In Memoriam: John Belle
May 3, 2017
Article from the Spring 2017 Newsletter
John Belle, a founding partner of Beyer Blinder Belle, an architecture and planning firm that specializes in preservation, restoration, and contextual design, passed away in September 2016 at the age of 84. Mr. Belle worked on restoring such iconic New York City structures as Grand Central Terminal, the Main Building on Ellis Island, and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. Furthermore, Mr. Belle was known for his interest in the sensitive intersection of urban planning and preservation, reflecting the ideology of the 1960s when activists demanded urban solutions that incorporated older buildings and neighborhoods. “Preservation is one of the highest forms of good citizenship,” Mr. Belle said on his firm’s website. “As a witness to the aftermath of the urban renewal movement in New York, I was determined to find a different way.”
Born in Wales, Mr. Belle received diplomas in architecture in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States in 1959. In America he worked for Josep Lluís Sert and Victor Gruen before starting his own firm in 1968 with Richard L. Blinder and John H. Beyer. Mr. Belle’s early work included community planning projects in Manhattan. With the addition of architect and preservationist James Marston Fitch to the practice in 1979, Beyer Blinder Belle began moving to the forefront of preservation-oriented architecture. The firm attracted much attention in the 1990s with its historically sensitive renovations of Grand Central Terminal and the Main Building on Ellis Island.
The restoration of Grand Central—especially the nine-month-long cleaning of the concourse ceiling, which revealed the striking blue ceiling with gold leaf stars, constellations, and zodiac signs—was particularly applauded, coming relatively soon after the 1978 United States Supreme Court decision that upheld the terminal’s status as a landmark. “It was as if life were being breathed back into the building,” Mr. Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton wrote in their book Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. “Many commuters stopped in their tracks, speechless and amazed at the change that had so instantly brought back the majesty of the space.”
An oral history with John Belle and his colleague John Beyer was completed by the Archive Project in 2014. In this interview they discuss their work with historic structures, including interactions with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, how standards at that agency have changed over the years, and public perception of renewal architecture. Access the full transcript here.