In Memoriam: R. Michael Brown
October 25, 2016 | Kate Wood, President of Landmark West!
Article from the Fall 2016 Newsletter
“The story of our lives is written in interiors…how we lived, how we worked, how we played, how we worshipped. Interiors are much more fragile than exteriors. Just look around and see how many we’ve lost to Sheetrock modernization and demolition.”
– R. Michael Brown
R. Michael Brown, the only interior designer ever appointed to serve on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (1978-82), was a passionate advocate for expanding protection of significant interiors. In 1978, he helped spark public outrage against the proposed demolition of Radio City Music Hall by organizing an exhibition of stunning photographs called “Radio City: Keep It Kicking.” (It may well have been Brown’s idea for the Rockettes to form a kickline on the steps of City Hall, in front of reporters’ clicking cameras, before an important public hearing on Radio City’s fate.) That same year, he launched a citywide survey, funded by the American Society of Interior Designers, of over 700 significant New York City interiors in all five boroughs.
And yet, by 2013, when the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) was invited to participate in planning for the 50th anniversary of New York’s Landmarks Law, Brown’s contributions had been all but forgotten. As NYSID began to contemplate a show and publication on New York City’s interior landmarks (the designation of which was authorized through vital 1973 amendments to the law), the planning process led to Michael Brown (thank you, Kent Barwick!). Brown had retired to a farmhouse in Dutchess County, NY. Fortunately, he had kept boxes of archival material related to his survey work. These records and numerous fascinating conversations with Brown informed and inspired NYSID’s exhibition, which opened with his poignant quote included here.
The topic of interior landmarks resonated with preservationists, interior designers, and the public (the show, which lasted only six weeks from March to April 2015, became NYSID’s most visited exhibition ever). People used the website and good old pencil and paper to nominate their favorite interiors for landmark consideration, ensuring that Brown’s volunteer survey, begun in the ’70s, continues today. The show prompted discussion and questions such as, what is the future of interior landmarks? One thing is certain: without Michael Brown, for many of these landmarks, there simply would be no future.