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Edward Steese

Edward Steese

Also known as Ed Steese

Architect Edward Steese was instrumental in the 1950s movement to take inventory of New York City’s historic structures.

Organizations: Municipal Art Society, New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Society of Architectural Historians
Places: Carnegie Hall, Old Metropolitan Opera House, Wyckoff House 
Above: Edward Steese; Courtesy of the Anthony C. Wood Archives

Edward Steese was born in Scarsdale, New York, in 1902 to Maude Heaton Steese and Dr. Edward Sturtevant Steese.1 He attended Princeton University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art and Archaeology in 1924 and a master’s degree in Architecture in 1927.

Upon graduating, Steese joined the architecture firm of Carrère & Hastings where he became chief designer in 1927.2 Following the death of Thomas Hastings, Steese partnered with architect Lawrence G. Noyes to take over the firm under the name Noyes & Steese from 1930 until 1932. Steese went into private practice in New York in 1932 until he retired in 1960.3 Over the years, Steese donated nearly 500 architectural drawings, plans, and pertinent architectural items from Carrère & Hastings to the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.4

During World War I, Steese was deputy chief, Aircraft Section, of the Construction Division of the War Production Board. He also served as the chairman of Volunteer Services, Artists-for-Victory, for which he received a Certificate of Merit in 1951.5

In addition, Steese was an accomplished author and poet. Among his publications were Storm in Harvest and Other Poems (1929), Spring Night: A Review of Youth (1927), Ephemerae: Poems of Edward Steese (1952) and First Snow (1954). He was also the editor of A Princeton Anthology (1925) and Poems of Neilson Abeel (1951).

Edward Steese was instrumental in the 1950s movement to take inventory of New York’s historic structures and build a constituency for historic preservation. His committee’s development of an index of structures worthy of preservation fostered public awareness and provided the intellectual capital that eventually drove the designation process.6

Steese died in 1981 at his home in Scarsdale at the age of 78.

New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects
Member, 1941-1956

Municipal Art Society
Vice President, 1950–1953
Chairman for the Committee on Historic Architecture, 1951-1956

Century Association
Archivist, 1963-1971

 

Edward Steese’s first major preservation-related effort was his involved in the creation of the document New York Landmarks: An Index of Architecturally Historic Structures in New York City. In September of 1951, Steese, as Chairman of the Municipal Art Society's Committee on Historic Architecture, proposed the compilation of a comprehensive list of New York City's architecturally significant buildings worthy of preservation as a collaborative effort along with the New York chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Steese partnered with James Grote VanDerpool (President of the allied chapter), in updating and expanding Talbot Hamlin's Tentative List of Old Buildings of Manhattan Built in 1865 or Earlier, and Worthy of Preservation, Annotated by Talbot Hamlin which was developed almost ten years earlier in 1942.7

Steese and his committee greatly expanded upon Hamlin's preliminary list. They broadened their scope from "buildings" to architecturally significant "sites", "monuments," and "structures", including bridges, dwellings, commercial buildings, and miscellaneous structures.8 They also developed a coding system explaining why each nomination was listed. Reasons included architectural importance, historical interest, sculpture incorporated into the structure, stained glass, paintings, and mosaics.9 The roster was circulated as a mimeographed booklet with a questionnaire to the members of both the Municipal Art Society and the Society for Architectural Historians as well as libraries, historical societies, architectural firms and other interested parties, for additional nominations and comments, resulting in an ever-expanding Master Card Index.10&11

In October 1953, the list was submitted as a Final Index of Architecturally Historic Buildings in New York City built before World War I, in which the roster was divided into three categories: (1) National Importance to be Preserved at all Costs, (2) Great Local or Regional Importance, and (3) Buildings of Great Interest Listed for Protection. In January 1957, a second edition, New York Landmarks: Index of Architecturally Historic Structures in New York City expanded to 1930 with an introduction by Steese was published by the Municipal Art Society and available to the public. Steese's committee's index underwent many subsequent editions, finally published as the hard-covered New York Landmarks by Alan Burnham in 1963, appropriately dedicated to Steese.

Steese was also involved with the exhibit Thirty New York Buildings Most Worthy of Preservation, an exhibit hosted by the Municipal Art Society in January 1952 in the main lobby of the Museum of the City of New York, consisting of photographs of "some of the most interesting of the 'unprotected buildings'" on Steese's committee's list. The public was invited to vote for the buildings they would like to see preserved.12

In addition, Steese was also involved with the exhibit Historically Important New York Buildings. This was an exhibit hosted by the Municipal Art Society in January 1952 in the Pine Room of the Architectural League in New York. The exhibit featured buildings from Steese's committee's list of historical and architectural note that are now fully protected.13

Furthermore, Edward Steese was involved with the exhibit The Monuments of Manhattan, which was an exhibition hosted by the Municipal Art Society from January to March 1955 at the University Club's College Hall. The exhibition was organized by Steese and curated by Henry Hope Reed based on the list of architecturally historic monuments before World War I. One-thousand copies of the index were distributed, generating great interest.14

On another note, Steese often served as a spokesperson for New York's preservation movement in the form of letters to the editor of The New York Times, the Herald Tribune as well as articles in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Journal) and numerous other publications. He was vocal in his protest of the razing of such cultural landmarks as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn. Steese was a tireless advocate for legislation protecting the City's landmarks.15,16,17&18

Steese was also a strong advocate of more traditional architecture. He was among a group of early preservationists viscerally opposed to the aesthetics of modern architecture. Steese is famous for his hatred of what he called "megahyaline buildings," his term for "glass-box" buildings which he found to be replacing his beloved traditional architecture at an alarming rate.19 He often chided officials and developers for making changes in the New York skyline that he felt "destroyed" or "altered" the historic or architectural quality of the City.20

Steese also was an early participant in the New York Community Trust Plaque Program. As early as 1955, Steese was in communication with the New York Community Trust regarding the creation of a "Plaque Program" that would mark emblematic examples of the City's historic architecture. The Plaque Program was officially inaugurated in 1957 and based on the research conducted by the Municipal Art Society's Committee on Historic Architecture for the "Index."21

  • Edward Steese Papers
    Manuscript Division
    Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library
    Princeton University
    One Washington Road
    Princeton, NJ 08540
    Email: [email protected]

    Carrère & Hastings Architectural Drawings and Papers, circa 1899 - 1930
    Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue
    New York, NY 10027
    Tel: (212) 854-4110
    Email: [email protected]

    Municipal Art Society of New York Records, Microfilm
    Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
    750 9th Street, NW, Victor Building, Suite 2200
    Washington, D.C. 20001

    James Grote VanDerpool Papers
    Avery Drawings & Archives
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue
    New York, NY 10027
    Email: [email protected]

    Anthony C. Wood Archives
    New York Preservation Archive Project
    174 East 80th Street
    New York, New York 10075
    Tel: (212) 988-8379
    Email: [email protected]

    Century Association Archives Foundation
    7 West 43rd Street
    New York, NY 10036
    Email: [email protected]
  1. 
”Mrs. Edward Steese,” The New York Tmes, 6 October 1961.
  2. 
Edward Steese Papers, Manuscript Division, Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, Princeton University.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. Princeton Alumni Weekly: September 21, 1981 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), page 20.
  6. 
Anthony C. Wood, The Past is Never Dead. It is Not Even Past, Keynote Address for “Preserving New York – Then and Now Symposium,” Museum of the City of New York, 23 February 2008.
  7. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmark (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 115.
  8. 
Steese to Hamlin, 30 September 1951, Talbot F. Hamlin Collection, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
  9. 
Ibid.
  10. 
Gregory Gimartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), page 351.
  11. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmark (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 118.
  12. 
Municipal Art Society Board Meeting Minutes, 25 February 1952, Municipal Art Society of New York Records. Archives of American Art.
  13. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmark (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 119.
  14. 
Municipal Art Society Board Meeting Minutes, 25 January 1955, Municipal Art Society of New York Records. Archives of American Art.
  15. 
Edward Steese, “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, 23 July 1955.
  16. 
Edward Steese, “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, 22 October 1955.
  17. 
Municipal Art Society Board Meeting Minutes, 25 May and 26 October, 1953, Municipal Art Society of New York Records, Archives of American Art.
  18. 
Edward Steese, “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, 13 April 1955.
  19. 
”Edward Steese, 78; A Leader in Efforts to Save Landmarks,” The New York Times, 10 August 1981.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Municipal Art Society Board Meeting Minutes, 24 April 1955 and 28 October 1957, Municipal Art Society of New York Records, Archives of American Art.