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Alan Burnham

Alan Burnham

Alan Burnham’s work and research provided the intellectual foundation for the historic preservation movement.

Above: The 1963 edition of New York Landmarks by Alan Burnham; Courtesy of the Wesleyan University Press

Alan Burnham was born on February 10, 1913, in Englewood, New Jersey. He attended prep school in Connecticut and Colorado, and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science from Harvard in 1935. In 1940, he received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Columbia University. As an architect, he worked in the firm of Stanley and Sturges, which specialized in architecture for the Roman Catholic Church.1

Though he worked as an architect, Alan Burnham was an academic at heart. As an architectural historian, he authored New York Landmarks: A Study and Index of Architecturally Notable Structures in Greater New York (Wesleyan University Press: 1963). He also established the American Architectural Archive. At the time of his death he was in the process of working on three books: New York City: The Development of a Metropolis, a compendium of New York City squares, and a biography of the architect Richard Morris Hunt.2

As a preservationist in his hometown community, he was a member of the Connecticut Historical Commission’s review board, and the Historic District Commission of Greenwich. He also played a significant role in preserving the Christ Rectory, the YMCA, and the Town Hall Annex, Greenwich’s first high school.3

Burnham served as the executive director of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and later went on to work as the head of the Commission’s research department.

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Executive Director, 1965-1973

Alan Burnham's work and research provided the intellectual foundation for the historic preservation movement. According to The New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, Burnham was:

"one of the early preservationists who did a great deal of work in a quiet scholarly manner. He was not an activist. He did his homework. His knowledge and research backed up the [Landmarks Preservation] Commission and public interest groups."4

Alan Burnham first worked with preservationists in Brooklyn Heights to establish the area as a historic district. He chaired the Municipal Art Society's special sub-committee of the Committee on Historic Architecture, and met with representatives from Brooklyn Heights.5 In 1963, he authored New York Landmarks: A Study and Index of Architecturally Notable Structures in Greater New York (Wesleyan University Press, 1963). The structures that Burnham examined in his book were selected based on the list compiled by Talbot F. Hamlin and the Municipal Art Society. This book played an instrumental role in mobilizing a landmarks preservation movement in New York.

Two years later, when Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. created the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Burnham served as executive director. He later worked as the head of the Commission's historic research department.6 Mr. Burnham also provided a necessary influential voice to call people's attention to the importance of Jefferson Market Courthouse.7 Burnham emphasized the importance of the structure's aesthetics. He asserted that the Courthouse was "the kind of thing that people go to Europe to see." Denying accusations that the building was ugly, he said, "Today it's fashionable to call it a monstrosity, but it's functionally beautiful and very picturesque. It would be a great crime if it was torn down.”8 Furthermore, Mr. Burnham was concerned with the redevelopment and design of Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.9

  • Alan Burnham Papers, 1874-1999
    Department of Drawings & Archives
    Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Ave #3
    New York, NY 10027

    Recording and transcript of Alan Burnham giving a speech in December 1963 at the Century Club Century Association Archives
    7 West 43rd Street New York, NY 10036
    Tel: (212) 391-8054
    Fax: (212) 730-6308
    E-mail: [email protected]

  • Oral History with Frank Gilbert
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Gerald C. Fraser, “Alan Burnham is Dead at 71; Architect and Preservationist,” The New York Times, 5 March 1984.
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 215.
  6. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1994), page 374.
  7. 
Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Salvage of Old Jeff,” The New York Times, 23 September 1964.
  8. 
”Village Opens Fight for ‘Old Jeff,'” New York Herald Tribune, 11 June 1961.
  9. Gerald C. Fraser, “Alan Burnham is Dead at 71; Architect and Preservationist,” The New York Times, 5 March 1984.