This is the story of how the New York Preservation Archive Project was created and its evolution over the past few decades.
The Archive Project was founded in 1998 because insufficient effort was being devoted to preserving preservation’s own history. Memories were frequently lost, lessons from campaign victories and defeats were quickly being forgotten, and personal papers and organizational documents often ended up in dumpsters. To reverse this tide of loss, capture this endangered history, and put it to use, the Archive Project embarked on a variety of strategies, all of which our organization continues to pursue today. Nearly two decades later the organization has grown to become one of the premier preservation not-for-profits in New York City, and the go-to source of all things related to preservation history.
In 1983, Anthony C. Wood received a $5,000 grant for “Preserving Preservation’s Past,” a project to conduct interviews with preservation pioneers Geoffrey Platt, Harmon Goldstone, Ruth Wittenberg, Margot Gayle, and Brendan Gill.
Intended to be a six-month project, this initiative eventually inspired Wood to found the New York Preservation Archive Project; in the grant report is the first mention of an idea to create a preservation-related archive. This pilot project also led to additional oral history interviews and helped influence discussion for the 20th anniversary celebration of New York City’s Landmarks Law in 1985. In 1987, three of Wood’s interviews were published in Village Views: those of New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairs Geoffrey Platt and Harmon Goldstone, and Commissioner Adolf Plazcek.
Over the subsequent years Wood published articles and gave lectures advocating for preserving the history of the preservation movement, continued to work to establish a preservation archive, and persisted in capturing oral histories with preservation leaders. In 1993, the J. M. Kaplan Fund awarded a grant to the Historic Districts Council to help officially launch the New York Preservation Archive Project.
In one of its first major collaborations, the Archive Project teamed up with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) in 1995 for a symposium entitled “The Greenwich Village Historic District: How It Came To Be, What It Has Become, and Where It is Going.” This symposium was part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Landmarks Law, the 25th anniversary of the Greenwich Village Historic District, and the 15th anniversary of GVSHP. This symposium inspired an initiative to capture interviews with such Village preservation figures as Verna Small, Doris Diether, Margot Gayle, Edith Lyons, Claire Tankel, Anthony Dapolito, Norman Redlich, Harold Edelman, and Jane Jacobs.
To promote this inspirational work, in 1996 the Archive Project supported GVSHP with a small grant to help launch its own preservation archive and an official oral history program. Through celebratory launches, illustrated lectures seminars, and publications, the success of GVSHP’s work preserving the neighborhood’s preservation history was in turn used to inspire other small preservation-related organizations to do the same.
The New York Preservation Archive Project was officially incorporated as a not-for-profit organization on January 28, 1998.
That June, its first meeting was held with founding directors Anthony C. Wood, Eric Allison, Vicki Weiner, and Dorothy Miner. Over the next several years the Archive Project continued to respond to the loss of the recorded history of New York’s nationally-significant historic preservation movement. With the help of a fellowship sponsored by the Kress Foundation the organization documented and assisted in the preservation of important archives, and educated the public about the existence of these papers and their incomparable value. The organization identified individuals and organizations that have made vital contributions to New York preservation’s history and attempted to secure the future of their papers through education and archival assistance. The Archive Project also continued to conduct oral histories with those who were directly involved in much of the City’s groundbreaking legislation and grassroots activism. And it sponsored public programs, exhibitions, screenings, and lectures designed to broaden awareness of the history of the New York preservation movement and emphasize the use of archives in researching topics in the field. Special research projects were also undertaken. One related to architect and urban activist Robert C. Weinberg. Another research project eventually became Anthony C. Wood’s book Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Preserve a City’s Landmarks (published in 2007).
Launched in December 2003 through a grant from the New York Community Trust (NYCT), the Archive Project’s website gave the importance of the preservation movement’s history its first internet presence, and provided easy access to our many resources. Several years later the NYCT once again supported the Archive Project’s growth through the creation of the “Preservation History Database.” Hosted on the website, the encyclopedia-like catalog of topics in preservation history is used to further educate the public. With these resources, alongside our online oral history collection, which makes interview transcripts and audio available online, the Archive Project’s website became the go-to source for information on preservation history.
It was in 2003 that the Archive Project became a staffed organization, albeit part time. It was not until 2013 that the organization acquired the funding to hire its first full-time executive director. Therefore, during its first decade the Archive Project could not have done its work without volunteers, interns, and its devoted board of directors, who contributed their unique expertise and knowledge of the preservation, fundraising, archival, and programmatic fields. Many of these early directors continue their service even today; past board members include J. Winthrop Aldrich, Eric Allison, Joseph Ciccone, Margaret Ferguson, Laura Hansen, Randall Mason, Dorothy Miner, Janet Parks, Duane Watson, and Vicki Wiener.
In 2008, to celebrate the publication of Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Preserve a City’s Landmarks, a half-day symposium was hosted at the Museum of the City of New York, which was attended by over 250 people. In 2011 the Archive Project partnered with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation and many of the City’s preservation organizations to bring you the Fitch Forum: 45 Years of Preservation Law. This symposium reflected on the law and explored the need to constantly reevaluate its effectiveness. The discussion influenced a special issue of the Widener Law Review.
Today the Archive Project continues to pursue its mission of preserving, documenting, and celebrating the history of preservation implementing many of the same strategies used since its founding.
We conduct oral histories to record the memories of those who made preservation history and archive the audio recordings, transcripts, and videos. We rescue threatened archival collections that are related to historic preservation and help place them at permanent collecting institutions. If the collection remains in situ, we assist in assuring professional archival standards. Our public programming celebrates and analyzes important episodes in preservation history and is often produced in close collaboration with other not-for-profit organizations throughout New York City. Many of these programs are recorded on video and posted on our YouTube channel, effectively capturing and circulating the recollections that are shared and the issues that are explored.
The Archive Project’s website is regularly updated to provide a wide array of resources, and is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in the history of the preservation movement: the scholar, researcher, journalist, student, or activist. Our semi-annual newsletter updates our constituency on current projects and also covers stories that deepen the understanding of preservation and the importance of archives. Finally, in addition to helping preserve preservation’s history through our own efforts, the Archive Project seeks to change the culture of the preservation movement to one that recognizes the value of its own story. To this effect we provide training, assistance, and support to preservation not-for-profits to help these organizations become better curators of their own significant records and history. This initiative has been supplemented by the Archival Assistance Fund, a series of grants established to help identify and maintain archival resources and organizational documents related to the historic preservation movement. Past recipients of these grants include small not-for-profit organizations, cemeteries, and house museums to fund anything from climate monitoring devices in archival spaces to complete overhauls of significant collections.
The Archive Project is able to achieve its mission through a variety of fundraising efforts. The Stewardship Society was created in 2011 to supplement our more general appeals and cultivate and retain major donors. This group of devoted benefactors meets regularly for behind-the-scenes tours at institutional archives and private collections throughout New York City. And in 2014 the Archive Project added a new level of giving with the Columns Club, which provides young donors with their own series of special tours at historic sites. Our signature fundraising event is the annual Bard Birthday Breakfast Benefit, held each year in December to memorialize civic figure Albert S. Bard in the month of his birth. Bard (1866-1963) was dedicated to protecting the aesthetic values of special places, drafting the New York State legislation authorizing New York City’s Landmarks Law, and advocating for City Beautiful concerns ranging from billboard control to zoning. The Bard Birthday Breakfast Benefit always has a programmatic component, with luminaries from various fields speaking on issues related to how preservation and archives affect their work, which may include anything from a recent publication or a new documentary to reflections on a lifelong career in the field of historic preservation. In 2015 the New York Preservation Archive Project’s Preservation Award was created to honor outstanding contributions to the documentation, preservation, and celebration of the history of preservation in New York City. A handsome bronze medal designed by Atelier Sisk, this award recalls the long tradition of honorary laurels bestowed in New York City and furthers the celebratory nature of the Archive Project’s mission. The first recipient was Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, honored for her 50-year career furthering preservation.
Since its initial conception in the early 1980s, the New York Preservation Archive Project has accomplished much that it set out to do.
But an incredible amount of work remains. Solid groundwork has been laid and the organization is poised to grow into an even more effective powerhouse of change in the fight to preserve preservation’s history. Excelsior!