It’s one of the many success stories of the Conservancy, which is “dedicated to preserving, enhancing, revitalizing and reusing architecturally significant buildings in New York City and State.”
It was founded in 1973, by which time the preservation of the city’s architectural jewels had become a hot button issue.
Breen was tapped to lead the organization almost 15 years ago. She’d known of the organization in her previous jobs as a co-anchor of Channel 13’s “Inside Albany” and as communications director for Peter Vallone, the first speaker of New York City Council.
With the career switch, she expected some big changes in her life.
“I thought I was leaving politics to become a lady, give parties and do nice things, but I realized you can’t leave politics,” Breen said. “There are a lot of preservation issues and you have to be able to push them at City Hall and in Albany and in Washington,” she said.
Few who know her doubt that Breen has the necessary qualities for the job.
“A wonderful blend of Irish wit, New York elegance and sheer intelligence, Peg Breen is what we use to call in the Bronx ‘one classy dame,'” said author Peter Quinn.
Like Quinn, Breen traces her family roots to the Famine Irish that poured into Canada and the Northeastern United States from 1846. She grew up in Upstate New York in a house her Irish great-grandfather had helped build in the 1870s. William Conway, a carriage maker from Youghal, Co. Cork, also made a lot of the furniture she remembers from the house.
She has information on some of the family lines, particularly the Conways from Donegal, but less so on the Greenes from Tipperary or the Gleasons or the Lyonses.
When she spent time as an undergraduate student in London she regularly visited relatives in Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, who still lived in a centuries-old thatched cottage.
“My mother was very proud of her Irish roots,” she recalled. “She could get more upset about Oliver Cromwell than current politics.
“She would send a St. Patrick’s Day card that said ‘Never forget you’re Irish’ and I thought ‘How do you forget you’re Irish’?” she said, laughing.
Breen, though, is very much focused on current politics and not on Cromwell.
It has helped that many politicians, particularly at the City Council level, are instinctively sympathetic to her cause. And much of that has to do with the voters’ “general unease” in the neighborhoods about the direction development has been taking in recent years.
The issue of preservation is integral, Breen said, to what the city is about.
“First of all, what is New York? It’s buildings,” she said. “Mayor Dinkins used to say people don’t come here to look at the mountains. If you like New York City you have to like buildings. And we have the greatest collection of architecture of any city in the country.”
New York’s buildings give people a sense of perspective, she said: “It helps you understand that waves of immigrants came before you and that you are part of that continuum.”
Breen said that the architect and designers of places like City Hall (the oldest in the country still in use for its original purpose and her own favorite building) felt they had an obligation to bring beauty and dignity to the city.
“We don’t have a brick fetish,” she said of her organization. “We do it for people and we do for the overall health and vitality of the city.”
Preservation helps economic revitalization because the intricate, skilled work needed generates more tax dollars than starting a building from scratch. It’s also good for the environment. “The greenest building is the one that’s already there,” Breen said.
“Look at Soho, look at Lady’s Mile, look at Tribeca and all the uses that have gone into former commercial buildings,” she said. “So, you can always find a use for a well-constructed older building and they add to the beauty of the city. They add to our enjoyment of walking down the street, but they provide homes and cultural and social institutions and religious institutions and things that really make life better today. “
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the one politician who most understood these issues intellectually and did more than anyone to promote preservation at the city, state and national levels, Breen said. “He was on our board for years. He’s irreplaceable,” she said.
The sale of Governor’s Island to the city for $1 was an example of his work.
He arranged for the New York Landmarks Conservancy to acquire a vacant Federal archives building in Greenwich Village, also for $1. The building was converted into apartments and stores, providing a stream of revenue for the preservation organization.
The Conservancy has given out $30 million in grants and low-interest loans over the years, as well as providing hand-on expertise.
Recently, it has lent its name to Senator Charles Schumer’s call for $100 million of the stimulus money to be used to build Moynihan Station inside the current Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue. Breen said the gateway, when finished, will go some way towards making up for the destruction of the old Penn Station in the 1960s.
The Conservancy played a role in saving the Survivors’ Staircase, the last above-ground element in the World Trade Center. It will be featured in the memorial museum.
Another recent project was the little chapel from the 1850s in Prospect Cemetery, Queens. “It was in a bad state of repair,” Breen said. It will be used by York College for musical events. But that won’t be the case with the 1694-built Friends meeting house in nearby Flushing. The Quaker building will continue as a house of worship. “It’s one of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever seen,” Breen said. “There are massive timber beams that show the remnants of medieval building techniques.”
Breen said that the knowledge she has acquired along the way is part of the fun. Traveling around in a taxi, for instance, she said: “It’s wonderful to know not only who built the buildings, but who was in them and why.
“It’s very soul-satisfying,” she said about the job generally.
“It’s great to be able to point to something substantial and say ‘Yes, I helped people save their home, or “I helped them save their church or synagogue.'”
For more information about the New York Landmarks Conservancy go to www.nylandmarks.org.