Taking Care of Business - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Taking Care of Business September 28, 2006
by Sarah Pickman

The Landmarks Preservation Commission and Archaeology in New York City

Archaeology in New York City is almost 100 years old. At the beginning of the twentieth century, amateur archaeologists William Calver and Reginald Bolton, and anthropologists Alanson Skinner and Amos Oneroad of the Museum of the American Indian, searched for Native American and Revolutionary War artifacts in northern Manhattan. But it wasn't until many decades later that the city began to regulate archaeological work within its boundaries.


The entrance hall of the original, grand Pennsylvania Station. (Library of Congress)

In 1963, the city's Pennsylvania Station, a grand, Greco-Roman inspired train depot, was demolished after years of declining train use, even though the building itself was reusable. New Yorkers grew concerned that other historically, culturally, and architecturally significant places in the city would be next, prompting Mayor Robert Wagner to sign the Landmarks Law, establishing the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1965. The 11-person commission was required to include three architects, one historian, one urban planner, and one realtor, and at least one member from each of the five boroughs. As a city agency, it was charged with protecting New York's architectural and historic resources through designating and regulating city landmarks and historic districts. Part of its work would inevitably involve finding a balance between the continuous urban development of modern New York and the need to safeguard the remnants of its past.

Today, this difficult task often falls on the commission's archaeology department. Federal, state, and city laws require that if major construction, renovations, or other such projects are planned on public land or with public money, the appropriate government agencies must assess the work's potential environmental impact. If major subsurface work is planned for such a project in New York City, the LPC's archaeology department acts as a consulting party to other government agencies, to help them meet the requirements of this assessment. The department's three professional archaeologists study the project sites, evaluate their potential effect on the city's heritage, and recommend and oversee archaeological investigations as necessary. Developers can choose archaeological firms to complete any work needed, but are still subject to the guidelines of the LPC.


Amanda Sutphin of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. As the commission's director of archeology, Sutphin consults on public archaeological work in all five boroughs. (Elisabeth de Bourbon)

When projects are conducted with federal funds, "they trigger section 106 [of the National Historic Preservation Act], which requires that the people who are doing the project have to consider how their project might impact archaeological resources, and if so, they must do something about it," explains the commission's chief archaeologist, Amanda Sutphin. "Landmarks acts as a consulting party, because we're an expert agency in the city's historic resources. We evaluate their research, we offer advice, we make recommendations."

In addition to the federal environmental review, "there's also a state version, which is the State Environmental Quality Review, and then there's the City Environmental Quality Review," adds Sutphin. "And they're all similar in that they require the agency that's undertaking an action or approving certain types of actions to consider the impact on archaeology and then to mitigate it."


The Vander Ende Onderdonk House, in the Ridgewood neighborhood in Queens, is the oldest Dutch colonial stone house in the city, built in 1709. Today, it houses the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society. (Ellen Brody-Kirmss)

Occasionally, the LPC's need to protect architectural and historic resources requires that archaeological sites be given landmark status. Though Sutphin notes that "most of the [designations] are based just on an architectural assessment, we do regulate some archaeological resources." Archaeological sites that yield, or have the potential to yield, important evidence about the city's past can be given landmark status by the Commission. Sites that have received such a distinction include the African Burial Ground and Commons, the early eighteenth-century Adrian and Ann Wyckoff Onderdonk House in Queens, portions of Governor's Island, and the nineteenth-century Fort Totten Historical District in Queens.

And like all city landmarks, any changes to the archaeological sites must be approved by the Commission, acting on the advice of the archaeology department. "We do, at times, get involved in regulation. For example," says Sutphin, "if someone wants to put a trench in Trinity graveyard, we'll get involved."

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America