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MacNeil Mitchell

MacNeil Mitchell

Also known as Senator MacNeil Mitchell

New York State Senator MacNeil Mitchell facilitated the passage of the Bard Act and helped draft the Carnegie Hall Bill.

Above: Mayor Robert Wagner conducts the Department of Sanitation Band at the rededication ceremony of Carnegie Hall after threats to its preservation, September 26, 1960; Courtesy of The New York Times

MacNeil Mitchell was born in Lime Rock, Connecticut, on July 18, 1904, the eldest son of George Henry Mitchell and the former Harriet MacNeil.1 The future legislator hailed from an impressive pedigree: his paternal grandfather, Charles E. Mitchell, was Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C., and his father was a patent lawyer who eventually served as assistant Corporation Counsel of the City of New York under Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. Mitchell graduated in 1926 from Yale University, and received his law degree from the University of California Law School.2 He practiced law for a number of years before his successful run on the Republican ticket for New York State Assembly in 1938, where he served Manhattan’s Tenth District (the “Tenderloin”) for six years. His career as a State Senator for 17 years held Mitchell’s greatest public work, however.

Within the preservation movement, MacNeil Mitchell is most noted for drafting legislation that helped protect historic buildings and paved the way for the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law. Mitchell facilitated the passage of the Bard Act, and chaired the Senate Committee on the Affairs of New York City.3 He advocated for the preservation of Carnegie Hall by drafting legislative measures to allow the City to purchase and lease the property to the Carnegie Hall Foundation. Mitchell also argued in favor of renovating and reusing the “old” Metropolitan Opera House, and was appointed to the board of the World’s Fair 1964 Corporation in 1959.

MacNeil Mitchell is perhaps better known for co-sponsorship of the affordable housing bill that bears his name (Mitchell-Lama) than his commitment to preservation in the state of New York, though such a characterization would diminish some of his greatest accomplishments.4 Mitchell, despite his high popularity, left politics in 1965, but continued to practice law at his Albany-based firm, Mitchell, Barker, & Cohen, into his 80s. In his last year of public service, The New York Times called Senator Mitchell “New York City’s most powerful member of the legislature.” Mitchell died on December 17, 1996.

New York State Assemblyman for New York City, District 10 (1938-1944)

New York State Assemblyman for New York City, District 1 (1945-1946)

New York State Senator for New York City, District 20 (1947-1964)

Chair, Senate Committee on the Affairs of New York City, 1959

New York delegate, Republican National Convention, 1960

Chair, New York State Senate Banks Committee

Chair, New York State Senate Corporations Committee

Chair, New York State Senate Excise Committee

Chair, New York State Senate Finance Committee

Chair, New York State Senate Insurance Committee

Chair, New York State Senate Judiciary Committee

The Bard Act, which provided the legal means for local municipalities to designate historic buildings for aesthetic purposes, was passed under Mitchell’s proposal. Since the Act did not bear Mitchell's name, as so many later bills did, his role in the process remains somewhat uncelebrated. The bill, drafted by Albert S. Bard, a New York City-based lawyer, advocated for the proper protection for structures of "aesthetic and historic value;" it was proposed by the New York State Senate and vetoed by the governor in 1955. Mitchell’s position in the State Senate, coupled with his role as chair on the committee governing the "Affairs of New York City," facilitated his prominence in regard to actions in preservation history. His re-introduction and support of the Bard Act (Senate Bill, Int. 1218, Pr. 1279) while serving in the NYS Senate in 1955-56 came to influence historic preservation both city- and nationwide. Bard, after whom the affectionate moniker was eventually created, continually insisted that proper credit be given to Mitchell for his efforts.

Through Mitchell’s so-called "Carnegie Hall Bill," legislation that allowed the City of New York to purchase Carnegie Hall by condemnation and then lease the building to the not-for-profit Carnegie Hall Foundation, the sixty-nine year old structure was spared demolition.5 Before he left office, Mitchell voiced his thoughts on retention and reuse for the "Old" Metropolitan Opera House, located at 40th Street and Broadway, and declared that it should "be preserved as a historic cultural monument." Though it received little press coverage at the time of its inception, Mitchell’s “Bard Act” proved indispensable in other preservation battles, including that in Brooklyn Heights.

”MacNeil Mitchell, 92, a Legislator and in New York State for 27 years,” The New York Times, 20 December 1996.
  3. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 141.
Ibid, page 141.
Ibid, page 254.