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Verna Small

Verna Small

Verna Small was the founder of many preservation organizations including one of New York City’s most influential, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

People: Norbert Bromberg, Margot GayleJane Jacobs, Ruth Wittenberg
Organizations: Association of Greenwich Village Homeowners, Committee for Jefferson Market Library, Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port, Greenwich Village Historic Districts Council, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Village Independent Democrats, Washington Square Park Association, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Greenwich Village, Jefferson Market Courthouse
Above: Greenwich Village Sunset; Courtesy of Stefan Bleekrode

Verna Small was born in Washington, D.C., in 1916.1 As a young girl, her parents fostered an aesthetic affinity for historic houses and “older objects.”2 Her mother was particularly passionate about houses and a believer in “bricks and mortar.”3

Small earned a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in 1937 and married Leonard Small who served in the army during World War II.4 Her husband later became a clinical psychologist and served as the president of the New York State Psychological Association. During World War II, Small worked for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. and New York City.5

Small’s interest in preservation and passion for historic architecture originated while living in Greenwich Village on Sixth Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets beginning in the 1940s.6 Her encounters with longtime civic activist Ruth Wittenberg stimulated an impetus for protecting the Village.7 Along with other civic activists, she helped campaign for the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District. In addition, she was the founder of several preservation organizations in Greenwich Village, served on the Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee, and was appointed to the Historic Properties Fund.8

Verna Small was also an accomplished author. She was the editor of Mademoiselle magazine and wrote extensively about women’s careers.9 Along with Norbert Bromberg, she edited and co-authored a psychoanalytic discourse on Adolf Hitler entitled Hitler’s Psychopathology.10 Her eclectic array of writing also included a Dictionary on Home Furnishings and Historic Dwellings in Greenwich Village, which received critical acclaim by The New York Times.11

Verna Small passed away August 10, 2008 at the age of 92.

Washington Square Park Association
Director

Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee 
Chair

Greenwich Village Historic Districts Council
Co-chair

Verna Small's legacy in historic preservation still resonates today. Her involvement in the protection and maintenance of Greenwich Village serve as a paragon for future preservationists.

Due to the building boom in the late 1950s to 1960s, Greenwich Village was under constant threat of losing its historic buildings to new development and urban renewal projects. This turbulent period signaled a growing awareness from community activists such as Ruth Wittenberg, Jane Jacobs, and Verna Small, who fought vigilantly to protect and preserve the Village. By organizing groups such as the Association of Greenwich Village Homeowners, Greenwich Village Society, and Greenwich Village Historic Districts Council, community activists were able to garner support in their efforts to designate a historic district in the Village.12

The Greenwich Village Historic Districts Council was originally formed in 1966, after the passing of the New York City Landmarks Law. According to Small, it was a federation of groups including the Washington Square Association, Village Independent Democrats, Association of Village Home Owners, and the Committee for Jefferson Market Library, formed with the objective to designate a historic district in the Village. Along with Margot Gayle and Jane Jacobs, Verna Small advocated the early restoration and adaptive reuse of Jefferson Market Courthouse as a library.13 This bolstered the confidence of preservationists and proved that historic structures could be saved and reused for other purposes. It also helped the passing of the New York City Landmarks Law.14

After the New York City Landmarks Law was passed in 1965, there was a growing urgency to get the Greenwich Village Historic District designated in order to prevent local development from demolishing structures before the full impact of the law was recognized.15 Small and many other community activists were relentless in their fight to designate the district by repeatedly testifying to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for a large inclusive district instead of 18 smaller districts.16 Their efforts finally paid off when the Commission designated the larger Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969.

Verna Small was also involved with many historic preservation-related associations and societies. For example, in 1980, Verna founded the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation with the intention to "muster individual interest in the grace and sanctity of preservation.”17 The original goal was to encourage individuals to pay attention to "details, atmosphere and tone" of their historic environs as well as the sense of place that the Village engendered.18 Small hoped the organization would function to testify to the Commission independently, but also to back up the Community Board 2 in order to maintain and expand the district. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation functions today as a highly successful not-for-profit organization motivated “to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and No-Ho.”19

In addition, as an ardent supporter of "light and air" as opposed to towering modern development, Verna Small helped form the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port in 1986.20 She also served as chair of the Landmarks Committee on Community Board 2 for many years.21 While serving on the Community Board she testified at every hearing to maintain the Greenwich Village Historic District and also to extend the district to the South Village.22

Although she did much for the Greenwich Village community, her preservation efforts extended beyond the Village. Small was appointed to the Historic Properties Fund by Mayor Koch, which over the years raised thousands of dollars used to fund the restorations of landmarks in New York City.23 She was the recipient of a myriad of awards ranging from the Elliot Willensky Award for "dedication to historical preservation" and the Village Award from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.24 Verna was also inducted into the Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame.25

  • 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 Verna Small
  • Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
    232 East 11th Street
    New York, NY 10003
    Tel: (212) 475-9585
    Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Ed Gold, “Verna Small, 92, leading Village preservationist,” Villager Vol. 78, No. 12, 20-26 August 2008.
  2. 
Vicki Weiner, Interview with Verna Small, 19 May 1996.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Ed Gold, “Verna Small, 92, leading Village preservationist,” Villager Vol. 78, No. 12, 20-26 August 2008.
  5. 
Ibid.
  6. Vicki 
Weiner, Interview with Verna Small, 19 May 1996.
  7. 
Ed Gold, “Verna Small, 92, leading Village preservationist,” Villager Vol. 78, No. 12, 20-26 August 2008.
  8. 
Ibid.
  9. 
Ibid.
  10. 
Ibid.
  11. 
Ibid.
  12. Vicki 
Weiner, Interview with Verna Small, 19 May 1996.
  13. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 261-2.
  14. 
Ibid, page 338.
  15. 
Vicki 
Weiner, Interview with Verna Small, 19 May 1996.
  16. 
Ibid.
  17. 
Ibid.
  18. 
Ibid.
  19. “Mission and History,” The Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation. Article retrieved 22 March 2016.
  20. 
Ed Gold, “Verna Small, 92, leading Village preservationist,” Villager Vol. 78, No. 12, 20-26 August 2008.
  21. 
”The Closer. Disclosures, appraisals, flips and splits of New York’s real estate community,” New York Daily News, 12 September 2008.
  22. 
Vicki Weiner, Interview with Verna Small, 19 May 1996.
  23. 
Ed Gold, “Verna Small, 92, leading Village preservationist,” Villager Vol. 78, No. 12, 20-26 August 2008.
  24. 
Ibid.
  25. Ibid.