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Chairman’s Column Celebrating Our Own: Finding Ways to Honor the Work of Historic Preservationists

Chairman’s Column Celebrating Our Own: Finding Ways to Honor the Work of Historic Preservationists

June 1, 2018 | Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair

Monuments matter. Clearly that is one lesson to be gleaned from the ongoing public debate about the appropriateness of certain statues and memorials. Commemorations of a physical nature, such as plaques and monuments, or intangible types, such as named positions or prizes, are very effective ways for keeping alive the memory of a person, and by extension, keeping in the public consciousness the actions that earned such distinction.

Knowing this, why have preservationists failed to more robustly employ such devices to keep alive the memory and the inspirational accomplishments of our forebearers and to lift up the cause of preservation? Yes, there is a Ruth Wittenberg Plaza in Greenwich Village, named after that great Village preservationist and civic leader. Sadly, a visit to the plaza does not increase a passerby’s knowledge of who Wittenberg was and what she did to earn a traffic island in her name. Yes, for years there was a Ralph Menapace Fellowship at the Municipal Art Society. It kept alive both the memory of that former MAS president and his legacy of providing exceptional pro-bono legal expertise to that organization, but it was abandoned years ago. Happily we hear that MAS plans to reinstate it.

Other commemorations have been more successful in keeping alive the memories of preservationists. The Margot Gayle Fund at the Victorian Society, created in honor of Margot’s 95th birthday, is appropriately focused on preservation or conservation projects of Victorian material culture in New York City. The Willensky Fund honors the memory of Elliot Willensky, the co-author of the A.I.A. Guide to New York City and member and vice-chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and focuses on projects advancing the principles of historic preservation and urbanism in New York City and its environs. Other stellar examples are the Historic District Council’s Mickey Murphy Award for Lifetime Achievement saluting that feisty Brooklyn grassroots preservationist, the naming in 2017 of a street in Brooklyn after Joan Maynard, the force behind the preservation of Weeksville, and the cultural medallion honoring Albert Bard, the grandfather of New York City’s landmarks law, at 25 Broad Street, the site of his legal office for over half a century.

Wonderful as these examples are, why are there so few of them when there are so many powerful preservation legacies going unsung and falling out of the shared memory of the preservation movement? The other day I had to answer the question, “Who was Halina Rosenthal?” I imagine a good number of you reading this are asking the same question. Whether it be the legacy of the pre-Landmarks Law George McAneny (who saved Castle Clinton), or the accomplishments of Halina Rosenthal (the champion of preservation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side), or Dorothy Miner (the legal eagle who shepherded and protected the Landmarks Law for 19 years as the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission’s legal counsel), too many of our preservation heroes remain uncelebrated. As a movement, preservation has yet to take full advantage of the power of memorials: they educate the general public to the work of preservation, and they engage aspiring preservationists with David and Goliath success stories, and the heartfelt losses of those who have fought the good fight before them. Remember, if someone’s name is on something, invariably others will ask who that person was and then his or her story gets retold.

How can we further such initiatives? Here are five low-cost and/or no-cost ideas on how to honor your favorite preservationist and keep his or her legacy alive:

1) Use a Cultural Medallion. The Cultural Medallion Program of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center, created by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, invites nominations for medallions. The medallions mark sites “which reflect significant individuals, or events, where people lived, or the events occurred, in still existing buildings…” Why not suggest that a medallion honoring the preservationist who led the campaign for your historic district be placed on the building where he or she lived?

2) Name a Street. Why not get a street named after your favorite preservationist? Start the process with a call to your Community Board.

3) Name a position. Why not elevate that intern position you already have by naming it in honor of your organization’s founder? Why not name your executive director’s position after a preservation champion? Perhaps you can even raise some money in the process. What better way to add some luster and gravitas to an existing position while at the same time keeping alive the name of a beloved leader of your organization?

4) Rebrand an existing program. Instead of just presenting a “preservation award,” name it after one of your preservation favorites. Why not name your annual tour program after a distinguished preservationist?

5) Website tributes. Does your website have a comprehensive history of your own organization? Shouldn’t it also feature an “in memoriam” section with mini-biographies of your departed preservation greats?

There are of course other more ambitious ways to lift up our preservation heroes and their legacies. If the founder of the New York Marathon can have a statue in Central Park, why not a statue of a preservation leader in his or her historic district? Why not commission a monograph on the founder of your preservation organization? Then perhaps as the ultimate honor, follow the lead of The New York Times where a October 22, 2017 editorial suggested a tickertape parade honoring Kent Barwick (his name appeared on a list of parade-worthy New Yorkers, immediately after First Responders and ahead of Lin-Manuel Miranda). If not a parade, the recent off-Broadway musical, Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses suggests another way to reach the broader public. Any investors reading this who want to back Albert Bard: The Musical, you know where to find me!

The good news is there are actions we can start taking today, without having to line up patrons for statues or backers for musicals, to honor preservationists and lift up their stories. With the passage of time it is inevitable that we will continue to lose preservation greats. But it is not inevitable that we also have to lose the memory of who they were and what they did for preservation and New York City!

Above: A bronze plaque embedded in a traffic island near the Jefferson Market Courthouse Library honors Village preservationist Ruth Wittenberg | Courtesy of Anthony C. Wood