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Ruth Wittenberg

Ruth Wittenberg

Also known as Ruth E. Budinoff

Ruth Wittenberg was involved in many preservation campaigns in Greenwich Village, including the effort to designate the area as an historic district, and the fight to save Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Organizations: Community Council for Greenwich Village, Manhattan Community Board 2, The Greenwich Village Study, Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Elmer A. Bobst Library, Greenwich Village, Jefferson Market Courthouse, Washington Square Park
Above: Standing: Henry Hope Reed & Carol Greitzer. Seated (L-R) James Van Derpool, Ruth Wittenberg, Giorgio Cavaglieri; Courtesy of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Ruth Wittenberg was born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. She attended both Hunter College and Barnard College, but was forced to quit school due to her family’s growing financial strains.1 In order to support her family Ruth took a job with the Bell telephone company as a demographer.2 She married Phillip Wittenberg, a copyright lawyer and preservation activist, in 1919.3

Ruth came from a politically active family. As a suffragist, Ruth was jailed twice during her involvement in the women’s rights movement.4 She was also involved in the civil rights movement, and participated in the Selma, Alabama march with Martin Luther King, Jr.5

Her political involvement in the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement carried over into historic preservation. A long time resident of Greenwich Village, she played an important role in the designation of Greenwich Village as a historic district.6 Her involvement in Village culture started with the group “The Greenwich Village Study.”7 This group, which included Jane Jacobs and Stanley Tankel, focused mainly on the arts, music, and general issues of the Village.8

Ruth also served on Community Board 2 for almost 40 years. Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr. appointed her to the Community Council for Greenwich Village in 1951.9 While serving on the board, she was a major proponent for eradicating the Women’s Detention Center next door to the Jefferson Market Courthouse, arguing that “it was a wrong building, in a wrong place and at a wrong time.”10 After the building was demolished, the area was turned into a community garden.11

In thanks for her efforts to protect the Village and her contributions to the neighborhood, the area where Greenwich Avenue, Avenue of the Americas, and Christopher Street meet was named the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle.12 Ruth died in October of 1990. She was 91 years old.

Community Board 2
Councilwoman, 1951-1990

Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee
Chair, 1965-1983

Ruth Wittenberg was one of the original "movers and shakers" of the preservation movement in Greenwich Village. She was a "major force" in the designation of an historic district in the Village and the conversion of Jefferson Market Courthouse into a library.13

Prior to the passing of the New York City Landmarks Law, Wittenberg felt that James Grote Van Derpool, the first executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, instigated political activism in the Village.14 In the early 1960s, Van Derpool made repeated visits to the Village and planted the original seeds for activism during a time when new development threatened to destroy the historic buildings in the Village. He convinced Wittenberg to set up meetings to bolster support for preservation in Greenwich Village.15

Ruth Wittenberg was involved with fighting to preserve the aesthetic character of Washington Square Park. From the 1930s to the 1960s, New York City Parks Department Commissioner Robert Moses repeatedly made attempts to alter Washington Square Park.16 Moses' plan to run Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park in an attempt to open the area for new development was among many of the initial sparks that led to Village activism and protection of the Village.17 As head of Community Board 2, Ruth Wittenberg was deeply involved in the grassroots effort to stop traffic through Washington Square Park.18 There were numerous groups, including the Washington Square Park Committee and the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic, that galvanized Village support in an effort to stop traffic in Washington Square Park.19 Their efforts paid off when the Board of Estimate voted to clear all traffic from the park in 1963.

Ruth Wittenberg also fought to preserve Jefferson Market Courthouse. After the courthouse had officially closed in 1958, the City had planned to demolish the building. Civic activist Margot Gayle initiated an advocacy campaign to restore the clock in order to make the building appealing to Village residents.20 Once the clock had been restored, there was more of an impetus to save the building. The committee changed its objective to save the entire building.21 Ruth's husband, Philip Wittenberg, became involved in this preservation effort and influenced Ruth to join as well.22 Philip Wittenberg's idea was to adaptively reuse the courthouse by converting it into a library.23 Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. was a major supporter of this plan to convert the courthouse into a library.24 Due to the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, the City once again threatened to close down the Jefferson Market Library.25 Ruth vigilantly fought for its protection and threatened City commissioners that she would move into the library if the City closed it.26

In addition, Ruth Wittenberg fought to designate Jefferson Market Courthouse and Greenwich Village as a historic district. Due to the urban renewal projects in the Village combined with Robert Moses's plans for Washington Square Park, a variety of historic buildings were destroyed. These events promulgated neighborhood activists to fight for the protection of the Village. Ruth, along with other civic activists like Jane Jacobs, Margot Gayle, and Verna Small, led the fight to designate an historic district in the Village that would ensure these buildings would be protected from future development.27 They accomplished this feat by testifying at the Landmarks Preservation Commission in favor of the district's designation. They argued in favor of a large encompassing district as opposed to a small eighteen-district proposal suggested by the Commission.28 In 1969, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Jefferson Market Courthouse and the Greenwich Village Historic District.

On another note, Ruth Wittenberg also fought against the construction of the twelve-story Elmer A. Bobst Library on the south side of Washington Square Park in the early 1970s. She argued that the towering structure altered the visual character of the park and the Village.29 Despite this protest, Village activists lost this battle and the library was constructed in 1972.30

Furthermore, Ruth Wittenberg was heavily involved with Community Board 2. In 1951, Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr. appointed Ruth Wittenberg to Community Board 2.31 After the New York City Landmarks Law was passed in 1965 Wittenberg established and chaired the Landmarks Committee as part of Community Board 2 until 1983.32 Wittenberg developed the process of reviewing Certificate of Appropriateness items that fell within the Community Board 2 boundaries before their Landmarks Preservation Commission hearings.33 She appeared at every hearing for every Certificate of Appropriateness item covered by the community board.34 This process helped establish rapport between Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.35

  • The Ruth Wittenberg Papers, 1961-1972
    NYU Archives at the Elmer Bobst Library
    70 Washington Square South
    New York, NY 10012

  • Greenwich Village historic district designation report (New York 1969) (signed by Commissioners)
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue #3
    MC0301 New York, NY 10027

  • Oral History with Ruth Wittenberg (available upon request)
    New York Preservation Archive Project
    174 East 80th Street
    New York, NY 10075
    Tel: (212) 988-8379
    Email: [email protected]
  1. Glenn 
Fowler, “Ruth Wittenberg Is Dead at 91; Led Fight For Village Landmarks,” The New York Times, 4 October 1990.
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Staff, “Phillip Wittenberg, 92, dies; Copyright Lawyer and Author,” The New York Times, 12 April 1987.
  4. 
Glenn Fowler, “Ruth Wittenberg Is Dead at 91; Led Fight For Village Landmarks,” The New York Times, 4 October 1990.
  5. 
Ibid.
  6. 
Ibid.
  7. 
Anthony C. Wood interview with Ruth Wittenberg, 10 April 1984.
  8. 
Ibid.
  9. 
Glenn Fowler, “Ruth Wittenberg Is Dead at 91; Led Fight For Village Landmarks,” The New York Times, 4 October 1990.
  10. 
Staff, “‘Village’ Debates Jail’s Demolition,” The New York Times, 15 July 1973.
  11. 
Anthony C. Wood interview with Ruth Wittenberg, 10 April 1984.
  12. 
Janet Allon, “Neighborhood Report: Greenwich Village; Five-Part Tribute to a Local Hero,” The New York Times, 12 April 1998.
  13. 
Glenn Fowler, “Ruth Wittenberg Is Dead at 91; Led Fight For Village Landmarks,” The New York Times, 4 October 1990.
  14. 
Anthony C. Wood interview with Ruth Wittenberg, 10 April 1984.
  15. 
Ibid.
  16. 
John Berman interview with Shirley Hayes, 20 October 2000.
  17. 
Ibid.
  18. 
Anthony C. Wood interview with Ruth Wittenberg, 10 April 1984.
  19. 
John Berman interview with Shirley Hayes, 20 October 2000.
  20. 
Lauren Hansen interview with Margot Gayle, 23 July 1996.
  21. 
Ibid.
  22. 
Ibid.
  23. 
Ibid.
  24. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 262.
  25. 
Ed Gold, “Giorgio Cavaglieri, 95, made Old Jeff into a library,” Villager, Vol. 76 No. 53. 30 May-5 June 2007.
  26. 
Ibid.
  27. 
Vicki Weiner interview with Verna Small 15 May 1996.
  28. 
Ibid.
  29. 
Glenn Fowler, “Ruth Wittenberg Is Dead at 91; Led Fight For Village Landmarks,” The New York Times, 4 October 1990.
  30. 
Ibid.
  31. 
Ibid.
  32. 
Anthony C. Wood interview with Ruth Wittenberg, 10 April 1984.
  33. 
Ibid.
  34. 
Ibid.
  35. Ibid.