Oliver Allen's Dedication to Landmarking

To the Editor:

Learning of Oliver Allen's death was sad confirmation that time races by far faster than most of us like. Oliver was a key player in saving Tribeca. Oliver's role in that early effort was tireless; his dedication and spirit of community volunteerism truly outstanding. In our work together under the guidance of TCA leader Carole DeSaram, Oliver and his wife Deborah also blessed us with a warm friendship. His death was a reminder that other friends who worked decades ago to save our Tribeca neighborhood are no longer here:  Edward Albee died last year and more recently we lost Jim Rosenquist. Pioneers all, their contributions helped preserve a community created by the adaptive reuse of historic mercantile buildings.

In the early 1970's, when there was almost no hint of residential activity in lower Manhattan's quiet streets, the ghosts of New York's old Washington Market food halls sat largely vacant. By 1984, as the area grew in popularity and the pace of loft conversions accelerated, inappropriate rooftop additions, cornice removals, and other alterations increasingly jeopardized the area's historic fabric and character.  

Oliver was a vital force in helping form “The Committee for the Washington Market Historic District.” The Committee's goal was to foster recognition of the area's importance in New York history by preserving the buildings and blocks that formed the old Washington Market. The committee enlisted the support of area residents, including playwright Edward Albee, actor Robert De Niro, and painter James Rosenquist, to lobby the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the area an historic district.

Oliver Allen worked tirelessly to create a photographic record of the streetscapes and buildings that would document the area as it existed at that moment in time.

Oliver understood that saving their historic character required sensitive attention to detail if the area were to retain its sense of place. His dedication led to his purchase of a special perspective-correcting lens that would eliminate distortion of a building façade, and his exemplary work became an invaluable resource for the Landmarks Commission in their work.

With his professional expertise in the print world, Oliver worked closely with noted architectural historian Andrew Dolkart and graphic designer Connie Baldwin to published “The Texture of Tribeca,” an award-winning book the committee created documenting the area's history and architecture. It traced life in Lower Manhattan from the time when “no one of any social consequence lived north of Chambers Street” to the food market's sad demolition in the misguided “urban renewal” of the late 1960's.

Oliver was justifiably proud of the result; in response to the committee’s advocacy efforts, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Tribeca West Historic District in 1991, followed in 1993 by Tribeca North, South and East.  The four districts have helped to preserve one of America's most historically important urban mercantile and market centers, containing an unprecedented collection of 19th century commercial architecture. Oliver, and his wife Deborah, were dedicated neighbors whose focus, energy and enthusiasm for their work helped to guide our neighborhood's renaissance. That Tribeca has become a national model of successful adaptive reuse in an urban center is due in no small way to Oliver’s love of history and his beloved community.

Hal Bromm