Celebrating the Year of McAneny
June 6, 2019 | Arvind Sindhwani, Reisinger Scholar
As we roam the streets of New York City in 2019, we can see the skyline and neighborhoods change each year. Given how complicated our city’s systems have become, it is difficult to imagine a time without the founding principles of zoning, planning, and preservation. Yet the man who created many of those frameworks for modern day New York receives little recognition for his work. This visionary, George McAneny, served in several official positions, including New York City comptroller, executive manager of The New York Times, first president of the Regional Plan Association, and Manhattan borough president. This year marks the sesquicentennial of McAneny’s birth.
As a city planner, he helped craft the 1916 zoning resolution that validated the concept of zoning, setting the pace for local governments across the world. Additionally, the resolution implemented setback requirements for skyscrapers, preventing these buildings from obstructing light and air at street level.
As a preservationist, McAneny fought Robert Moses on the proposed destruction of Castle Clinton in one of the most famous, protracted preservation battles in City history. Moses’s original plan for the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge included erasing Castle Clinton from the map to make way for a massive bridge that would have linked the Battery and Brooklyn. McAneny and other preservationists worked tirelessly to have Castle Clinton designated a national historic monument, keeping it safe from demolition.
Amidst the fight for Castle Clinton, McAneny also spearheaded preservation efforts directed at the Department of Treasury when plans were made to destroy Federal Hall, which formerly served as a sub-treasury building. McAneny convinced Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, to dedicate Federal Hall as a national historic monument under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. In a time when official landmarking of buildings was rare, McAneny used his accumulated political capital, including contacts in the White House, to force the issue and make it a reality. McAneny also played a leading role in the effort to preserve City Hall and its environs. When he became borough president at the start of City Hall’s renovation, he ensured that it was protected from being overwhelmed by an enveloping new structure. Inadvertently, McAneny saved the Tweed Courthouse behind City Hall from destruction in the process.
These are only a small part of McAneny’s legacy, making him one of the most remarkable New York City visionaries of the first half of the 20th century. His legacy is also complicated and does not always fall neatly into categories. We hope that our readers will celebrate the sesquicentennial year of McAneny’s birth by digging into his rich history and work. Please visit the new website www.GeorgeMcAneny.com, created by the Friends of McAneny Group, and check out our Instagram posts @nypap_org to learn more.