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Brooke Astor

Brooke Astor

Brooke Astor contributed funding from the Vincent Astor Foundation to a wide variety of preservation-related projects.

People: Vincent Astor, Jane Jacobs 
Organizations: Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Municipal Art Society, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Vincent Astor Foundation
Places: American Museum of Natural History, the Apollo Theater, Astor Row, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie HallCentral Park, Coney Island, Eldridge Street Synagogue, George Washington Carver Houses, Henry Street Settlement, Jacob Riis Houses, Merchant’s House Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, Prospect Park, Rockaway Beach Bungalows, Rockefeller University, South Street Seaport, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Villard Houses
Above: Brooke Astor; Courtesy of Newsweek

Brooke Astor was born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on March 30, 1902.1 Her parents were John Henry Russell, Jr. (who was appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1934), and Mabel Cecile Hornby Howard. Due to her father’s career, Brooke (as she was commonly known) spent much of her childhood traveling, but by 1914 her family settled in Washington, D.C.2 She attended Miss Madeira’s School in 1916, and later attended another girls’ boarding school, Holton-Arms, graduating in 1919.3 She then married John Dryden Kuser in 1919, but after eleven years she filed for divorce in 1930. Brooke married her second husband, Charles Marshall in 1932, and remained married to him until his death in 1952.4 Brooke then took a job working as a feature editor at House and Garden magazine.5

In October 1953, Brooke married Vincent Astor, a member of the prominent Astor family.6 Vincent Astor died of a heart attack in 1959, bequeathing around half of his considerable fortune to his charitable organization, the Vincent Astor Foundation.7 Under Mr. Astor the Vincent Astor Foundation typically donated to such organizations as the American Red Cross and New York Hospital, but after Mrs. Astor took over the Foundation, funding began to be directed to New York City’s cultural institutions, and increasingly, planning- and preservation-related projects.8

Over the next four decades, Mrs. Astor directed the Foundation’s funds to a wide variety of New York City institutions, including the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller University, Central Park, and the Apollo Theater, while also giving money to organizations such as the Animal Medical Center, the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society), the Maternity Center Association, Lighthouse for the Blind, the Fresh Air Fund, and the International Rescue Committee.9 When the Vincent Astor Foundation closed in December 1997, she had given away $195 million in funding.10 In 1988, Brooke Astor was awarded the National Medal of Arts, and on January 15, 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her philanthropic efforts.11 Brooke Astor passed away at Holly Hill, her estate in Briarcliff Manor, New York, from pneumonia on August 13, 2007, when she was 105 years old.12

Vincent Astor Foundation
President

New York Public Library
Honorary Chairwoman

Morgan Library and Museum
Trustee

Historic Hudson Valley Trust
Honorary Trustee

Rockefeller University
Trustee13

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Board Member, 1964-198314

House and Garden Magazine15
Feature Editor

During the 1960s, Brooke Astor became involved in urban renewal projects, inspired by the 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Mrs. Astor approved grants from the Vincent Astor Foundation to create “outdoor living rooms,” small parks with landscaping, benches, and chess tables to foster a sense of community in the housing projects of New York City.16 In 1967 the Foundation granted $1 million dollars to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community project started by Senator Robert Kennedy that aimed to create two “superblocks” of “car-free zones” located in the crime-stricken, low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, later giving $500,000 in 1969 to fund this area’s community center.17 The Vincent Astor Foundation also gave money to construct the George Washington Carver Houses in East Harlem and funded the building of the outdoor brick amphitheaters for this development and the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side.18 In the 1970s, the Astor Foundation also worked with the Henry Street Settlement, and funded redevelopments on Coney Island.19 During the 1970s, Brooke Astor transitioned from supporting urban renewal projects to supporting historic preservation. During the early 1970s, Mrs. Astor became involved in preservation efforts for the South Street Seaport area; the Vincent Astor Foundation awarded grants to support the effort, one totaling $1 million.20 During the late 1970s, Brooke Astor instigated a resourceful rescue of a row of rare Federal-style houses located in lower Manhattan when the Foundation gave the newly-formed New York Landmarks Conservancy money for a down-payment on the properties. This last-minute donation allowed the Conservancy to sign the contact for ownership of this property, which stopped the bulldozers by a matter of hours and saved the houses from demolition and replacement by a parking lot. Brooke Astor also helped to save the north wing of the Villard Houses, on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, renovating it as home for the Municipal Art Society.21 The Foundation also gave a $10 million grant to the New York Public Library in the late 1970s to bolster the Library’s resources and restore its building, facilities, and materials.22 A $9.6 million grant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art created the Astor Court, a re-creation of a Ming Dynasty-style, Chinese garden courtyard, which opened in 1981.23 In the 1980s, Mrs. Astor became involved in the preservation of the beachside bungalows in Rockaway, Queens, believing that it was wrong to tear down functional housing where people had been living for generations.24

Brooke Astor was also an advocate for the preservation of Saint Bartholomew's Community House on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, which became a controversial issue in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Mrs. Astor used Foundation funds to support a legal battle against the tower that was planned for the community house site, also speaking out publically against the plan along with several other prominent New Yorkers.25 The case, St. Bartholomew's vs. New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (1990), went as far as the Supreme Court and eventually was a victory for historic preservation.26

In 1991, Brooke Astor approved a grant of $500,000 for the "Astor Row Porch Project."27 This project’s goal was to restore the porches of 28 semi-attached houses on Astor Row, located on West 130th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue. William Astor built the houses in the 1880s, and they are well known for their front porches, which featured decorative spindles and brackets. The houses were designated individual landmarks by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1981, but had faced a fair amount of deterioration. Over the course of the 1990s the money granted by the Foundation to repair and replace the porches totaled $1.7 million, and, at present, all but 3 of the 28 porches have been renovated.28 This project was coordinated by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.29

The Foundation also funded preservation-related projects at the Merchant's House Museum, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and Prospect Park.30 As a testament to her important place in New York City's cultural history, the New York Landmarks Conservancy proclaimed Brooke Astor a "Living Landmark" in 1996.31 In 2000, Brooke Astor fought for the designation of an historic district on East 54th and 55th Streets, between Park and Lexington Avenue. Along these streets are 12 townhouses dating from 1869 to 1934, ranging in style from Colonial Revival, Georgian, neo-Renaissance, neo-Jacobean, and Italianate. However, the Landmarks Preservation Commission only designated two of these buildings: 116-118 East 55th Street and 124 East 55th Street.32

  • Oral History with Linda Gillies (Director of the Vincent Astor Foundation from 1974-1997)
    New York Preservation Archive Project
    174 East 80th Street
    New York, NY 10075
    Tel: (212) 988-8379
    Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Marilyn Berger, “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies,” The New York Times, 13 August 2007, page 3. Article retrieved 16 May 2013 
  2. 
“Brooke Astor.” New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009, page 2. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  3. 
Ibid, pages 2-3.
  4. 
Marilyn Berger, “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies,” The New York Times, 13 August 2007, page 4. Article retrieved 16 May 2013 
  5. 
“Brooke Astor,” NNDB: tracking the entire world, page 1. Article retrieved 14 August 2007 
  6. Brooke Astor (New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009), page 4. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  7. 
Marilyn Berger, “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies,” The New York Times, 13 August 2007, page 4. Article retrieved 16 May 2013 
  8. Brooke Astor (New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009), pages 5-6. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  9. 
“Brooke Astor,” NNDB: tracking the entire world, page 2. Article retrieved 14 August 2007; “Philanthropist Astor dies at 105,” Journal News, 14 August, 2007, page 2.; Brendan Gill, “Our Local Correspondents: A Party For Brooke,” New Yorker, 21 April 1997, page 5. Article retrieved 3 January 2009 
  10. 
Marilyn Berger, “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies,” The New York Times, 13 August 2007, page 2. Article retrieved 16 May 2013 
  11. 
“Brooke Astor,” NNDB: tracking the entire world, page 2. Article retrieved 14 August 2007 
  12. 
Marilyn Berger, “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies,” The New York Times, 13 August 2007, page 1. Article retrieved 16 May 2013 
  13. 
Ibid, pages 2-3.
  14. Brooke Astor (New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009), pages 8-9. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  15. 
“Brooke Astor,” NNDB: tracking the entire world, page 2. Article retrieved 14 August 2007 
  16. Brooke Astor (New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009), page 7. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  17. Ibid, pages 7-8.
  18. 
Linda Gilles Interview, New York Preservation Archive Project, pages 13-14.
  19. 
Ibid, pages 14-15.
  20. 
Ibid, page 11.
  21. 
Brendan Gill, “Our Local Correspondents: A Party For Brooke,” New Yorker, 21 April 1997, page 5. Article retrieved 3 January 2009 
  22. Brooke Astor (New York: The New York Community Trust, December 2009), page 9. Brochure retrieved 12 February, 2015 
  23. 
Ibid, pages 8-9.
  24. 
Linda Gilles Interview, New York Preservation Archive Project, page 15.
  25. 
Ibid, pages 10-11.
  26. 
Jeffrey Schmalz, “St. Bartholomew Skyscraper Suit Dismissed,” 14 December 1985, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015 
  27. 
“Astor Foundation Approves Harlem Restoration Grant,” Real Estate Weekly, 4 September 1991, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015 from The Free Library: By Farlex 
  28. 
“About Us: Greatest Accomplishments: Astor Row,” The New York Landmarks Conservancy, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015 
  29. 
“Astor Foundation Approves Harlem Restoration Grant,” Real Estate Weekly, 4 September 1991, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015 from The Free Library: By Farlex 
  30. 
Linda Gilles Interview, New York Preservation Archive Project, pages 18-27.
  31. 
James Barron, “6 New Yorkers Are Acclaimed As Living Monuments to City,” The New York Times, 9 September 1996, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015           
  32. David Kirby, “Neighborhood Report: East Side; Landmark Status is sought for ‘Bastions of Elegance’,” 6 February 2000, page 1. Article retrieved 6 February 2015