Events & News

Joseph Mitchell The Preservationist – Known Chiefly as a Writer, He Also Served on the Landmarks Preservation Commission

December 1, 2022

By John C. Harris, Jeffe Fellow

Joseph Mitchell reinvented the role of the reporter with his elaborate character studies. Works like
My Ears are Bent (1938), McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965) demonstrated the literary potential of journalism and cemented his legacy within the canon of American literature. However, it is not as well known that the writer was also a preservationist, or that he was appointed to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) as a commissioner. 

Carolinian Beginnings

In 1929, at the age of twenty-one and midway through his stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Joseph Mitchell migrated from the coastal plains of Fairmont, North Carolina (population 1,314) to embark on a career in journalism in New York City. He cut his teeth working nights and crime beats before making a name for himself at The New Yorker where he embedded key themes of historic preservation and a reverence for cultural landscapes in his work. 

With that in mind, and an awareness of Mitchell’s keen sense of nostalgia, it is less surprising to know Mitchell was a committed preservationist. He was instrumental in the early success of the South Street Seaport Museum, and served as an LPC commissioner from 1982 to 1987. His papers, contained within 127 boxes that span 56.58 linear feet in the Archives & Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library, provide a new understanding of an often overlooked feature of the multifaceted Joseph Michell—Mitchell the historic preservationist.

Themes of Preservation

“As a reporter and as a curiosity seeker and as an architecture buff and as a Sunday walker and later on a member of committees in a variety of Save-this and Save-that and Friends-of-this and Friends-of-that organizations and eventually as one of the commissioners in the Landmarks Preservation Commission, I have known some of these worlds from the inside. Even so, I never really felt altogether at home in any of them.”

—From Joseph Mitchell’s unfinished, unpublished autobiography

Despite these feelings of aloofness from the preservation community, Mitchell dedicated himself to the legacies of New York City’s historic features that meant the most to him. He was involved in the fight to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse and in 1970 founded the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture with Margot Gayle. As Addelle Chatfield Taylor put it, “He was always walking…I never saw him in a building.” These landscapes which Mitchell strolled through almost obsessively were the same that he immortalized through his words and acted in the civic arena to save some of them. 

Mitchell was often observing and sharing his insights, building an ethic that could serve as a basis for preservation efforts. For example, the historic cemeteries of Staten Island’s South Shore, a favorite of Mitchell’s, became the focus of an iconic profile. In “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” the key subjects, Mr. George H. Hunter and Mr. Raymond E. Brock, recount to Mitchell the history of Sandy Ground, Staten Island. They impart the story of a historically Black oystering community that predates the Civil War and at the center of which stands the Rossville African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1852) and its graveyard. In the essay, Mitchell wove together the community’s genealogy, economy, cuisine, flora, and fauna to reveal the brilliant fabric of a local history. However, Mitchell was not a trained historian—his writing often traversed the line between fact and fiction—and he certainly was not writing with a preservationist slant at the time of the story’s publication in 1956. But, it was Mitchell’s inclination to “bend his ears” towards the stories of those often sidelined from mainstream attention, stories from which the foundations of cultural landscapes are forged upon, that informed his work in preservation. Never quite finished with a subject, correspondence in Mitchell’s papers show that he never let Staten Island go: in 1973 he advised on the curation of a local history exhibition at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences.

Over a half century since Mitchell’s profile of the community, Sandy Ground preservationists continue the work of Mitchell, Hunter, and Brock to preserve the heritage of the oldest continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the United States. In her 2017 oral history with the Archive Project, Sylvia D’Alessandro, Executive Director of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, recounted the changes in the community that led to the creation of the Sandy Ground Historical Society in 1979 as well as their more recent work. 

A Home at the Seaport

“I became interested in the South Street Seaport Museum and began to do volunteer work for it…because I hoped that it might preserve some of the old fish-market buildings and some of the atmosphere of the fish-market district”

—From a 1974 letter to the South Street Advisory Council after being appointed to the Council

Mitchell did not use his profiles in The New Yorker as a platform to advocate directly for historic preservation efforts, but Mitchell’s writing was tuned to the themes of the field. The South Street Seaport is where Mitchell’s work as a preservationist began in earnest. His infatuation with the Fulton Fish Market can be traced back to his 1943 fictional profile of Hugh G. Flood in “The Mayor of the Fish Market,” and his adoration of the Seaport is emphasized in his 1951 compilation of profiles entitled Bottom of the Harbor which includes the title tale, as well as “The Rats on the Waterfront” and “Dragger Captain.” In these stories, he simultaneously popularized the memory of the Seaport and its industries and took on the role of the neighborhood’s chronicler. 

In 1966, Norma Stanford wrote to Mitchell seeking his expertise on the history of Fulton Market. A year later, after consulting with Mitchell, she and her husband Peter Stanford formed the South Street Seaport Museum. Mitchell remained an important figure at the Museum for over two decades. He volunteered for the Museum’s Local History Committee, and in 1974 was appointed to the South Street Advisory Council. In that role, Mitchell employed what the chairman of the council, E. Virgil Conway, referred to as Mitchell’s “distinguished work in the history of Fulton Market, and its men,” to promote a bottom-up look at the Seaport’s history. The story very well could have been dominated by titans of New York Harbor industry: the Beekman, Schermerhorn, and Fulton families. Instead, Mitchell’s participation ensured that the presence of ordinary laborers was retained in the legacy of South Street Seaport. His focus on these themes justified Peter Stanford’s mantra, repeated throughout much of the South Street Seaport Museum’s early literature: “This Museum is People.” Mitchell’s dedication to the Seaport and his authority on its architecture led to his 1975 nomination to the board of the South Street Seaport Museum. In 1977, a decade of preservationist advocacy culminated in the creation of the highly contested South Street Seaport Historic District. There three centuries of development reflected in the mercantile architecture of Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles converge to contain the maritime heritage of New York and the narrative of the City’s rise to the international center of commerce.

On the Landmarks Preservation Commission

“Met Kent Barwick at the Century and talked with him from 2:15 to 4, first in the dining room (he had been to a luncheon where he had to speak and had missed coffee and wanted some) and then in the library[.] Told him to go ahead and put my name up[.] As I understand it, if appointed, I would succeed R. Michael Brown, who is resigning or not asking to be reappointed [to the Landmarks Preservation Commission]” 

—Note in Mitchell’s papers dated Thursday, May 20, 1982

In Mitchell’s papers, amongst maps and inventories of architectural elements of New York City buildings “saved” by Mitchell are countless photocopies of walking tours and guide books which indicate a keen interest in connecting stories to the places he wandered on foot and examined in essays. These key components of the Joseph Mitchell Papers represent Mitchell’s unwavering commitment to the research of New York City’s built environment including those who fought to preserve it from various threats. And despite the seemingly ambivalent acknowledgement of his nomination to the LPC, Mitchell’s papers attest that he was a student of the Landmarks Preservation Commission long before he became a commissioner.

The collection contains communications with LPC staff from as early as 1969, as well as newspaper clippings tracking LPC sagas like the remarkable theft of the 126 year-old, 150-ton cast iron facade of the Bogardus building and the City’s restoration and sale of the Harrison Street Row Houses. 

In my recent conversation with former LPC Chairman Kent Barwick, who pushed for Mitchell’s nomination, Barwick added insight to Mitchell’s time on the LPC that Mitchell’s papers did not quite convey. The two became acquainted after Barwick encouraged Mitchell to testify against the 1971 Cooper Square Alternative Plan that threatened McSorely’s Old Ale House, a special muse of Mitchell’s. Barwick acknowledged Mitchell’s dynamic approach to subjects that related to the past but emphasized that it was, oddly, Mitchell’s religious beliefs that led to his becoming a commissioner. At the time, the LPC had a combative relationship with groups like the New York Board of Rabbis, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and the Council of Churches, who allied together to champion the Flynn/Walsh Bill. The bill sought to exclude religious properties from landmark designation because of a perceived infringement on owners’ rights to alter landmarked structures. Joseph Mitchell was a vestryman at Grace Church on Broadway and his faith was a well-known facet of his character. So, the hope was that Mitchell’s participation would be a kind of olive branch to the religious community. In 2011, Mr. Barwick participated in an oral history with the Archive Project and revealed that Mitchell’s participation in the Trinity Church dilemma (a spat regarding Trinity Church’s attempt to construct a bridge from landmarked property to office buildings across the street) may have actually deepened the schism between the LPC and religious communities.

Joseph Mitchell’s nomination as an LPC commissioner was announced in The New York Times on August 24, 1982; he was officially appointed to the LPC on October 7, 1982 by Mayor Edward Koch, and served for five years. Over that relatively short period, the LPC designated a wide range of buildings throughout the City. Highlights include the Weir Greenhouse in Brooklyn (1982), the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (1983),  RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens (1984), and Public School 31 in the Bronx (1986). The designation perhaps most evidently connected to Mitchell was the 1985 designation of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at the center of Sandy Ground, Staten Island, a place that remained dear to Mitchell for three decades.

On December 19, 1986, Mitchell wrote a letter to Mayor Koch in which he resigned from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. He remarked, “Participating in the work of the Commission has been extraordinarily interesting and gratifying to me, [sic] if I had the choice I would serve on it indefinitely.” However, he cited the time-consuming nature of the position interfering with his writing career and his being recently engaged in the management of family property in North Carolina after the deaths of his brother and sister as reasons for leaving.

Mitchell’s Preservation Legacy

Joseph Mitchell was an LPC commissioner for only five years, and, unfortunately, any acknowledgement of the extent of his role as a commissioner is fragmentary in the Joseph Mitchell Papers. So, while it may be easy to assume Mitchell’s work on the LPC left a measurable impact on the form of historic preservation in New York City, it is hard to pinpoint Mitchell’s exact influence on the Landmarks Preservation Commission. One can imagine he was leading the charge for the designation of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at Sandy Ground, but anything else regarding his time on the LPC is unfortunately, for us, obscure and to this point unknown. However, the Joseph Mitchell Papers relay Mitchell’s decades of work at the grassroots level as a more reliable indicator of his impact on preserving the character of New York City’s streetscape. The collection chronicles his dedication to the built and cultural fabrics of the city. They make clear that Mitchell’s preservation legacy is intricately linked to sites like SoHo, where cast iron is abundant, and the Seaport and Sandy Ground where he found inspiration for his writing. Therefore, the memory of Mitchell’s commitment to historic preservation is dependent on these spaces’ relationships with new development and, in the cases of Sandy Ground and the Seaport, how they mitigate the existential threats of climate change in the form of stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels respectively.