New York Landmarks Conservancy on Being a Tourist in Your Own Town

Photo via New York Landmarks Conservancy.


Due to the coronavirus pandemic where cultural activities are restricted, it is difficult to find new things to do. With that challenge in mind, we talked with Peg Breen, President of The New York Landmarks Conservancy, a 47-year-old architectural preservation organization, about landmarks in open spaces. We also talked about the organization´s new projects, and Peg´s favorite piece of history in the city. 


What are the main conservancy projects the NYLC is working on right now? How was your activity affected by the health crisis? 


The Conservancy has been fortunate that the staff has been able to work from home and our loan, grant and advocacy programs have continued. We have given emergency grants to Historic Richmondtown and Castle Belvedere on Staten Island and others are pending.  We are monitoring 6 preservation projects that have received our low-interest loans and are fielding inquiries from several building owners interested in our loans. We recently completed emergency stabilization at Frederick Law Olmsted’s former home on Staten Island and look forward to working with the City Parks Department on additional work when that is possible. Our Sacred Sites staff is reviewing applications for our statewide grants that have helped almost 900 religious institutions of all denominations.   


Are you planning virtual activities or in-person activities with small groups for this second half of the year?


Our Sacred Sites staff also is working on a virtual Sacred Sites Open House throughout August complete with zoom programs and social media to highlight New York’s incredible collection of houses of worship.  We are also preparing for virtual Lucy Moses Preservation Awards in September which highlight great preservation projects and individual preservation leaders. We had almost 700 persons at last year’s Moses Awards and this will be their 30th anniversary. While we’d love to be doing this in person, we’re still going to have a great celebration on zoom.  We have kept up frequent zoom public programs since March. We’ve had regular zoom sessions with our Professional Circle members to hear how these architectural, engineering and conservation firms are coping. We’ve had virtual walking tours. We will continue these program for the forseeable future.


We also updated an earlier study on the economic benefits of preservation in the City. We will have a public announcement on zoom in September. We want more people to understand that preservation contributes to the City’s economy, local jobs, tourism and quality of life.  And preservation will help the City recover now.  


As New Yorkers during the coronavirus pandemic, we can still enjoy this summer at open spaces. Could you recommend some New York landmarks in parks and open spaces to go visit? What is your favorite one?


NYC has wonderful landmark parks—Central, Prospect and Riverside. Wave Hill in Riverdale has wonderful grounds. The New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are a treat.  I live by Riverside Park, so that’s my favorite. We also have “Tourist in Your Own Town” videos on our website and on YouTube that highlight interesting landmark places throughout the boroughs. So you can travel without leaving home. I live in historic district on the Upper West Side. So, in addition to Riverside Park, I enjoy walking the streets and focusing on the wonderful architecture.


 The Conservancy has loaned and granted more than $53 million to property owners, contributing to more than $1 billion in total preservation projects throughout New York. The organization is also a strong advocate for sound planning and preservation at all levels of government.


Are there other cities in the US or around the world that are good examples for New York in terms of conservancy? 


I am in frequent contact with my counterparts at preservation organizations in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and D.C. I have weekly zoom sessions with other groups in the City and with the Preservation League of NYS. We don’t always focus on the same issues, but it is wonderful to hear what is happening here and elsewhere around the country.  


Is there a story behind a New York landmark that was deeply moving for you that you could share with us?


It’s hard to pick one landmark that has been the most moving to me.  But one of the most remarkable is the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan. Madame Jumel was one of the most successful business women of her time. George Washington used it as his headquarters briefly as he retreated up the island from the British. He brought his whole cabinet there after his inauguration. And Aaron Burr was briefly married to the widowed Madame Jumel. So what an assembly of our country’s early leaders in one building.    


Photo via


What aspect of conservancy as a science and as a practice do you wish more people know of? 


Preservation isn’t just about bricks and mortar. It’s also about the people who built them, lived and worked in them, and use them today. Landmark buildings hold memories, hold history, and tell stories. It’s wonderful to work to preserve the City we love.




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