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Whitney North Seymour, Sr.

Whitney North Seymour, Sr.

Also known as Whitney North Seymour

Lawyer Whitney North Seymour, Sr. was president of the Municipal Art Society and chaired a civic commission to study the proposed amendments to the New York Landmarks Preservation Law in 1973.

Organizations: American Bar Association, American Bar Foundation, Citizens for a Sensible Landmarks Law, Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance, Legal Aid Society, Municipal Art Society, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Grace Church Houses, Grand Central Terminal, U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green
Public Policy: Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York, New York City Landmarks Law
Above: Grand Central Terminal in 1954; Courtesy of AP Photo

Whitney North Seymour, Sr. was born on January 4, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois to Margaret Lucinda Rugg and Charles Walton Seymour. He was married to Virginia Vickers in 1922. The couple had two sons, Whitney North Seymour, Jr. and Thaddeus Seymour. Seymour attended the University of Wisconsin and Columbia Law School, from which he graduated in 1923. After earning his LL.B., Seymour joined the law firm of Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett. In 1929, he became a partner in the firm, where he worked until his death in 1983.1

In addition to his work as an attorney, Seymour served as President of the American Bar Association (1960-1961), President of the American Bar Foundation (1960-1964), and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (1938-1963). Seymour was an active civic leader, serving many of New York City’s prominent civic organizations including the Fine Arts Federation, the Municipal Art Society (where he served as president for two years), and the New York Community Trust.2

Municipal Art Society
President

Legal Aid Society
President, 1945-1950

American Bar Association
President, 1960-1961

American Bar Foundation
President, 1960-1964

Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance
Member, 1961

Independent Civic Commission for the 1973 Landmarks Law Amendments
Chair, 1972

Over three decades, Whitney North Seymour, Sr. leveraged his clout as a prominent lawyer and a well-respected civic leader to advance the cause of preservation in New York City. As president of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), he helped revive the organization’s membership in the late 1950s, and as an active MAS board member, Seymour provided legal counsel and guidance for nearly three decades.3 Seymour was credited with the inception of the “Landmarks of New York” program, a partnership with the New York Community Trust to identify and mark landmark quality buildings prior to the establishment of New York City’s Landmarks Law.4

In 1961, Whitney North Seymour was chosen to serve as one of the 13 members of the “Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance,” which was assigned to work with civic groups to advise Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. on the issue of historic preservation.5 From his position as a Municipal Art Society board member, Seymour encouraged support for citywide landmarks legislation. In 1964, Seymour became “the coordinator of efforts in behalf of the permanent establishment of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission."6

In 1972, Whitney North Seymour, Sr. lent his name and expertise as amicus curiae to the suit brought by the Municipal Art Society against Penn Central and U.G.P. Properties Corporation to prevent the owner and lessee of Grand Central Terminal from demolishing the landmarked station. The case, which would not be decided until 1978, saved Grand Central Terminal and upheld the constitutionality of the New York City Landmarks Law.7

Seymour also chaired an independent civic commission, formed in 1972, to study two proposed amendments to New York City’s Landmarks Law: one introduced by Harmon Goldstone, Chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the other introduced by City Council member Carter Burden.8 As Chairman of the “Citizens for a Sensible Landmarks Law,” Seymour recommended the “Burden Bill” which was passed by the City Council in 1973 and strengthened the actions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission by adding provisions that included interior landmarks, scenic landmarks, and continuous designation determinations.9

Seymour was also an advocate for preservation of specific buildings. In 1973, when the U.S. Customs Department was moved to the newly erected World Trade Center, Cass Gilbert’s Beaux-Arts Customs House at Bowling Green was left empty. Seymour served on the “Customs House Committee” to study the possible uses for the landmarked building.10

As a vestryman and preservationist, Seymour helped defend the Grace Church Houses on Fourth Avenue and 11th Street in Manhattan, part of a Gothic Revival complex that includes James Renwick, Jr.’s Grace Church and rectory. The houses were slated for demolition in the mid 1970s, but Mr. Seymour helped raise funds for their adaptive reuse into a gymnasium for the Grace Church School in 1977.11

  1. 
Robert Sink, Accession Sheet, New York Public Library Rare Books & Manuscripts Division, Whitney North Seymour Papers, 30 May 1985; Albin Krebs, “Whitney North Seymour, Sr. Led Bar Group,” The New York Times, 22 May 1983.
  2. 
Robert Sink, Accession Sheet, New York Public Library Rare Books & Manuscripts Division, Whitney North Seymour Papers, 30 May 1985.
  3. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 147; Gregory Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), page 352.
  4. 
Gregory Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), page 153.
  5. 
“Mayor Appoints 13 to Help Preserve Historic Buildings,” The New York Times, 12 July 1961.
  6. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 363.
  7. 
Walter Waggoner, “An Impressive Battery of Legal Talent Joins the Battle to Save Grand Central,” The New York Times, 30 July 1972.
  8. 
Gregory Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995), page 399.
  9. 
Ibid.
  10. 
Ada Louise Huxtable, “New Customs House: Modern, Functional, No Match for the Old One,” The New York Times, 4 October 1973.
  11. Paul Goldberger, “Grace Church: Happy Ending to Bitter Controversy,” The New York Times, 16 February 1977.