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Margot Gayle

Margot Gayle

Also known as Margaret McCoy Gayle

Margot Gayle founded the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture and spearheaded many preservation campaigns including the effort to preserve the Jefferson Market Courthouse.

People: Brendan Gill, Henry-Russell Hitchcock
Organizations: Committee of Neighbors to get the Clock on Jefferson Market Court House Started, Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, Friends of the Old Sun Clock, Victorian Society in America 
Places: Bennett Building, Jefferson Market Courthouse, SoHo Cast Iron Historic District, Yorkville Sidewalk Clock, Pennsylvania Station
Above: Margot Gayle campaigning for the Jefferson Market Courthouse; Courtesy of H.J. Fields/The New York Public Library

Margot McCoy Gayle was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 14, 1908. Her father was an executive in the automobile business, and her family moved so frequently that she attended a different school every year. When she was 13, her family spent a year in London. Gayle earned a master’s degree in bacteriology from Emory University, but due to the Great Depression she had a difficult time finding a job.1

Margot Gayle’s foray into activism was in the arena of politics. She was so ardent in her dedication to see the poll tax repealed in Georgia that she earned the nickname Poll Tax Margot.2 Gayle also wanted to have a career, and the prospect of marriage did not rank very high on her list of priorities, but she married nonetheless. Her husband, William, was an accountant, and they raised two daughters in New York. She worked as a radio writer and became involved in local politics. She ran for a City Council seat in 1957 with the slogan, “We need a woman in the City Council,” a notoriously male institution at the time. She lost the race but she continued her activism, transferring her efforts to historic preservation.3

Gayle was especially dedicated to the preservation of cast-iron structures. She founded and participated in several preservation-related organizations. She also wrote a column in the Daily News entitled, “New York’s Changing Scene,” for seven years.4 Margot Gayle passed away on September 28, 2008, at the age of 100.

The Friends of the Old Sun Clock
Treasurer

Victorian Society in America
Co-founder, 1966

Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture
Founder, 1970

After several years of activism in local politics, Margot Gayle turned her attention toward rescuing the endangered buildings of New York City. Gayle first organized her neighbors from the kitchen of her Greenwich Village apartment. Her direct involvement with historic preservation began with her efforts to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse.5

As a leader in the Jefferson Market Courthouse campaign, she successfully employed her political organization and public relations skills to rally New Yorkers to save "Old Jeff." As part of the strategy to save the courthouse, the Villagers sought first to restore the clock atop of the building. Gayle spearheaded the formation of the "Committee of Neighbors to get the Clock on Jefferson Market Court House Started," launching a grassroots campaign to raise money to fix the clock. By October 16, 1960, the community had raised enough money to fix the clock, and it was ticking once again.6

After her first victory in saving the Jefferson Market Courthouse clock, and the building itself, Gayle's activism continued. Gayle was involved with a group called The Friends of the Old Sun Clock, an organization that sought to restore New York's public clocks. She served as the treasurer of the organization. She also helped to create the official position of New York City Clockmaster.

In addition to Gayle's involvement with New York City public clocks, she also worked in the public relations department of the City Planning Commission. She aided the Friends of the Alice Austen House in fighting to preserve the historic house on Staten Island that had been inhabited by noted photographer Alice Austen. Though she succeeded in getting the City to acquire the land, it took many years before the house was restored and stabilized. She also worked to get the area known as SoHo designated as the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District by strategically enlisting the help of local artists. Additionally, in order to garner public support and raise awareness for the importance of preserving New York's historic areas, she organized and conducted free walking tours of lower Manhattan.7

In June of 1966, Margot Gayle, in conjunction with historic preservationists Brendan Gill and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, founded the Victorian Society in America. This organization stood as a sister organization to the Victorian Society in the U.K. The creation of this association can be attributed to the outrage in response to the demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station. They formed the Society to ensure that other important structures would not similarly fall to the wrecker's ball.8

On March 18, 1970, Margot Gayle established the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture. She was determined to preserve structures such as cast-iron buildings, cemetery ironwork, and iron fountains - both nationally and internationally. In its early years, the organization successfully preserved iron structures in Natchez, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In fact, since this organization came into being as a publicizing agent, very few cast-iron structures have been demolished. Its activities have greatly increased public awareness and appreciation of this unique resource type.9

On May 16, 2000, Margot Gayle received the Annual Lifetime Achievement Award by Commissioner Bernadette Castro of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The award commemorated her long and distinguished commitment to preserving cast-iron architecture in America. Through her tireless efforts, the history of cast-iron architecture has been well documented and many of the most important examples of cast-iron construction have been protected. In 1998, Margot Gayle and her daughter Carol published Cast Iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus. This work traces the history of cast-iron architecture in the United States and discusses the man who pioneered its development.

In 1997, Margot Gayle received the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal from the Municipal Art Society of New York. In the 1990s, Gayle successfully raised $18,00 to restore the Yorkville Sidewalk Clock on Third Avenue near 85th Street.10

Her last victory was obtaining landmark status for the Bennett Building in 1995, a cast-iron structure on Nassau Street, which she said is the largest iron-front building in the city.

  • Friends of Cast Iron Papers
    National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection
    University of Maryland
    College Park, MD 20742

  • Margot Gayle Photo Collection
    New York Preservation Archive Project
    174 East 80th Street
    New York, NY 10075
    Tel: (212) 988-8379
    Email: [email protected]

  • The New-York Historical Society has an extensive collection of Gayle's papers, focused on her later preservation activism. Click here for the NYHS's "Guide to the Papers of Margot Gayle." 
  • Manuscript Department
    The New-York Historical Society
    170 Central Park West
    New York, NY 10024
    Tel: (212) 873-3400 ex. 265
    Fax: (212) 875-1591

  • Charles Hosmer, Interview with Margot Gayle. Under the auspices of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association. 23 June 1982. University of Maryland Libraries Collection.

  •  
  • Oral History with Margot Gayle
  • Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
  • 232 East 11th Street
    New York, NY 10003
    Tel: (212) 475-9585
    Email: [email protected]

 

 

  1. 
Joyce Walder, “Public Lives; a Polite Defender of Soho’s Cast-Iron District,” The New York Times, 29 May 1998.
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. Charles Hosmer, Interview with Margot Gayle. Under the auspices of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association. 23 June 1982. University of Maryland Libraries Collection.
  5. 
Joyce Walder, “Public Lives; a Polite Defender of Soho’s Cast-Iron District,” The New York Times, 29 May 1998.
  6. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 261.
  7. Charles Hosmer, Interview with Margot Gayle. Under the auspices of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association. 23 June 1982. University of Maryland Libraries Collection.
  8. About Us: What is The Victorian Society in America?Victorian Society in America. Article retrieved 16 March 2016.
  9. Charles Hosmer, Interview with Margot Gayle. Under the auspices of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association. 23 June 1982. University of Maryland Libraries Collection.
  10. 
Nadine Brozan, “Chronicle,” The New York Times, 31 January 1997.