Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

In the author's latest foray into combat, it's his fame he's fighting to preserve

So that leaves only self-promotion at the core of Wolfe's latest attack—a motive that has helped Wolfe set his agenda for 40 years.

"He is as brilliant a self-promoter as he is a journalist, and I do think he's a brilliant journalist," says Robert S. Boynton, the director of NYU's graduate magazine-writing program and author of The New New Journalism. "He understands that in the magazine world, you've got to be thinking about how these pieces are going to be received. I think he's very aware that it only counts if you're attacking a sacred cow."

Boynton also points out that throughout his career Wolfe has loved to play the role of the outraged populist, the simple Southerner confounded by the elitist shenanigans of some group or other that has lost touch with the people. "The outrage about things he doesn't like always speaks much louder than the earnestness of what he cares about," says Boynton. "He's incapable, maybe genetically, of writing in praise of something without also launching a really caustic attack."

Tom Wolfe's right stuff
Tom Wolfe's right stuff


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Which explains everything about Wolfe's current campaign against the Landmarks Preservation Commission, except for one thing: why Wolfe chose it as the means for his return to the limelight.

One week after his original e-mail, Wolfe calls me. In a reedy voice, slow and genteel, with a slight Southern drawl, he says that he has received my letter and apologizes for taking so long to get back to me.

"So you read my, shall we say, rather long piece in The New York Times, which I gather you did," says Wolfe.

For the next half-hour, Wolfe shuffles back and forth around the subject of historic preservation, going on the occasional tangent about the history of New York, the end of the city's garment manufacturing, our reliance on Bangladeshi workers, the vacancy of the city's piers, and the reactionary tendencies of young architects. Along the way, he argues that landmarking has done wonders for other aging cities such as Paris, London, and Rome. In Wolfe's opinion, what post-industrial New York has left to offer the world now that its manufacturing days are done is simply its identity as New York. The landmarks commission, according to Wolfe, should be working vigorously to preserve that.

"I'm not even really a preservationist," says Wolfe at one point, "although I applaud the idea."

Wolfe explains to me that his championing of historic preservation has nothing to do with NIMBYism (even though one of the buildings he would like to see protected from development happens to be around the corner from his apartment). It's not about his past work. It's not about his take on the deficiencies of institutional tastemakers.

"My interest in this is the malfunctioning of the Landmarks Preservation Commission," says Wolfe, as understated on the phone as he is overstated in print. "This came to a head for me in the whole business of 2 Columbus Circle."

For a preservationist in New York City to invoke 2 Columbus Circle is like an anti-globalization activist invoking the city of Seattle—a once painful battle scar that now serves as a mark of belonging. Wolfe's personal interest in 2 Columbus Circle dates back to 1981, when he published From Bauhaus to Our House, in which he characterized the state of contemporary architecture as a vulgar dance between timid designers and conformist clients. For the most part, Wolfe blamed the mess on the leading practitioners of the International Style of architecture—a school of modernist design that originated in Europe and migrated to the United States following World War I. Amid his outrage, Wolfe expressed his admiration for Edward Durell Stone, an American architect who, in mid-career, broke away from the International Style and began creating lush, ornamental buildings. In 1964, Stone completed work on 2 Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan—a 10-story white marble building, at once flamboyant and unapologetic.

Not unlike Wolfe himself.

To this day, Wolfe says he loves the building. "I thought that 2 Columbus Circle was a building far, far ahead of its time," says Wolfe. "It was the first building ever built where the facade was a concave curve. It was like a piece of abstract marble sculpture. I love [Stone's] contrarian attitude." In 2002, a dispute over 2 Columbus Circle erupted between the landmarks commission and preservationists when the city announced that it had sold the then empty building, which, after a significant architectural overhaul, would become the new headquarters for the Museum of Arts & Design. Before long, preservationists began lobbying the city to designate the building as a historic landmark, which would protect it from a major renovation. Wolfe joined the protest.

But past studies of 2 Columbus Circle had failed to convince the commission that it deserved such status. In the end, there would be no hearing for the building, no designation as a landmark—a slight that, to this day, still rankles Wolfe. "If there was ever a case where there was an overwhelming massing of architectural and city planning authorities demanding a hearing," says Wolfe, "that is just a cardinal case of it, it's not even dysfunctionalism."

Before it was all over, Wolfe began dabbling in the genre of preservation advocacy, writing two pieces for The New York Times in defense of 2 Columbus Circle and another one for New York. Along the way, Wolfe says that he met several influential sources, including Anthony M. Tung, a former landmarks commissioner and author of Preserving the World's Great Cities, who happened to sit next to Wolfe before one event and struck up a conversation about the astronauts from The Right Stuff. Wolfe also got to know Kate Wood, the head of the preservation group Landmarks West.

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