Sean Khorsandi at Landmark West! offices on West 67th Street. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
The offices of Landmark West! on West 67th Street are a time capsule. Over the cabinets in the kitchen area there's a huge sign reading “Eclair” in loopy script that was saved from the dumpster; it used to hang above the beloved 72nd Street coffee shop that closed down. There's a wall covered in accolades and proclamations, including one from former mayor Rudy Giuliani congratulating the organization on its 15th anniversary. Even the hulking metal file cabinets were salvaged from the offices of ABC when its was headquartered nearby — some still have their news-related label stickers. At 37 years old, Sean Khorsandi might be one of the youngest things in the room.
Khorsandi is the executive director of Landmark West!, a nonprofit that works to protect the Upper West Side's architectural and cultural icons. Between 59th and 110th Streets it oversees three scenic landmarks (Central Park, Riverside Park and Verdi Square), around 60 individual landmarks and a network of historic districts. That may seem like a lot, but the organization has plenty of work yet to do. “All of Lincoln Center could be torn down if they felt like it because it has no historic district protections,” Khorsandi says. The performing arts complex is on the organization's “wish list” of places for which it hopes to win landmark status. Other wish-list items include the Amsterdam Houses, West End Presbyterian Church and IRT electrical substation number 14 on West 96th Street.
Landmark West! was founded in 1985 to create the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, which it accomplished in 1989. Since then its mission has been to continue designating more Upper West Side landmarks and prevent major alteration of the city's character.Politics and architecture
Khorsandi is a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens, where he still lives. Asked why he feels so drawn to the Upper West Side, he says the UWS is the second-densest neighborhood in the country, so “there's a lot at stake.” Trained in architecture at Cooper Union and then at Yale, Khorsandi also has an eye for the structures that make a place stand out. He worked on a lot of art conservation labs and had the chance to explore a massive archive of files of the famed architect Eero Saarinen. “I got to work with all this original documentation that had been sleeping for four decades in the attic,” he remembers. He loved knowing there were more secrets out there.
His education also included a push to get involved in politics in order to “truly have a sense of shaping” the field of architecture. “So much of what you do on a day-to-day is based in code, is based in policy, based in local zoning,” he says. “It's so much more bureaucratic that one would ever imagine. So one might say I doubled down on the bureaucracy.” But Khorsandi brings a different, more nuanced perspective to his job that prevents him from seeing those who want to make their mark on New York as villains. In fact, he insists Landmark West! isn't “anti development.” “We're pro smart development, we're pro community planning, we're pro community involvement,” he says. “We want the city to be the best it can be.”
So wherever there's a good preservation fight brewing, even if it's not on the Upper West Side, you're likely to find Khorsandi and Landmark West! leading the charge. “As a society we have a right to a neighborhood or a cohesive sense of place,” he says. One building the organization is fighting for is 200 Amsterdam Ave., a 52-story residential tower that will take the place of the former Lincoln Square Synagogue. A court recently ruled that the developers should not have been issued a permit — a promising move for opponents of the controversial project.
When he's not rallying New Yorkers around one landmark or another, Khorsandi can be found in Queens with a feral cat he helped rescue. He also teaches history and architecture theory at the New York Institute of Technology. He's working on a book about a famous architect.