In advance of the debut of the documentary film Against All Odds: Transforming 42nd Street, we spoke with Duncan Hazard, who represented the New York City Landmarks Commission on the Historic Preservation Committee of the 42nd Street Development Project.
Duncan Hazard is a retired Partner of Ennead Architects in New York City, which specializes in both contemporary design and historic preservation. Hazard holds a Master of Architecture degree from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.
What's your earliest memory of 42nd Street?
It was seedy, to use a nice word for it—a lot of porn theaters, a very grubby environment to avoid if you could, frankly. I was dimly aware that there might be some nice architecture back there somewhere, but you kind of kept your head down when going through there. It was pretty bad.
I'm a theater guy as well as an architect, so I've always been aware of the history of 42nd Street and the role it has played as a theatrical center in this country and, along with London, the world. I was aware of it, but there was not much evidence of it back in the ’70s when I first came to the city.
What do you think 42nd Street represents to the city and the world?
I think of 42nd Street as the heart of New York City. If you look for where the blood and energy come from, it’s Times Square and 42nd Street.
When foreigners think of New York City, obviously, they think of the skyscrapers. But when they think of the street life, the presence, the feeling of being in the city, the image in their minds is Times Square and 42nd Street. If New York is the Big Apple, well, what's the core of the Big Apple? It's the Theater District.
What is your role in the 42nd Street Development Project?
I represent the interests of the Landmarks Commission. Back when the 42nd Street Development Project began, a lot of theaters on 42nd Street were not yet designated as landmarks. The Empire State Development Corporation wanted a streamlined approach to protecting the historic aspects of these theaters without going through the full commission review. I was part of a subcommittee that was created to review the projects from an historic point of view. We made recommendations, which were reviewed by staff at the Landmarks Commission, so it didn't have to go through the whole hearing process.
How do you approach preservation?
My role on the commission is to say, "I think this is important and needs to be preserved. I think this is how it should be preserved." Not how technically, but how it should be treated—because many of these properties are not being used as theaters. They're being adapted to other uses, whether that's retail, or restaurants, whatever. The question is—the remains of the historic theaters: What role can they play that is meaningful, will be evocative for people, and is appropriate for them? Our job is to protect this existing fabric.
Say a restaurant wants to adapt an historic theater. If they want to flatten the floor for tables and chairs, we look at that and say, "Well, okay, but we need to preserve the relationship of the floor to the position of the original stage and side boxes. We want to maintain that spatial relationship so that people still have a feeling for it as a theatrical environment and can still appreciate its original form.
What do these theaters bring to the environment and to the city?
The significance of the theaters on 42nd Street, and the whole Times Square area, goes beyond their architecture. Their architecture is, in many cases, very significant, very beautiful, totally worthy of preservation, and I think a great job has been done on that. But their significance goes way beyond that.
There’s a feeling in old theaters that everything that happened before is, kind of, in the walls. It's there, somehow. When you're a performer in that space, you feel the whole tradition. You feel the whole energy. You feel the world that you're in, the role that you're playing in society. Thousands of people have played in that building before and will after you're gone.
I think the audience feels that when they walk into the building. They feel like, “Oh, my God. I'm part of something incredibly exciting, vital, meaningful, and life changing that has been going on in this building for 100 years, and it's going to continue on after me, and it's a thrill to be part of it.” The preservation of these theaters—and all the history, culture, energy, vitality, and significance they represent—was crucial.
There's a natural excitement that builds as you contemplate going to the theater. And when you arrive on the street and are outside the theater, the marquee, the presence there, the energy—everything builds and reinforces that feeling within you. By the time you get to your seat, you've already been through a whole process that has prepared you for the theater that you're about to see, which can be, at its best, a revelation, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Signage is ingrained in the DNA of the original, historic 42nd Street—how do you approach it from a preservationist’s perspective?
The lights, the messaging, the beautiful colors—that is, in many ways, the memorable architecture of 42nd Street. Since early 20th century when the first signs featured electric light bulbs, signage has been the most vibrant, exciting, extraordinary part of that street. When people in the early 20th century thought about 42nd Street and Times Square, they thought of lights and signs. You see that in all the old photographs.
So that's always been part of it, and it should always be part of it. The lights are the soul of the place. We carefully review the design work on the street, including signage and the role it can and should play and the quality and lighting of the marquees in front of each theater. When we went from old bulbs to LED bulbs, we did multiple reviews to make sure that the spirit of the signs was maintained, that the quality of the lights still had the sparkle and flash of the original, because that's very important to the street.
How do you make the theaters relevant to today’s audiences?
When we restore a building, we like to inject it with something appropriate but contemporary, something that speaks to the people who come into the building. We want to convey that this is not only a great historic structure, but it's also part of their world. In fact, it's representing the future.
When I see these theaters now, the ones that have been restored—Amsterdam, New Victory and others—I almost can't believe they’re real. It's amazing to see their restoration and preservation.
But it’s not just the architectural preservation that moves me—it’s also seeing them used again in their original roles as large, great theater venues. It's amazing to see them thriving, knowing that they're going to be here for generations to come. That's an amazing thing to me. It's a huge success story.
Where Times Square used to be derelict and full of all sorts of undesirable elements— basically a place people avoided—the exact opposite has now happened. It's now a tremendous place of focus. It's almost like a giant magnet in middle of the city. It pulls everyone together.
Editor’s note: Q&A has been edited for length and readability.