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Whitney North Seymour, Sr.

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Sometimes listed as Whitney North Seymour.

Biography

Whitney North Seymour, Sr. was born on January 4, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois to Margaret Lucinda Rugg and Charles Walton Seymour. He was married to Virginia Vickers in 1922. The couple had two sons, Whitney North Seymour, Jr. and Thaddeus Seymour. Seymour attended the University of Wisconsin and Columbia Law School, from which he graduated in 1923. After earning his LL.B., Seymour joined the law firm of Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett. In 1929, he became a partner in the firm, where he worked until his death in 19831.

In addition to his work as an attorney, Seymour served as President of the American Bar Association (1960-1961), President of the American Bar Foundation (1960-1964), and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (1938-1963). Mr. Seymour was an active civic leader, serving many of New York City’s prominent civic organizations including the Fine Arts Federation, the Municipal Art Society, where he served as president for two years, and The New York Community Trust2.

Offices Held

  • President of Municipal Art Society
  • Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance 1961
  • Chair Independent Civic Commission for the 1973 Landmarks Law Amendments 1972
  • President of American Bar Association, 1960-1961
  • President of American Bar Foundation 1960-1964
  • President of the Legal Aid Society, 1945-1950

Over three decades, Whitney North Seymour leveraged his clout as a prominent lawyer and a well-respected civic leader to advance the cause of preservation in New York City. As President of the Municipal Art Society, he helped revive the organization’s membership in the late 1950s, and as an active MAS board member, Seymour provided legal counsel and guidance for nearly three decades3. Seymour was credited with the inception of the “Landmarks of New York” program, a partnership with the New York Community Trust to identify and mark landmark quality buildings prior to the establishment of New York City’s landmarks law4.

In 1961, Whitney North Seymour was chosen to serve as one of the 13 members of the “Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance,” which was assigned to work with civic groups to advise Mayor Robert Wagner on the issue of historic preservation5. From his position as a Municipal Art Society board member, Seymour encouraged support for citywide landmarks legislation. In 1964, Seymour became “the coordinator of efforts in behalf of the permanent establishment of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission"6.

In 1972, Whitney North Seymour, Sr. lent his name and expertise as amicus curiae to the suit brought by the Municipal Art Society against Penn Central and U.G.P. Properties Corporation to prevent the owner and lessee of Grand Central Terminal from demolishing the landmarked station. The case, which would not be decided until 1978, saved Grand Central Terminal and upheld the constitutionality of New York City’s Landmarks Law7.

Seymour also chaired an independent civic commission, formed in 1972, to study two proposed amendments to New York City’s Landmarks Law: one introduced by Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Harmon Goldstone and the other introduced by City Council member Carter Burden8. As Chairman of the “Citizens for a Sensible Landmarks Law,” Mr. Seymour recommend the “Burden Bill” which was passed by the City Council in 1973 and strengthen the actions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission by adding provisions that included interior landmarks, scenic landmarks, and continuous designation determinations9.

Mr. Seymour was also an advocate for preservation of specific buildings. In 1973, when the US Customs Department was moved to the newly erected World Trade Center, Cass Gilbert’s Beaux Arts Customs House at Bowling Green was left empty. Seymour served on the “Customs House Committee to study the possible uses for the landmarked building10.

As a vestryman and preservationist, Seymour helped defend the Grace Church Houses on 4th Avenue and 11th Street in Manhattan, part of a Gothic Revival complex that includes James Renwick, Jr.’s Grace Church and rectory. The houses were slated for demolition in the mid 1970s, but Mr. Seymour helped raise funds for their adaptive reuse into a gymnasium for the Grace Church School in 197711.

 

Archives, Personal files, and Ephemura

Whitney North Seymour Papers 1930 - 1983, bulk (1950-1980) New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division. Room 238Fifth Avenue and 42nd StreetNew York, NY 10018-2788

Anthony C. Wood, Interview with Whitney North Seymour, Jr. Collection of the New York Preservation Archive Project.

  • 1. Robert Sink, Accession Sheet, New York Public Library Rare Books & Manuscripts Division, Whitney North Seymour Papers, May 30, 1985; Albin Krebs, “Whitney North Seymour, Sr. Led Bar Group, New York Times, May 22, 1983.
  • 2. Robert Sink, Accession Sheet, New York Public Library Rare Books & Manuscripts Division, Whitney North Seymour Papers, May 30, 1985.
  • 3. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 147; Gregory Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), 352.
  • 4. Ibid., 153.
  • 5. Mayor Appoints 13 to Help Preserve Historic Buildings,” New York Times July 12, 1961.
  • 6. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007). Page 363.
  • 7. Walter Waggoner, “An Impressive Battery of Legal Talent Joins the Battle to Save Grand Central,” New York Times, July 30, 1972.
  • 8. Gregory Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), 399.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ada Louise Huxtable, “New Customs House: Modern, Functional, No Match for the Old One,” New York Times, October 4, 1973.
  • 11. Paul Goldberger, “Grace Church: Happy Ending to Bitter Controversy,” New York Times, February 16, 1977.