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A structure that has significant historical, architectural, or cultural meaning and that has been given legal protection from alteration and destruction.

Although landmark preservation laws vary by city and state, they have the same basic purpose: to keep landmarks as close to their original condition as possible. As a legal specialty, landmark and preservation law has developed as the number of designated landmarks has grown in the United States. Landmarks are often buildings such as hotels, homes, skyscrapers, theaters, museums, stores, libraries, churches, and synagogues. Other structures, such as bridges, and even natural points of interest, such as trees, can also be designated as landmarks if they have special historical, architectural, or cultural significance.

New York City divides its landmarks into four categories: individual, interior, scenic, and historic district. Individual landmarks are designated for their exterior. Interior landmarks are noted for the portions of their interior that are open to the public. Scenic landmarks encompass structures that are not buildings, such as bridges, piers, parks, Cemeteries, sidewalks, clocks, and trees. Historic district landmarks include entire areas that have architectural unity and quality or that represent a specific architectural period or style. All buildings within a designated historical district are protected from alteration or destruction.

The Chrysler Building in New York City is an example of an individual landmark. At the time of its completion, in 1930, it was the tallest building in New York City, at 77 stories and 1,046 feet. Built by Walter P. Chrysler, the founder of the Chrysler Corporation, the building remains a part of the New York City skyline. The building's art deco style is unique. Outside the thirty-first floor, a line of cars made of gray and white bricks encircles the building. The cars have chrome hubcaps, which are embedded in the wall. On each of the four corners of this floor is a buttress, and atop each buttress is a giant steel eagle similar in style to the ornament that used to adorn the Chrysler radiator cap. The floors from the thirty-first to the fifty-ninth make up a tower, and the fifty-ninth floor is marked with eight gargoyles. A spire begins on the fifty-ninth floor, constructed of arches with triangular windows. At night the spire is lit from the inside, highlighting its place in the Manhattan skyline.

Once a landmark has been designated, it is legally protected from alteration or destruction. If the owner of a landmark wishes to change it, the alterations must be approved by the commission or council that governs the landmarks in the city or state in which the landmark is located.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City is one such body. Since its creation in 1965, the commission has designated more than a thousand landmarks in New York City. The commission creates guidelines for landmark designation, designates landmarks, and reviews applications for the alteration of previously designated landmarks. The group is made up of 11 commissioners, including at least one from each of the five boroughs of New York City.

Many U.S. cities have ordinances regulating historical preservation of landmarks. Under these ordinances a landmark owner basically has two obligations: first, the owner is responsible for the upkeep of the building or structure, which is a basic requirement for any property owner; and second, the owner is required to get advance approval for any exterior improvements or alterations to the landmark. Requests for alterations are made to the appropriate city or state preservation commission.

New York City's Landmarks Preservation Law was passed in 1965, two years after the historic Pennsylvania Station in New York City was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden. The demise of this historical structure was one among many that sparked the movement to enact preservation laws to protect landmarks.Despite their prevalence landmark laws are often challenged by property owners who feel that the laws create undue interference with their use of their property. Typically, a landmark owner argues that a taking has occurred because a city or state preservation council has rejected the owner's application to alter the landmark. A taking is defined as interference with or damage to a private property owner's land-use rights. In Zoning law cases, a taking can occur if a property owner is denied economically viable use of the land or the buildings on the land. In landmark cases the line between taking and a legitimate government-imposed limitation is often blurred.

The 1978 case of Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104, 98 S. Ct. 2646, 57 L. Ed. 2d 631, illustrates the strength of New York City's landmark preservation laws over the desires of a landmark owner. Penn Central, the owner of the Grand Central Terminal, leased the building to a company that planned to construct a 50-story office tower on top of it. However, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission had designated the terminal as a historic landmark, and the commission refused to allow the building's exterior to be altered by the planned tower. Penn Central sued the city, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Penn Central argued that the construction denial was a taking. New York City argued that "regulating private property for historical, cultural or aesthetic values, if it is done in accord with a comprehensive plan that provides benefit to all, is in the public interest." The city also argued that the meaningful preservation of landmarks meant that any additions should "protect, enhance and perpetuate the original design, rather than overwhelm it."

The Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional, "as part of a comprehensive program to preserve historic landmarks and historic districts, [to] place restrictions on the development of individual historic landmarks … without effecting a 'taking.'"

Penn Central established three factors for determining whether a taking has occurred in landmark land-use cases: the economic effect of the regulation on the claimant; how much the regulation affected investment-backed expectations; and the character of the government action—whether there was a legitimate State Interest, such as an interest in preserving existing landmarks. New York City's refusal to permit construction did not reduce Penn Central's income or interfere with its Original Intent of operating the terminal, and because New York City had a legitimate state interest (preserving the landmark in its original state), the Supreme Court ruled that a taking had not occurred and that the landmark law was constitutional.

In the 1980 case of Agins v. City of Tiburon, 447 U.S. 255, 100 S. Ct. 2138, 65 L. Ed. 2d 106, the Supreme Court ruled that "regulation is a taking if it doesn't substantially advance legitimate state interests or denies an owner economically viable use of his land." Agins established a two-part test to determine whether a taking has occurred. Under Agins a regulation is a taking if it does not substantially advance a legitimate state interest and if it denies the landmark owner all economically viable use of the land. The Agins ruling clarified the amount of economic effect necessary for a regulation to be considered a taking. If a regulation prevented all economically viable use of the land, it was a taking. However, if a regulation left some economically viable use, it was not considered a taking.

Twelve years later, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 112 S. Ct. 2886, 120 L. Ed. 2d 798 (1992), the Court clarified its definition of economically viable use, stating that it was any use that was greater than zero.

Further readings

Diamonstein, Barbaralee. 1992. Landmarks: Eighteen Wonders of the New York World. New York: Abrams.

Kayden, Jerold S. 1996. "Hunting for Quarks: Constitutional Takings, Property Rights, and Government Regulation." Washington University Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law 50 (fall).

——. 1995. "Historic Preservation and the New Takings Cases: Landmarks Preserved." Fordham Environmental Law Journal 6.

National Historic Landmarks Program. Available online at <> (accessed September 26, 2003).

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Available online at <> (accessed September 26, 2003).

Nivala, John. 1996. "The Future for Our Past: Preserving Landmark Preservation." New York University Environmental Law Journal 5.


Eminent Domain; Land-Use Control.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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