a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained that his grandfather had made clear that the 700 acres he donated atop that 13-mile stretch of the Palisades was meant to be preserved. "There were conditions in that gift which made that very clear."
In a letter to the Palisades Interstate Park commissioners John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote at the time, "My primary purpose in acquiring this property was to preserve the land lying along the top of the Palisades from any use inconsistent with your ownership and protection of the Palisades themselves."

The lawsuits filed to protect the view include a joint one filed in November by Scenic Hudson, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs. The other suit was filed by two Englewood Cliffs residents.

"My grandfather was not alone in appreciating it and acting to preserve it," Mr. Rockefeller said. "There is a public trust that has been there over the decades to keep buildings below the tree line and preserve the unbroken ridgeline and landscape landmark view, which may be one of the most iconic in America."
The design of the new LG headquarters "calls for eight 18-foot stories in an area previously zoned for a maximum of 35 feet." So what about John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s belief that his people had forestalled any such possibility? According to the Times article, the 35-foot height limit --
was recently lifted through a variance that has been challenged in court in one of the two lawsuits. The case is before State Superior Court Judge Alexander H. Carver III. Subsequently the land was rezoned to allow for a taller building.
The groups challenging the building's design insist, as Hayley Carlock, a lawyer for Scenic Hudson put it:
Our goal has always been to find a way to lower the height of the tower so it doesn’t stand out above the Palisades and preserves the majesty of the Palisades ridge, which has served such an important historical and cultural role for those of us across the river, particularly the views in northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
These days the extent of the Rockefellers' philanthropy tends to be taken for granted, but the family developed an extraordinary history of "giving back," as Justin put it on that Cloisters tour, when our handouts included a packed sheet listing the most conspicuous public gifts. (No one leaves one of Justin's tours without a stack of fact-filled handouts, which he sometimes refers to as "homework.")

The Metropolitan Museum and the Cloisters project were favorite causes of John D. Jr.'s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was also, as Wikipedia puts it, " the driving force in the establishment and ongoing operations" of New York's Museum of Modern Art, for which she could count on less support from her husband, who didn't have a lot of sympathy for modern art.

But the Cloisters is one legacy that's almost impossible to imagine without John D. Jr.'s energetic participation. Now his grandson and the various allied campaigners are hoping to ensure that his vision for the site is maintained.

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