Events & News

In Memoriam: Jeffrey Kroessler (1952-2023)

November 30, 2023

By Anthony C. Wood

From the 2023 Newsletter

There is a famous Talmud saying attributed to the sage Tarfon. It goes, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.”

Jeffrey could not finish his preservation work but he never, ever, neglected the work of preservation.

He was truly dedicated to the cause. He was involved with the Historic Districts Council (HDC) in one way or another for some 36 years. I am glad he said yes all those years ago when I asked him to join that board. Unlike others, he never blamed me for ruining his life, though perhaps he was just too polite to say so. He was recruited to the board because of his passion for and knowledge of Queens. That passion and knowledge soon expanded to encompass the entire city and his civic involvements grew well beyond just the HDC and culminated in his role as president of the City Club.

Over the years, no matter how disappointed Jeffrey might be about the state of preservation—and there usually was something to be disappointed about—he never gave up, even when he knew the odds were against him.

He would still write that brilliant op-ed piece, he would still mount that insightful public program, he would still go to the endless regular meetings and those special ones necessitated by one assault after another on the buildings and neighborhoods he cared so deeply about.

Even when his decades of experience in the trenches told him a cause was hopeless, he never gave up. Testimony to this was his joining the steering committee of the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation whose Don Quixote-like mission was trying to stop the downward spiral of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. I’m not sure if it was the chocolates that Whitney North Seymour, Jr. always brought to our meetings that kept Jeffrey coming, but he stayed the course. Mike Seymour was a wonderfully old school preservationist (dating from pre-landmarks law days) with deep roots in Greenwich Village. He believed every cause needed a song, and Jeffrey joined in when we all sang the ditty that was written for the Committee. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing it for you.

I truly admired Jeffrey’s courage. Just two examples of many to make the point: In 2018 in Environmental Law in New York he published an article entitled “Losing Its Way: the Landmarks Preservation Commission in Eclipse.” Not only was he willing to take on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, he was willing to go against the prevailing winds of our time being a public voice urging the protection of the City’s monuments—even when others argued for their removal. His New York Daily News op-ed entitled “The statue topplers insult our history“ begins, “Hundreds of scholars of ‘American art, cultural history and social analysis’ have signed a letter to Mayor de Blasio’s monuments commission calling for the removal of symbols of hate. I am not among them.” He went on to eloquently state his principled position on the subject.

Jeffrey did bring his sense of humor to his advocacy work, I remember a panel on the state of preservation advocacy that Jeffrey arranged at an HDC conference. He called it, “At the Alamo and down to our rifle butts.”

As the majordomo of the Elliot Willensky Fund, he would take delight when he could steer a modest grant to a neighborhood group taking on a developer or challenging the LPC itself. He was happy to root for the underdog. Though citywide in perspective, and keenly able to focus on the need for systemic change, he had the heart, passion, and spirit of a grassroots preservationist.

I miss Jeffrey not being at the other end of the phone to lament the latest outrage and then to think through how we might best respond to it. And respond to it he would! In preservation battles, Jeffrey was the one you wanted beside you in your foxhole. He was the one you wanted with you on a delegation to see an elected official or an editorial board. He knew his stuff. He held his ground. He never wavered.

He was also the one you wanted to bend elbows with at the bar or be seated next to at a benefit. He was excellent company, great fun, droll, and a constant presence for the good. Though our conversations always began and ended with preservation, we would also chat about such things as the old Cadillac he inherited from a family member or his putting the dock in the lake up in Maine or remodeling the house and office. Dedicated as he was to the cause of preservation, it was not his entire life—which is likely why he was able to keep his sanity and why he could stay involved in preservation for decades.

One can only hope his example of persisting against the odds, of being on the front lines defending preservation, of never giving up hope, and enjoying life while fighting the good fight will continue to inspire us all and those who follow us.

The battles Jeffrey fought continue, and we are not free to neglect them.