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Jan Hird Pokorny

Jan Hird Pokorny

Jan Hird Pokorny was a commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for 10 years and was involved in the efforts to save Sailors’ Snug Harbor and the Dvořák House.

Organizations: New York City Art Commission, Grand Central Terminal Trust, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Dvořák House, Lehman College, Lewisohn Hall, Milbank Hall, Sailors’ Snug Harbor, Schermerhorn Row, South Street Seaport
Above: Jan Hird Pokorny at the 2006 Golden Jubilee of the Bard Act; Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project

Jan Hird Pokorny was born on May 25, 1914 in the Czech Republic. He was the son of Jaroslav Pokorny, an electrical engineer.1 Pokorny received his bachelor’s degree in architecture at the Polytechnical School of Prague in 1938.2 A year later, he emigrated to New York City during the German occupation of Eastern Europe.3 After emigrating to the United States, he started his graduate studies in architecture at Columbia University in 1940, and began teaching shortly after receiving his degree in 1941.4 Pokorny worked as an architect in Detroit, Michigan, for the Leo Bauer firm during World War II. The firm was responsible for producing battle tanks in the old Ford factories.5 In 1947, he started the architecture firm Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, which specialized in the restorations and adaptations of historic structures for reuse in New York City. Some of the firm’s most notable projects included the restoration of the Schermerhorn Row Block in the South Street Seaport, the master plan for Lehman College, renovations of Lewisohn Hall at Columbia University, and buildings at the Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey.6

Pokorny served on the New York City Art Commission in addition to being a commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. He was responsible for saving a statue of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák that had suffered from neglect on top of Avery Fisher Hall.7 The statue was rescued from the building and placed in Stuyvesant Square across from the former row house where Dvořák had resided for three years while he composed the New World Symphony.8

He served as a commissioner to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for 10 years, and was a trustee to the Grand Central Terminal Trust.9 He has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Lifetime Preservation Award from Columbia University Preservation Alumni, the James William Kideney Award from the American Institute of Architects, and the American Institute of Architects New York State Fellows Award.10 Jan Hird Pokorny died on May 20, 2008 at the age of 93.11

Art Commission of New York City
Commissioner, 1973-1977

Grand Central Terminal Trust
Trustee

Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, Inc.
Chief Executive Officer

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Commissioner, 1997-2007

Jan Hird Pokorny's involvement in preservation began with a variety of restoration projects in New York City. Pokorny was a major proponent of combining old and new architectural elements.

One example of his preservation efforts was his involvement in the preservation of Schermerhorn Row in South Street Seaport, for which he served as principal in charge on the restoration.12 Schermerhorn Row in lower Manhattan represents one of the oldest commercial blocks in New York City. This once-thriving commercial area suffered from neglect until the 1960s. Schermerhorn Row, containing 19 historic buildings, was officially designated as an historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1968 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. These 19 buildings contain a panoply of Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate architectural styles.13 Pokorny's firm was commissioned $10 million to restore the Schemerhorn block in an effort to reinvigorate the once burgeoning commercial area by utilizing its historic structures.14 Pokorny was able to closely match the historic appearance with the use of modern materials.15 This project demonstrated that preservation could be used as a tool for economic development while still retaining historic integrity.

Jan Pokorny was also heavily involved in the preservation of Sailors' Snug Harbor. Pokorny served as a historic preservation consultant to the landmarked Sailors' Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, New York.16

Sailors' Snug Harbor originated as a retirement facility for seaman in 1833.17 The area contained a combination of Greek Revival and Victorian style buildings. However, the buildings suffered from neglect and abandonment due to financial pressures. In the 1960s, the buildings in Sailors' Snug Harbor were threatened by developers.18 The site was among 20 of the first landmarks designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The City of New York acquired the property in 1973 with the goal of developing a cultural center.19 The city commissioned Jan Pokorny and Associates $1.7 million to stabilize and renovate the properties in 1992.20 It was considered one of the largest adaptive reuse projects in the City at this time.

He was also responsible for the renovation and modernization of Lewisohn Hall at Columbia University, as well as Milbank Hall at Barnard College.21

In addition, he was appointed to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1997 and served until 2007. While serving on the Commission, Pokorny was often unconventional in his approach to preservation. He approved a 30-story glass tower addition to a 5-story building on the Upper East Side, illustrating his views on integrating historic buildings with modern architecture.22

Furthermore, his contributions to preservation also entered the realm of education. Pokorny taught architecture at Columbia University from 1941 to 2008. His teaching legacy earned him the Lifetime Preservation Award from Columbia University's Preservation Alumni in 1990.23

  • Jan Hird Pokorny Papers
    Department of Drawings & Archives
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue
    New York, NY 10027
    Tel: (212) 854-4110
    Email: [email protected]

  • Reminiscences of Jan Hird Pokorny, 1998
    Oral History Research Office
    Butler Library
    Columbia University
    535 West 114th Street
    New York, NY 10027
    Tel: (212) 854-7083
    Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Bruce Weber,” Jan Pokorny, 93, Is Dead; Melded Architectural Styles,” The New York Times, 23 May 2008.
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. 
”Remembering Jan Pokorny, 1914-2008,” Architect’s Newspaper, 25 June 2008.
  6. 
Bruce Weber, “Jan Pokorny, 93, Is Dead; Melded Architectural Styles,” The New York Times, 23 May 2008.
  7. 
Ibid.
  8. 
Ibid.
  9. Ibid. 
  10. 
Ibid.
  11. 
Bruce Weber, “Jan Pokorny, 93, Is Dead; Melded Architectural Styles,” The New York Times, 23 May 2008.
  12. Ibid. 
  13. 
George W. Goodman, “Schermerhorn Row’s Resurrection is Close at Hand,” The New York Times, 9 January 1983.
  14. 
Ibid.
  15. 
Ibid.
  16. 
Ibid.
  17. Ibid. 
  18. 
Paul Goldberger, “Architecture View; The Slow, Stylish Design of Snug Harbor,” The New York Times, 5 July 1987.
  19. 
”Posting: $1.7 Million Project; Snug Harbor Restoration,” The New York Times, 9 February 1992.
  20. 
Ibid.
  21. 
Bruce Weber, “Jan Pokorny, 93, Is Dead; Melded Architectural Styles,” The New York Times, 23 May 2008.
  22. 
Ibid. 
  23. Ibid.