(Continued; for part 1 see http://www.examiner.com/article/openhouse-new-york-opens-doors-and-eyes)
As last minute preparations take place for this year's Open House New York weekend, just several days from now on October 12 – 13, it is interesting to consider the magnitude of the operation: a 2-day, city-wide event involving 900 volunteers, over 200 sites, and more than 200,000 visitors, most of them New Yorkers but increasingly from other cities and countries around the world. OHNY executive director Gregory Wessner took a brief break from the bustle to share some insights and logistics during a recent conversation.
The selection of properties for OHNY weekend takes about eight months. OHNY staff and board members meet in January with outside architects, designers, planners, curators and others knowledgeable about the city. They review the list of sites from last year, determine what worked well (or didn’t), and add their own personal wish lists. They discuss buildings under construction or recently opened or renovated, look at parts of the city that have grown or changed, and consider other significant developments that impact New York’s architecture and culture. Property owners are contacted, access and schedules are confirmed, and by July, or August at the latest, the list for the upcoming October weekend is set.
Very frequently it is the private individual or institution who initiates contact with OHNY. But before any property is accepted certain criteria must be met to ensure the highest architectural design quality and cultural or historical significance. The criteria changes with each site and the questions it raises. In addition, explains Greg Wessner, “We take into account practical matters like transit accessibility. Can people get there? We also consider whether there’s something special about the site that might not be available at other times of the year, and whether there’s some type of architectural programming. Will there be an architect or designer on site to answer questions? Will the property owners be available? Things like that.”
This year’s offerings include a wide range of indoor and outdoor choices, day and night, historic and contemporary, architectural and cultural, by reservation and unscheduled walk-in. Most are easily visited but some are more physically challenging, like the vertical tour of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the climb up to Trinity Church bell tower, peddling bikes, or paddling Newtown Creek in a canoe.
Asked about the variety and just how big OHNY can get, Wessner laughs before answering. “Frankly, it’s about as big as it could be right now for our fulltime staff of three. We do bring in some temporary part-time help in the months leading up to the weekend but we have several hundred tours and sites and each one needs to be dealt with individually. So there’s a lot of organizing, scheduling, and coordination, lots of administrative work that goes into it.”
The scale of the effort is the biggest challenge: making sure that all the details are covered and working properly for the immense audience. “When one thing changes it often has a ripple effect,” Wessner explains, “so just managing to make sure that everything stays organized and that everyone has a great experience” requires a huge effort.
Another factor is how much people can realistically take in over a weekend. Some enthusiasts draw up elaborate charts and timetables to maximize the opportunity. They manage to visit ten or more sites in a day (no one knows for sure), but OHNY estimates four or five as the average.
“Open House London has 800-900 sites open and it seems to work for them,” observes New York’s executive director, but here “we have always thought there there’s already too much to do. Obviously, you can’t take in everything. It seems that the 200-300 range works best as this allows everyone to make choices. It can reach a point where there are so many options that it’s overwhelming.”
The huge popularity of OHNY weekend is not without problems. Perhaps the greatest is the difficulty in securing advance reservations to limited access sites. This year’s offerings were posted online at 11:00 a.m. on October 4, and sold out almost immediately. By the end of the day 5,500 reservations had been processed. “OHNY is fully aware of how frustrating it is,” says Wessner. “But the scale of interest, the amount of demand, far exeeds our available supply.” Supply is determined by property owners and how many people they can accommodate. “They tell us what they’re willing to do. It’s remarkable, and wonderful, that they’re willing to open their doors and let the public in. It’s not a simple thing to take on and they’re under no obligation to do it. They’re just being good neighbors.”
The problem arises when thousands of people compete for a very limited number of open slots. “We have discussed the various options,” Wessner confides, “but at the end of the day we’re limited by the number of reservations available and the number of people who want them, which is why we try to balance it.” More than half of the weekend’s sites are open access so people can just walk in from the street.
Mixing it up
Planning the weekend is a fluid process because New York is always changing, and OHNY makes a conscious effort to keep things fresh. “It would be easy to just present the same sites over and over again, says Wessner, but we always look at what’s new or different, and make a point of rotating sites. For example, when we celebrated our 10th anniversary last year, there were 17 properties on the list that had been included in each of OHNY’s first ten years. That gives you a pretty good sense of the changeability. Out of 200-250 properties, only 17 were constants.”
OHNY weekend officially begins at 9:00 a. m. on Saturday (10:00 at some sites), and ends with a wrap party at 5:00 on Sunday evening, followed by a screening of the documentary “My Brooklyn.” The program is available on line, and printed brochures are available at key locations throughout the city.
Monday is a day of rest. But on Tuesday everyone at OHNY will be back at work, cleaning up, evaluating surveys, making initial preparations for next year, and organizing new fall events. The popularity of open access is such that OHNY has grown into a 12-month organization. It offers events throughout the year to the 27,000 names on its e-mail list. You can add your address with a click.