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Robert Moses

Robert Moses

Planner Robert Moses constructed many public parks and promoted new construction of infrastructure, often opposed by preservationists for destroying historic fabric.

People: Albert S. Bard, C. C. Burlingham, Shirley Hayes, Stanley Isaacs, Jane Jacobs, Meredith Langstaff, George McAneny
Organizations: Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic, Willow Town Association
Places: Bronx Whitestone Bridge, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn Heights, Castle Clinton, Henry Hudson Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Queens Midtown Tunnel, Robert Moses Power Plant, Robert Moses State Park, Throg’s Neck Bridge, Triborough Bridge, Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Washington Square Park, Westside Highway, Willow Town, Brooklyn Battery Bridge
Above: Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model, 1938; Courtesy of C.M. Stieglitz/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Robert Moses was born to Emanuel Moses, a department store owner, and Bella Silverman Moses, on December 18, 1888. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and then on East 46th Street in Manhattan. He was accepted to Yale University at the age of 17, and he graduated in 1909. Subsequently, he received a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University in 1914. In 1913, he began working for the Municipal Research Bureau, a research and advisory arm for the nationwide municipal government reform movement. By 1922, Moses had become involved with the construction of various parks and highways.1

Robert Moses played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York City than probably any other figure in the 20th century.2 He constructed parks, highways, bridges, playgrounds, housing, tunnels, beaches, zoos, civic centers, exhibition halls, and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. When his tenure as chief of the state park system came to a close, New York had an unprecedented 2,567,256 acres of parkland. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways, and 13 bridges.3

Robert Moses made New York into a city of mass transit. He was principally responsible for the construction of major public projects in the state and city of New York including the Triborough Bridge, Queens Midtown Tunnel, Bronx Whitestone Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Throg’s Neck Bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Westside Highway, Jones Beach State Park, Robert Moses State Park, the Robert Moses Power Plant on the Saint Lawrence River, and the Robert Moses Power Dam on the Niagara River. He also drafted the legislation that established authorities such as the Jones Beach State Park Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.4 Moses was a great city planner and master builder who possessed remarkable political acumen. Over the course of his life Moses wielded a substantial amount of political clout by holding multiple governmental positions simultaneously.5

Moses is a controversial figure in the history of New York. He was directly involved with many public works programs, and yet, he frequently dismissed perpetual public opposition to his work.

In 1974, Robert Caro published a highly critical biography of Robert Moses, entitled The Power Broker, a work that won him a Pulitzer Prize. Caro accused Moses of removing entire neighborhoods of people in an effort to create urban renewal, thus destroying the traditional character of the urban landscape. In 1969, Moses published his side of the story in an autobiography, which he called Public Works: A Dangerous Trade.6 Moses was married two times in his life, and had two daughters. He died on July 29, 1981 at the age of 92.7

Long Island State Parks Commission
President, 1924-1963

New York State Council of Parks
Chairman, 1924-1963

New York State
Secretary of State, 1927-1928

Bethpage State Park Authority
President, 1933-1963

Emergency Public Works Commission
Chairman, 1933-1934

Jones Beach Parkway Authority
President, 1933-1963

New York City Department of Parks
Commissioner, 1934-1960

Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority
Chairman, 1934-1981

New York City Planning Commission
Commissioner, 1946-1960

New York State Power Authority
Chairman, 1954-1962

New York’s World Fair
President, 1960-1966

Governor of New York State on Housing
Special Advisor, 1974-1975

Robert Moses's personal interests as a city planner and builder frequently led him to clash with civic minded individuals and organizations who were concerned with preserving the traditional fabric of New York's urban landscape. In fact, Moses is one of the primary motivating factors behind the formal organization of preservationists as they felt he threatened the civic beauty and historical significance of New York City.

However, Moses, ever the controversial character, also delivered a large number of public works. The facilities that he built, such as new playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks, were immensely popular amongst the populations who benefited from them. He is also credited with proposing the Special Parks Zoning Appeal to protect the City's parks.8

Robert Moses was noted for his skilled playing of political hardball, as well as his ability to maintain speedy approvals to enact his building plans. By 1939, when Robert Moses announced his plan to construct a Brooklyn Battery Bridge, he theoretically possessed the power necessary to obtain permission to do so. He planned to maintain control of the proposed bridge, whereas if the original plan to build a tunnel were enacted, he would not have obtained similar authority.9 The struggle over construction of the Brooklyn Battery Bridge was the forerunner to all future preservation battles. This battle introduced the issue of maintaining New York's scenic beauty, the significance of which became a primary concern for preservationists. The masterminds behind the opposition to Moses were New York civic reformers Stanley Isaacs, George McAneny, Albert S. Bard, and C. C. Burlingham.10 The opposing forces would continuously employ the argument of aesthetics, even appealing to Franklin Roosevelt on these grounds. Moses's plan for the Brooklyn Battery Bridge was eventually blocked by the War Department, and a tunnel was built instead.11

Moses responded to his defeat with the Brooklyn Battery Bridge by closing the New York Aquarium, an adaptive reuse of the historic Castle Clinton. Civic efforts to attain landmark preservation were aided as a result of Moses’s attack on Castle Clinton. The battle over Castle Clinton was a decade-long endeavor. Moses was only successful in destroying the roof of the structure. Preservation efforts were able to save the building's remaining circular wall.12

A common theme that permeated among Moses's projects was for large-scale planned development and slum clearance rather than organic urban growth. His main counterpart who successfully challenged his projects was civic activist Jane Jacobs. Her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities captured the fervor of the time by revealing the dangers of the post-war economic building boom. The book illustrated the problems associated with large-scale urban renewal projects, which not only threatened the aesthetic environment by demolishing historic buildings but also destroyed community and city vitality. Jacobs encouraged urban diversity by providing mixed-use development while preserving the historic environment. She waged countless battles against many of Moses's proposed projects.

In the postwar 1940s, Robert Moses again posed a significant threat, this time in Washington Square. Jane Jacobs spearheaded advocacy campaigns to prevent Moses's grand schemes, which threatened to alter Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village.

In 1952, Moses announced his plan to create two roads, each thirty-eight feet wide, through Washington Square Park, which would flank the Washington Square Arch. South of the arch, between the two roads, he planned to construct a playground. In 1958, Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes formed the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic. They garnered public support by engaging in demonstrations and protests in the park. More importantly, they used political means to get the Board of Estimate to close traffic in the park. The success at defeating Moses's proposal was remarkable given Moses's political power in City government.13

Robert Moses was also the chairman of the City’s Slum Clearing Commission. With its bulldozer approach, Moses’s Slum Clearing Commission prepared to swallow up the entire northeast corner of Brooklyn Heights through the Cadman Plaza Project. His desire was to enact his new urban vision of strictly planned communities, unencumbered by the remains of the old. Consequently, certain parts of Brooklyn Heights, including an area known as Willow Town, faced demolition. The Willow Town Association, led by Meredith Langstaff, fought for the preservation of Willow Town, and argued that, "Willow Town was not a slum." The Title One Housing that Moses proposed to erect in the cleared areas would consist of "efficiency apartments, small apartments, small, very expensive apartments." Between the demolition of Willow Town, and the proposal to construct unsightly housing in Brooklyn Heights, Moses enraged many of the area's residents, who effectively rallied together to prevent Moses from enacting his plan.14

Moses was also responsible for suggesting the construction of the controversial Central Park Café Pavilion to supermarket heir Huntington Hartford.15 The proposed Pavilion was never approved.

Throughout his career, Robert Moses posed a consistent threat to New York City's physical landscape, and it was largely in response to this danger that New Yorkers organized in effort to obtain formal landmark protection legislation.

  • Robert Moses Papers, 1912-1980
    Manuscripts & Archives Division
    New York Public Library
    Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
    New York, NY 10018
    Tel: (212) 930-0801
    Email: [email protected]

  • Oral Histories with Bronson Binger and Mandingo Tshaka 
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. 
The Robert Moses Papers, The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives section, compiled by Charles Kronick, March 1986.
  2. Paul 
Goldberger, “Robert Moses, Master Builder is Dead at 92,” The New York Times, 30 July 1981.
  3. 
The Robert Moses Papers, The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives section, compiled by Charles Kronick, March 1986.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 43-4.
  6. 
Paul Goldberger, “Robert Moses, Master Builder is Dead at 92,” The New York Times, 30 July 1981.
  7. 
The Robert Moses Papers, The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives section, compiled by Charles Kronick, March 1986.
  8. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 87.
  9. 
Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random House: 1974), Chapter 29.
  10. 
George Martin, CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York’s First Citizen, 1858-1959 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), page 3.
  11. 
Bard to Honorary Thomas Ball, 19 July 1939, Albert S. Bard Papers, The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives section.
  12. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 54.
  13. 
Emily Kies Folpe, It Happened on Washington Square (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002), pages 303-308.
  14. 
”Willow Town Association Opposes Slum Study of Area,” Brooklyn Heights Press, 2 August 1956.
  15. 
Robert Moses, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970), page 17.