Events & News

In Memoriam: Beverly Moss Spatt (1924-2023)

November 30, 2023

By James Sanders

From the 2023 Newsletter

On a cold January morning in 1974, I stepped for the first time into the offices of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at 305 Broadway and encountered a scene of bustling and, it seemed, disconcerting change.

Beverly Moss Spatt, a new chairperson appointed by recently inaugurated Mayor Abraham D. Beame, was also arriving for her first day in the office, and a feeling of upheaval was in the air. She was only the third LPC chair and the first woman to hold this position since the LPC’s founding in 1965. As I caught sight of the distinguished Harmon Goldstone clearing out his office of five years to make way for his successor, I could not help but sense the changing of eras. In many ways Goldstone, a leader in the effort to establish an official landmarks agency in New York City, represented the original generation of urban preservationists: patrician, civic-minded New Yorkers, for the most part, who had somehow managed to translate their passion for the City’s classical architecture into the first landmarks law of its kind in the country. 

The incoming chair, Beverly Moss Spatt, was something else entirely. I first met her about a year earlier, as a Columbia freshman, when I attended the Urban Geography course she taught at Barnard. I do not recall discussing a lot of “geography.” I do remember Beverly regaling us with stories of the political and philosophical battles she had waged for half a decade at the City Planning Commission (CPC), where she had served as a commissioner since 1965, when Robert F. Wagner appointed her in the closing months of his term as mayor. Here Beverly cemented her reputation as a “gadfly” and “maverick” in high-profile struggles with the other commissioners—nearly all appointed by Wagner’s successor, John V. Lindsay—and especially with the CPC’s smooth-spoken chair, Donald Elliot. 

Beverly’s intense, sometimes strident opposition arose, broadly, from a deep-rooted belief that the Lindsay-era CPC was far too accommodating of the City’s major developers and real-estate owners, and too focused on Manhattan’s central business districts at the expense of working-class and poor communities across the boroughs. The struggle came to a head with the CPC’s 1969 publication of the six-volume Plan for New York City – the City’s long-awaited “master plan,” which Beverly disavowed so completely that Elliott was forced to include her sprawling dissent as an addendum. Despite some press and public outcry, the CPC did not reappoint Beverly upon the completion of her term in 1970. 

But, in early 1974, Beverly emerged from the political wilderness through her appointment as LPC chair, a move which surprised and dismayed many in the still small and insular world of historic preservation. Though Beverly had by then amassed substantial credentials as an urban planner through her time on the CPC and years of diligent research leading to a Ph.D. from New York University and a 1971 book on planning, she had little professional expertise in landmarks preservation. Some City Hall skeptics wondered (or grumbled) about the new mayor’s long and close political relationship with Beverly’s father, the late Maximilian Moss, a powerful Surrogate Court judge and a pillar of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, through which Beame had risen over the decades. 

But one way or the other, here Beverly was, ready to take on the world. 

Impressed with some projects I developed with my then colleague, Roy Strickland, Beverly invited us to join the LPC staff one day a week (I was still a college sophomore). Unable to place us either in the Research department or the Preservation department, she proposed we occupy the free-floating position of “Special Projects Coordinator” under the loose supervision of her deputy, Adele Chatfield-Taylor (already seemingly omniscient about the many-layered workings of New York City and, to my teenage eyes, impossibly glamorous and elegant). Over the next three years, even while developing my own “special projects” with Roy, I enjoyed a ringside seat as Beverly not only directed the daily operations of the LPC but also began to transform it into a different kind of place. 

On the surface, of course, Beverly brought a new, and to some, radical presence to the LPC. Physically petite and sporting a distinctive pixie haircut, a product not of the elite Upper East Side but of activist Brooklyn Heights, she seemed constantly in motion, jumping from topic to topic in meetings with startling speed, and quick to entertain long (if often fascinating) digressions from the subject at hand. In the spirit of William Shawn’s memorable line about his predecessor, the New Yorker’s legendary founder Harold Ross—“he lent himself to anecdote”—Beverly’s sometimes hilarious turns of phrase and unconscious (or were they?) malapropisms made her seem larger than life. She once referred in a speech to “the great American poet, Jack Frost” and in another to “architectural travesty” instead of travertine.

It was easy, from all this, to see the outlines of the crude caricature of Beverly that arose among the City’s moneyed real-estate community: a slightly unhinged do-gooder, an outspoken meddler threatening vested property interests—as if, in their worst nightmare, the familiar figure of the eccentric left-wing lady who rants endlessly at community board meetings had somehow been given genuine power and a measure of control over their fortunes. The caricature was scarcely accurate, of course, but arose from a kernel of truth. Beverly seemed quite fearless, hardly ever “political” in the calculating sense, and rarely hesitant to take on developers and landowners. During her tenure, the scope of landmark designation in New York expanded dramatically, encompassing not only new designation categories such as interior and scenic landmarks, but also some of the first designations of the City’s most valuable, income-producing commercial structures, such as Broadway theaters, large apartment houses, and towering skyscrapers—all of which, one sensed, her more cautious predecessors had tacitly deemed off-limits. 

Of course, Beverly’s greatest triumph as chair was the unanimous 1978 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold New York State’s Court of Appeals ruling which confirmed Grand Central Terminal’s landmark status, and, with it, the legality of New York’s landmarks law. It is ironic (though, given our celebrity-oriented culture, understandable) that the figure now popularly recalled from that historic victory is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose full-fledged volunteering brought extraordinary visibility to the energetic publicity campaign that the Municipal Art Society waged on behalf of Grand Central (an effort coordinated by Margot Wellington, the Society’s executive director at the time—and, as it happens, my stepmother). But we must always remember that the core of the official effort to preserve the terminal was the legal strategy developed jointly by the LPC—under Beverly’s leadership and through the agency’s first-ever attorney, Dorothy M. Miner, whom Beverly had hired—and the Corporation Counsel, by Nina Gershon, a brilliant young staff lawyer and today a U.S. District Court judge. It was Beverly and these other remarkable women, in addition to Jackie, who “saved Grand Central.”

I am prepared to suggest, however, that Beverly’s largest contribution to the long-term trajectory of the LPC emerged precisely from what had alarmed the landmarks community from the beginning: her background as a planner and activist, not a career preservationist. This contribution began with her efforts to expand the agency’s reach beyond its traditionally narrow and elite constituency by transforming the LPC into a kind of “open house” in which ordinary people could come into the offices and meet with staff for the first time. She also focused much of her attention not on individual Manhattan landmarks but on the designation and preservation of the expansive “historic districts”with hundreds of buildings each that were now expanding across all five boroughs and into every kind of community, changing, and hopefully improving, the lives of all sorts of New York households. 

With her planning-based perspective, I believe, Beverly intuited something profound about the forces shaping the landscape of New York City in these decades. Through zoning and land-use regulations, the influence of the CPC remained potent in shaping large new commercial projects (of which there were only a handful in those grim, recession-wracked years). Yet the CPC was often surprisingly insignificant in its impact on ordinary communities across the boroughs. It was instead the landmarks law, borne of aesthetic and historical considerations, that had evolved into the most effective means of determining what could and could not be built in many New York neighborhoods and blocks. Intended or not, landmark designation became a fine-grained de facto planning instrument that could often control development in ways that the relatively blunt tools of the CPC could not. Beverly’s early recognition of this new reality—one that would become so crucial to the City’s evolution over the coming decades—brought the world of landmarks preservation in New York out of the rooms of the Century Club, as it were, and onto the streets. 

For my own part, Beverly’s desire to extend the range and footprint of the LPC led her to wholeheartedly sponsor two “special projects” that Roy and I developed in our years there: a street-improvement project that relandscaped East 20th Street around the landmark Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and a much-praised exhibition in the Graduate Center of CUNY on the landmarks of 42nd Street. That Beverly would throw her full encouragement and institutional support toward the production of these efforts—carried out while I was still an undergraduate—remains a source of astonishment to me, and an act of commitment and trust for which I will always be infinitely grateful.