As sunlight glistens off the smooth, stone surfaces of Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza on a recent warm afternoon, visitors meander about, some heading for a show while others, including the occasional child whirring by on a tiny scooter, glide along one of the great open spaces in New York.
What they all may not realize is that not too many feet away, the tip of a ceremonial shovel was pushed into the soil by President Dwight Eisenhower on May 14, 1959, forever changing the landscape and signaling the start of a new era for several acres of the Upper West Side.
With construction phases completed years ago — including a 2009 redesign of the popular Revson Fountain, the centerpiece of the plaza — many concertgoers, visitors and local residents might feel as if the expanse had always been here.
“The intent was that the plazas at Lincoln Center be great public spaces, akin to the piazzas and plazas in Italian and other European cities,” said Andrew Scott Dolkart, professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “The fact that the main plaza is open at one end and at all corners permits a dynamic flow of people, and the secondary plaza with the fountain also creates multiple streams of pedestrian traffic and seating. I think that these have been a great success and at many times of the day are among the most dynamic sites in New York.”
The Lincoln Center of today, however, was born amid conceptual doubt and social consternation.
The project was the crown-jewel of then-Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.’s Committee on Slum Clearance, which was overseen by master builder Robert Moses, according to a New York Times article from Dec. 2017.
The “urban renewal” plan, which included educational, commercial and residential facilities, ultimately resulted in the demolition of 18 Upper West Side blocks, according to the Times. Some 800 businesses and 7,000 families were displaced as a result of the project, and promised relocation assistance was never received by those most in need, including previous residents who were mostly black and Hispanic.
Along with the neighborhood, Lincoln Center itself has morphed over time.
“To me, one of the great losses in the city is Philip Johnson’s original fountain in the center of the plaza, with its dancing water (which had been broken for many years before the entire piece was removed),” Dolkart said in an email.
He added that although the new fountain is dramatic, the water feature is “not in scale with the open space or buildings, and at the slightest breeze it makes the rim too wet to sit on. This is a big change since people always sat on the very comfortable Johnson rim.”
“On the other hand, the sinking of the road at the front of the plaza has been a great improvement, making access more gracious (marred somewhat by the barrier blocks recently installed)," Dokart said.
One need not spend more than a few moments on a sunny day — or for that matter even a cold, drizzly day — to see hundreds crisscrossing the plaza, sometimes hustling between the buildings, but often slowing down a little, maybe even stopping to look up at the towering Chagall murals just behind the Metropolitan Opera House front windows.
As one passes, it’s impossible not to realize what is above the entire plaza: space, open space, certainly to be cherished for another 60 years.