Historic Medallions in New York City

I belong to an email list of other leading Manhattan commercial real estate lawyers on which interesting topics come up frequently.  A recent inquiry asked about a request from a nonprofit named the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center to place a "cultural medallion" on a property to commemorate the fact that an important figure once lived there. The medallions don’t impose legal restrictions but the obvious concern is that having the medallion posted would draw more attention to the building and perhaps raise the specter of a landmark designation of the building which would impose very significant legal restrictions.  Since it nicely summarized the law and the benefits of participating, with her consent I am reproducing below a slightly edited version of the thoughtful response to the inquiry by Meredith Kane, a partner with Paul Weiss.

“…[B]eing well-aware of the legal constraints imposed by landmark designation, but also with great appreciation for the rich cultural and architectural history of New York City, let me offer the following thoughts (not legal advice) to your client:

  1. The plaque program by HLPC, a not-for-profit education group, is truly separate from the legal jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
  2. One impetus behind the plaque program is that the LPC often finds it difficult to landmark cultural properties, where the architectural merit of the property is in question (or has been highly altered). The reason is that LPC's regulatory jurisdiction relates to physical alterations to the property, and they have no power over property use or other "cultural" touchstones. Thus, if a property in which a famous person resided looks nothing like its original condition, there is a question as to what, exactly, the LPC is protecting and in what manner should they exercise their regulatory power over physical alterations. To the extent that the building's use is just a historical memory, and the building doesn't look substantially like what it did when the famous person resided there, a plaque may be the best way of commemorating the history, where landmarking may not serve a purpose.
  3. LPC will study a property for landmark designation when members of the public (including advocates like HLPC) request consideration, whether or not it has a historic plaque. It's likely that LPC already has the property on a study list, if it is interested, and the plaque will make no difference.
  4. The plaques are a wonderful "find" to anyone exploring this beautiful city, and they will be doing a good civic deed if they put one on their building.”

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