Mitchell Grubler was director of the Alice Austen House Museum, and has also led the Queens Historical Society and the Queens Preservation Council. He is also a founding member of the Friends of the Lower East Side and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.
Mitchell Grubler began his career in historic preservation in 1978 working at the Staten Island Historical Society, where he first learned about the Alice Austen photography collection. Working with numerous Staten Island preservation-related institutions over the years, Mitchell eventually became the Director of the Alice Austen House Museum in the early 1990s, and developed a variety of exhibitions at the Museum on Austen’s work and life. Following Austen’s inclusion in a gay history exhibition in 1994 at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, Grubler was fired by a homophobic board. He then worked as the Director of the Queens Historical Society, and became involved with the Queens Preservation Council. After moving to Confucius Plaza in Manhattan, he joined the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, and in 2011, co-founded the Friends of the Lower East Side. Also described in the interview are Mitchell’s early years growing up in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, and studying historic preservation at the University of Vermont.
Q: Today is October 9, 2019 and this is Sarah Dziedzic interviewing Mitchell Grubler for the New York Preservation Archive Project. Can you start just by saying your name and giving yourself a little introduction? Grubler: I’m Mitchell Grubler. I’ve been a preservationist for most of my adult life, working with various related organizations, starting with the Staten Island Historical Society Richmondtown Restoration [now known as Historic Richmond Town]; the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, which is also the Staten Island Museum; the Alice Austen House Museum; volunteer work with the Preservation League of Staten Island; work with the Staten Island Children’s Museum involving historical research; being executive director of the Queens Historical Society; becoming involved in my community in Manhattan with the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors; being a founding member of the Friends of the Lower East Side. Q: A very impressive introduction. Thank you. I think we’re going to talk about each of those eras, if we have time today. But I want to start by asking if you can tell me about the place where you grew up. Grubler: I grew up in Brooklyn, in Mill Basin. My parents were living on Lafayette Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant when I was born. My father had fought in World War II, in the South Pacific. It was the era when there were low interest mortgages readily available to veterans. I forget what the term was, G.I. mortgages or something like that. There was a special term for them. My parents took advantage of that opportunity, looking for a house. They found a house in Mill Basin that was all brick. That was very attractive to them. Actually, it was built as a brick bungalow. It was one story. It was on a corner and it was one block from the public school, which was also a very attractive prospect for them. I did go to school at that public school until it was too crowded and we had to take a bus all the way to another community off Kings Highway for—I think it was sixth, seventh and eighth grade—and then to James Madison High School, also in that Kings Highway area. Mill Basin was sort of a new community at that time. However, almost directly across the street was the Jan Martense Schenck House, which was built in something like 1680. I remember it was disassembled and transported to storage under the Brooklyn Bridge for many, many years and then re-erected on the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum where it can be seen today. So even in my very young years, I had this connection to a historic building. The other introduction I had to preservation and historic buildings was that my parents liked to go on road trips in the summer, spring or summer. We went to Virginia. I remember planning a trip to Long Island over a weekend, and Washington, D.C., and Boston, and visiting lots of historic sites and museums. So that was an early introduction to the field that I think had an influence on my later life and career. Q: What was your parents’ interest in historic sites and houses? Where do you think their interest came from? Grubler: I don’t really know. My father was a taxi cab driver and I once asked my mother—even though we were living in Brooklyn, I was born in Flushing Hospital [Medical Center] and I asked my mother why. Her answer to me was, “Oh, Daddy would drive me wherever I wanted to go.” Whether that was really the reason or not, I don’t know. I mean, the doctor might have been affiliated with Flushing Hospital. Other than that, I don’t know. My mother was born in a thatched roof house with a dirt floor in a shtetl [small Eastern European town with a large Jewish population] in Poland. Actually, when she was born, it was part of Austria-Hungary. When she left, it was part of Poland because that was after World War I. My father was born here. He grew up on the Lower East Side and then Brooklyn, Bensonhurst. But other than that, I don’t know what brought on their interests. Q: Are there any houses or areas in particular that you remember from these road trips, one that was particularly memorable? Grubler: Actually, what I remember was not a historic house––I mean, what comes to mind right now––but a memorial in Richmond, Virginia to American soldiers or service members killed in World War II and I think Korea. There was a stone structure that was not enclosed but open air, and embedded in the floor under glass was soil from different battlefields. What I remember about it, though, is that when I went to the men’s room, it said “Men” over the door. But then when I walked into the vestibule, there were two doors. One that said “White” and one that said “Colored,” and that stuck with me. And this memorial, I think, was built around 1954. Q: I assume there would have been people of African descent who were also veterans of those wars too in that area. Grubler: Yes, I would think. Q: Quite different than the New York City experience. Grubler: Yes. Q: So what other ways did your interest in history manifest when you were growing up, entering high school and deciding on college? Grubler: Well, undergraduate, I went to Brooklyn College. I was a pretty good student in high school, but I was a little sort of not motivated much in college, except I did take—it wasn’t exactly civic design, but it was a sort of civic planning course. I don’t remember exactly what the title was. That got my interest, and we were all assigned a project. Brooklyn College had a special collections room and in that special collections room, I found this nineteenth-century book about Green-Wood Cemetery. So I went there and it was around this time of the year. I had no inkling before this that such a place existed. The leaves were changing and some of them were spectacular. There were all these winding roads and stone monuments and I was just captivated. So the project I did was about Green-Wood Cemetery. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do “when I grow up.” My mother sort of suggested that I become a teacher. So I did take some speech courses and the education courses. Before I graduated, I was student teaching. I did get a temporary job at Food and Maritime Trades Vocational High School teaching English to students that really were not that interested in the subject. Then I substitute taught for a while and realized it was not what I wanted to do. So I did some research and found that there were several colleges that offered a master’s or at least a graduate program in historic preservation. Columbia [University] was one of them, and I saw that there were certain requirements that I didn’t have. So I did go to Hunter College and took a History of Architecture course and even a drafting course. I applied to several schools: University of Vermont, Cornell [University], the Winterthur Program [in American Material Culture] at [the University of] Delaware. I was accepted to Cornell and the University of Vermont. As I tell people, the University of Vermont gave me an offer I could not refuse, including a fellowship. I have no regrets about going to that program. Chester [H. Liebs] was the head of the program. I went up there and spoke with him. I did get accepted. It was a small program. There were only maybe about ten or twelve of us in the Historic Preservation [Graduate] Program and it was under the Department of History. I went up over the summer and found an apartment that was the third floor in a two-and-a-half story house. It had a gable roof to the street with windows in front and back. It was a studio apartment with a staircase going up. That was a nice find, right in town, walking distance of campus, in the main part of town. That’s where I learned a viewpoint regarding a curatorial approach to historic preservation that valued layers of history. Q: Can you go into describing that more, layers of history? Grubler: Well, one of the things that I enjoyed is that we did lots of field trips. I remember a field trip to—I think it was Natchez, Mississippi—and people involved in the local preservation organization hosted us in their homes. I wound up in a home together with Chester Liebs, who was the head of the program. We went out one morning because he wanted to take pictures and we went to the main street. There were a lot of turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, not too much modernization. He was going crazy with photographs. There was an example on this main street of what I think is called Carrara Glass, which was very popular for storefronts. It came in different colors, black and pink and green. I’m not sure if it was made by the Pittsburgh [Plate] Glass Company, but it was very popular for storefronts. I guess beginning maybe in the ‘30s or ‘40s and continuing into the ‘50s. So we took this approach that a main street should not be brought back to the turn of the century or to the 1890s or whenever the buildings may have originally been built, but that these layers of history are as important and need to be preserved. Q: It reminds me a lot of approaches in ecology in a sense, the way that you restore a natural environment to a particular era. It has to be able to sustain itself in a way. It has to be able to function as an ecosystem. So I see some parallels there between a historic location or main street that’s still in use essentially for the people who live there. Grubler: Yes, although when you’re thinking of ecology, and what I know about it, which is not a great deal, is that there was great destruction that people didn’t realize when they introduced non-native species, whether it be birds or plants. So the approach now is a return to the native flora and fauna, which is more sustainable. They’re putting oysters back in New York Harbor, for example. Q: That’s right. That is an important distinction. And then can you tell me about how you honed your interests in graduate school, and where you wanted to go after that? Grubler: Well, what happened was, my father had passed away while I was in Vermont. My parents had bought a house in Florida and they would go there for part of the winter. My mother decided after my father passed away that she didn’t want to have two houses anymore. So she decided to sell the house in Brooklyn, move to the one in Florida. I knew that I wanted to be in New York. A lot of people up in Vermont wanted to stay there but I knew that I wanted to return to New York. So I had to establish myself in New York. So I looked at—the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] had a newspaper with job ads. I think that’s where I saw one for assistant to the director at Richmondtown Restoration. I applied for it and the director at the time, his name was Earl Newton, came up. I think he may have had other reasons to be in Vermont. I think maybe he had a house, I’m not sure. Anyway, he came up and interviewed me at UV [University of Vermont] and offered me the job. So this was my way of establishing myself in New York. I was actually supposed to get living quarters at Richmondtown Restoration but about two or three weeks before my mother was going to move, that fell through. But I was very lucky with finding an apartment, also on Staten Island. I lived on Staten Island for twenty-seven years in this apartment, which also had a view overlooking New York Harbor. [Laughs] Q: Can you talk about your thoughts about Staten Island, coming from Brooklyn at the time, and what Staten Island was like at the time? Grubler: Well, this would have been 1978. Shortly after I started working at Richmondtown, I was introduced to Barnett Shepherd, who started an organization called the Preservation League of Staten Island. I immediately knew that I wanted to become involved and started to go to meetings. I learned a lot from Barnett and another person who worked for the Landmarks [Preservation] Commission, Shirley Zavin. They had done several projects. One was training volunteers, and I participated in this, to survey Staten Island architecture. We had survey sheets and photographs were taken. As far as I know, the survey is still housed where he worked, the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. I think Shirley Zavin was involved then too. He wanted to have this survey at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. They did an exhibition of Staten Island architecture, and that was a great learning experience for me also. Shirley Zavin used to give walking tours; so did Barnett. Their enthusiasm, especially Shirley’s, was infectious. I remember one time I took my mother on one of Shirley Zavin’s tours and she was so impressed with her enthusiasm. Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what the survey found? So what I’m thinking here is: you’re getting involved with preservation in Staten Island, there’s a comprehensive survey completed. What did the survey tell you and the other people that you were working with about the job ahead of you? Grubler: Well, it’s always been a difficult battle in many places. In Staten Island, one of the difficulties, even to this day, although perhaps somewhat of a lesser degree, but even to this day, Staten Islanders identify with the local community. They live in Eltingville or Tottenville or New Dorp or West Brighton or St. George. They identify with that community, and here we are, the Preservation League of Staten Island, trying to be this all-encompassing island-wide organization. So there were some very good board members and volunteers, but it was always a challenge to get large numbers of people involved in preservation causes. I mean, over the years we did save some important buildings and also lost a number of important buildings. One of the incidents that I remember has to do with two houses that were on the corner of Clove Road and Victory Boulevard. One was the John King Vanderbilt House, a Greek Revival, I don’t know, 1830, 1840. And the other was the Frederick Valentine Smith House [Dorothy Valentine Smith House/John Frederick Smith House]. That was, I think, about 1880. We heard that it was going to be demolished. It had come up to Landmarks [Preservation Commission]. Landmarks was aware of it and it came to the [New York City] Department of Buildings for a demolition permit. Somehow I got on the phone with the head of the Buildings Department on Staten Island, and without me ever saying it, somehow he thought I was with Landmarks. So he held up the demolition permit long enough for Shirley Zavin to put this item in front of—I think [Robert B.] Tierney was the chair at that time, for them to calendar those two properties. So that was one of those bulldozer-at-the-door kind of situations. The John King Vanderbilt House is still standing as far as I know, but not in very good condition. The Frederick Valentine Smith House was allowed to be moved to another portion of the property. I believe that one might be in better condition, maybe even sold and occupied by a family. Q: When I was looking at the different properties on Staten Island that are either historic places or earmarked in some ways for preservation, it seems like a lot of private residences. Grubler: Well, one of the things that I did, we did, when I was—I was president of the Preservation League for nine or ten years. I think it was close to ten. We would do annual awards. That was kind of a fun activity. We would get in the car and go look at or solicit nominations for preservation awards. We would award plaques to many homeowners and other buildings that did commendable preservation work. That was a nice event that we would have where the homeowners or building owners and their families would come to a Sunday afternoon event, usually at a church or some other historic property that was available to us. And we would have a slideshow and they would talk about the work that they’ve done. And it was a way to spread the preservation message and hopefully an impetus for other people to follow suit. [INTERRUPTION] Q: Resuming the interview with Mitchell Grubler for the New York Preservation Archive Project. Grubler: I lived in St. George, Staten Island, and one of its very special places is a nineteenth-century development of houses, some designed by the architect Edward Alfred Sargent. He had a sort of unique stamp to his buildings. There’s certain characteristics that kind of made them special, built in the 1880s–1890s. There was a whole concentration of them on St. Marks Place, which is where I also lived. One of the events that the Preservation League sponsored, that I was involved in, was held at a Greek Revival building called the Pavilion on the Terrace. I invited homeowners from historic districts in Brooklyn that were similar, with large single-family houses, late nineteenth, early twentieth-century, to talk about their experiences with getting landmark designation and their experiences after designation as a way to rally people to advocate for historic districts in St. George. It did result in finally getting the St. George/New Brighton Historic District. You can see the pride that people take in their homes. Interestingly enough, Marjorie [Decker] Johnson was one of the members of the Preservation League whose husband was a descendant of the architect Edward Alfred Sargent. So she had in her collection a lot of Edward Sargent’s original drawings, including some for the houses in St. George. She brought them out and showed people some of them. They recognized their houses in a couple of cases. So that was a great resource. Q: Wow. Can you tell me about the scene socially in Staten Island in terms of your own personal transition to a new part of New York City? Grubler: Well, when I moved in 1978, I had actually a brother and sister-in-law living on Staten Island, but I didn’t know very many other people, although I did become friends through the Preservation League. But I also learned that there was a gay organization on Staten Island, the Lambda Associates of Staten Island. This probably would be in the early ‘80s. So I would go to meetings and dances and made friends there. I got involved in certain projects, like running a Halloween dance at a building that was the old Liberty Theatre in Stapleton that had become a disco. It was fun dressing in costume and decorating for the Halloween event. They had a stage and we had a costume contest. I also got involved in their participation in the annual Gay Pride Day march. I would speak about it, make flyers to distribute to get people to attend because there was somewhat of an effort to get Staten Islanders into Manhattan. I had a banner made. This is a photograph with the banner [indicates framed photograph]. I also learned that the workers at the ferry made a float, this huge model out of metal, of the Staten Island Ferry. And somehow, they agreed to lend it to us. I found somebody with a Jeep who could pull it, and they lent it to us. We decorated it and they lent it to us for the parade. That was a great rallying point, a great hit, and certainly a great representative of Staten Island. And this organization was special in the sense that both men and women were sort of equally involved, which wasn’t the case with many Manhattan organizations at the time. Q: That’s true. Why do you think that was? Grubler: Well, Staten Island’s a small town. You don’t have that much variety of organizations. I guess both men and women were looking for that kind of community experience. Q: Were there any other people who were involved in preservation that were also a part of the Lambda Associates? Grubler: Not that comes to mind. Q: Well, can we talk about becoming involved with the Alice Austen House? Grubler: Yes. My first job out of the University of Vermont, out of the preservation program, was at the Staten Island Historical Society. Part of my duties as assistant to the director was filling orders for photographs from the collection. The Staten Island Historical Society owns the Alice Austen photography collection of both glass negatives and some prints. So that’s how I first learned about Alice Austen and about the Friends of the Alice Austen House. They would meet in Manhattan and I would go as a representative of the Staten Island Historical Society. That’s how I met Ann Novotny, who wrote the biography, Alice’s World [The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen, 1866–1952]. It was on an occasion when I think I might have been in a car with Ann Novotny that she asked me, was it clear to me that Alice Austen was a lesbian? And she told me about interviewing gay friends of Alice Austen and about her life with Gertrude Tate and some things that were not included in the book. Q: Can you talk more about her decision to exclude some of those things? Grubler: It’s only speculation on my part that maybe it wasn’t acceptable to the publisher. If you read the book today, I think most people would realize that Alice Austen had this fifty-five year relationship with Gertrude Tate. I believe she does say it was a loving relationship. Well, all right, that aspect of it. My other involvement before I worked at the Alice Austen House—by the way, these meetings that I went to were before the house was restored and opened to the public. When I was involved as president of the Preservation League, the borough president had allocated something like one million dollars to restore the house. There was this all-volunteer Friends of the Alice Austen House group. [Margaret Riggs] “Peggy” Buckwalter was sort of leading it. And all of a sudden, the house was ready and they really didn’t know where to go from there. So I spoke with Peggy Buckwalter and together with the Preservation League, we sponsored a program to open the house to the public with an all-day event with the architect, and the man who specialized in the faux finishes and wallpaper choices, and some other craftspeople involved in the restoration to give a program. It was a great success. A lot of people came out that day. It sort of introduced the public to the house and its restoration. Q: It sounds like it really focused on the house itself. Grubler: It did. Q: Rather than, let’s say, as opposed to Alice the photographer. Grubler: Right. So that was my early introduction to Alice Austen. Then I was working as assistant curator at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. At some occasion involved with that, I met the director at the Alice Austen House and she was leaving on maternity leave. So they were looking for someone to step in. I applied for the job and was interviewed and was offered the job. To me, that sounded just fantastic. I knew about the house. I had been involved. I knew the whole story. It just felt right. I enjoyed the work very much. It’s a small historic house. We didn’t have a large staff, although I did hire a part-time education person and a part-time collections manager. I did some wonderful exhibitions where I was able to use my creativity. One was called The Larky Life, and it was about her photographs playing tennis and riding a bicycle and all those aspects of this life that she led when young, energetic, coming from a fairly well-to-do family. Together with the Preservation League of Staten Island, there was an exhibition of her photographs together with a contemporary photographer’s photographs of the same buildings. It’s gone now, but there was the S.R. [Samuel R.] Smith Infirmary built in 1890, which she photographed in 1890 at its opening, or shortly after its opening, and then a contemporary photograph of it. Then there was an exhibition—she traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. So we used her photographs, which we made enlargements of, together with—I found this collector of that [Chicago] World’s Fair––all kinds of memorabilia and ephemera. We used her photographs together with all of this three-dimensional material. That was I think 1992. Little did I know that most of what went on for that commemoration of [Christopher] Columbus would be Columbus-bashing instead of more positive commemoration. But I planned it in that way. Q: And how did Alice’s lifestyle or life with Gertrude come into play when you were planning exhibitions, or your curatorial work? Grubler: In 1994, they were commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall and there was a fellow by the name of Fred Wasserman who was holding these community meetings and planning the commemoration involving all kinds of institutions, art institutions, libraries. He was working on an exhibition that came to be called Becoming Visible [An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-century America]. Yes, I think that’s what it was. It was at the Forty-Second Street Library. And I went to a meeting at the [Lesbian,] Gay [Bisexual, & Transgender] Community Center on Thirteenth Street and met him and said, “You’ve got to include Alice Austen.” I felt this was a way that the whole entire scope of her life and story could be better known, without sort of jeopardizing my position. Because I knew that the board at that time had some homophobic members and was very hesitant to acknowledge that aspect of Alice Austen’s history. It came to pass that he used two or three of her more obvious female-female photographs. I knew the local arts editor, Michael Fressola, and he wound up putting it on the front page of the arts section, “We’re here, We’re queer, Get used to it,” with a big spread about the exhibition and Alice Austen. That didn’t sit too well with the board of directors. Q: This exhibition, Becoming Visible, to me, seems to be a big part of claiming people and saying these people were important cultural producers and they were also gay, they were queer. Grubler: Well, a lot of the people included in the exhibition might have been openly gay, whereas Alice Austen definitely was not. Q: Can you help me understand who the Friends of the Alice Austen House were, and the board of directors? Who are they claiming her as? What’s their stake there? Grubler: Ironically, the president—not when I was hired. When I was hired, the president’s name was Howard—I forget his last name. He was great. But they changed presidents over time and there was a president by the name of Jim Thompson, who happened to be a closeted gay man. After this exhibition, he wrote to the local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, a letter which was published denying that Alice Austen was gay. What happened was we would do a nautical festival every year out on the lawn, which faced the Narrows, New York Harbor. There was a group called the Lesbian Avengers at the time. They were very creative and they came dressed in those swimming suits that are depicted in some of Alice Austen’s photographs, where they covered the whole body. Swimsuits from, I don’t know, 1890s or So and inner tubes. They made up all these sea shanties, but with words about Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate. And they came for protests, which got covered by the local press. There was one board member who was particularly homophobic, carrying on, challenging me, what am I going to do about it. So that got coverage in the press. Also that sort of galvanized the board against telling the whole story of Alice Austen. Things are different now. Q: What stance did you take and how formal of a stance did you have? Thinking back to the layers of history that you were taught, are you arguing that this part of her life and should be part of the house at the time, or are you stepping back and letting the board decide? Grubler: Well, I was employed by the board and it was at their discretion to keep me or not keep me. So I was walking a fine line. I thought that the way to do it was to have Fred Wasserman and the exhibition out Alice Austen in that way. Q: They didn’t agree with that? Grubler: Well, especially with that cover of the arts section of the paper, I don’t think they were very happy with that. Q: It sounds like a very difficult position for you to be in. Grubler: It was. Q: How did you navigate through it? Grubler: Well, eventually, I was asked to leave. Q: What was that like for you? What was the impact of that? Grubler: It was traumatic. There were some days I would work until eleven, twelve o’clock at night because I loved the job. I felt that I really made an impact on making the history of Alice Austen and her photography better known, the historic house better known, increasing visitation, doing substantial classroom visits, having an impact on the general public. There were a series of photography classes for the visually impaired. There was a local senior residence. So some of the seniors participated in a photography workshop where they actually took pictures. And if you think of a black and white photograph, what is it made of? It’s made up of shading and shapes of dark and gray and light, which is often what visually impaired people could see. I had a guidebook to the house published. One of the wonderful aspects of Alice Austen and her photography is that she took her camera and photographed every room of the house. So we had this record of what the rooms look like. We used those photographs. I hired someone to write it and select photographs, to publish a guidebook to the house, an Alice Austen history using her original photographs because some of the rooms no longer looked like what they did when she lived there. They were filled with her collections from world travels and her Uncle Oswald [Müller]’s Oriental vases and other items. Using her photographs gave people a sense of what these Victorian interiors looked like at the time that she lived there. Then she also took her camera into Manhattan and photographed people on the streets of Manhattan, selling pretzels, sweeping streets, selling suspenders, all kinds of street people. We don’t know if it was for sale, we think it might have been gifts for friends, but she actually made up these portfolios of photographs of these street types, which she called Street Types of New York. The Alice Austen House does have one or two in its collection; so does the [Staten Island] Historical Society. So I did an exhibition, Street Types of New York [Turn of the Century Portraiture by Alice Austen], including some other photographs that were not part of the portfolio but were of that subject matter. And for sale, I had replicas made of her photograph portfolio, which won a National Trust publication competition. Q: Wow. How public was, I guess, your firing from the Alice Austen House? Was there kind of a visible controversy? Grubler: Well, I knew this arts editor and I was alerted to the fact that the president, this closeted president, went to him, which I thought was very malicious. I said to him, “Look at all the things that I’ve accomplished.” I outlined some of the things I just said. So his article about my leaving, instead of being this negative kind of thing that this closeted president wanted, turned into a much more positive article about all of my accomplishments during my term there. Q: In a more private sense, was there any sort of—I don’t know, did the Lesbian Avengers come to your aid? Grubler: No. There was an oral history and someone from the Lesbian Avengers got it wrong. They said that the director was the homophobic one. It was the president who was the homophobic one. Q: I think what I’m getting at is just the contrast between today and when you were going through this experience. Right now, finally in the Supreme Court [of the United States], there’s discussion around, are there protections— Grubler: Well, I have to give credit to those that came after me. Not directly after me, because I think the director directly after me was not in favor of telling the whole story of Alice Austen, and neither was the board at that time. But I have to give credit for those who managed––both board members and staff––to come to the point we are now, where it’s a major aspect of the interpretation of the Alice Austen House, Alice Austen’s life and Alice Austen’s photography. Maybe I had some role in laying the groundwork for that. Q: I think you surely did. Did you see it start to turn towards being more open to being truthful about Alice’s life, from afar, I suppose? Grubler: Yes, at one point, there was a president of the board who was a lesbian. I don’t know how out she was. Then eventually they hired, I think he was an openly gay director. I guess at that point, things changed. Q: And can you talk about the way that the house is now, the interpretation that opened recently? Grubler: I haven’t been to see the new exhibit yet but I intend to see it on Saturday, which is the Staten Island event marking Coming Out Day. It’s at the Alice Austen House. Q: Amazing. You’ll find that The Larky Life continues on. It’s still part of the exhibition. I was there last month, so I’ve seen the new exhibition. Grubler: While I was at the Alice Austen House, there was a project to nominate properties associated with the history of women as National Historic Landmarks. So while I was there, there was a National Historic Landmark designation and we had an event to celebrate that. It was a dinner on the lawn with entertainment, a presentation of the bronze plaque. Q: That was in 1992, is that right? Grubler: It sounds right. Q: So it was actually under kind of a rubric of women’s houses, you said? Grubler: Well, sites associated with the history of significant women, yes. I think the National Park Service contracted with some organization that did the research throughout the country, maybe. They did a nomination of a whole bunch of sites. Q: Wasn’t ‘92 the “Year of the Woman,” or whatever that was? Do you remember that? Grubler: I don’t know. Q: I’m wondering what the intersection was here. Do you have any stories about working in the house? You mentioned sometimes you were there late at night, but I’m just wondering about the place itself. Grubler: The earliest part of the house, some people think is 1690. Some people think it’s 1710. I think it’s more likely 1710. Anyway, we were in the house. It wasn’t late at night. There was a nor’easter. And the house sits right close to the edge of the water, although up on somewhat of a rise. There was a television in the room that’s the earliest part of the house, and in that room, there’s these huge beams and a low ceiling. When you sit in that room, you get a sense of its history. The storm was getting more active and all. I don’t remember who I was with, maybe with the secretary. And there were chairs because people would watch the video in that room. That’s why there was the TV. We had it on, but I don’t know that the reception was very good. They were predicting this pretty powerful nor’easter. And I’m looking around at the beams and I’m thinking, this house has stood for 250 or more years. We’re not going to be in trouble in this room. [Laughs] The other story that I like is actually from Ann Novotny’s book, Alice’s World. In it, she talks about Alice Austen’s grandfather, whose house this was, and his wife making a trip to Europe. I don’t remember if they were in Great Britain or they were in Germany. I think it might have been Great Britain. And he met a young couple and they said, “Oh, we’re making our first trip to America next year.” He said, “Well, when you come, my house is the first one on the left.” Q: Wow. I guess that could be true in a sense! Grubler: Well, one of the other projects was a walking tour of Alice Austen’s neighborhood. It’s now called Rosebank. It used to be called Clifton. Some of her friends had houses of a later period along the shore, even south of hers. But it’s still a great story to tell. Q: Yes, not many people can say that. So what are your thoughts about it being a landmark with LGBT significance now? Grubler: I think it’s great. I think it’s a great example for young people. I think it’s great that we have a National Historic Landmark that commemorates a same-sex relationship. But more importantly, at the heart of the matter, is not only the historic house but the photographs that we were lucky enough, through a set of unusual circumstances, to still be stewards of, to still have. So it’s important that we learn about how the photographs may have come about because of the whole life story of Alice Austen, including the fact that she loved this woman, Gertrude Tate, and how that life influenced the making of those photographs. Q: I think that’s a very apt description. Grubler: And every year now, except for when it rains—and let’s hope it doesn’t on Saturday—they have Coming Out Day at the Alice Austen House. Q: It’s celebrating that it’s never too late, I guess. Grubler: The current director, Victoria Munro, is doing a great job. Q: I want to also talk about your work in Queens. So can you explain the transition to the Queens Historical Society from the Alice Austen House? Grubler: Well, there was a time period between, but I was looking for work. I think someone I know by the name of David Goldfarb, who lives on Staten Island, may have learned about an opening for executive director of the Queens Historical Society. I applied for that job and was interviewed, waited a while, and then was contacted and offered the position. I didn’t know a great deal about Queens, but I certainly knew how to be an administrator of a not-for-profit history organization. They’re located in a historic house, Kingsland Homestead. So I went into the position with a good background and experience in that sort of thing. Again, not to quite the same degree because we had other people on staff, but I was involved in exhibitions. For the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Queens Historical Society, we did thirty-five treasures from the collection. That ranged from a bronze plaque in German that was once mounted on a monument to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers who were killed in the fire. I used my connections with the [New York City] Parks Department and they came and cleaned the bronze. It had a sign from Rockaway[s’] Playland, which had a sort of mascot of a clown-like face on it. A bookcase from about 1750 that I was able to have restored, together with several other pieces of furniture from our collection. A flag from about 1812, which I had a conservator mount to be part of the exhibition. I tried to do some programs that would involve outreach to the Asian community in Flushing because that’s where they’re located. They met with some limited success. But we did lots of public programs. Another aspect of my tenure there was upgrading the school class programs. I hired a consultant, Jane Cowan, to create a school class program that involved worksheets and a craft project that students could take with them. That met with a high degree of success. Q: Did you continue living in Staten Island during that time? Grubler: Part of the time. With public transportation, my commute would sometimes be over two hours, taking a ferry and the subway. But then I moved here [Confucius Plaza]. There was a van that goes from here to Flushing. Q: [Laughs] You hit the jackpot. I read in an article about you transitioning to the position as the head of the Queens Historical Society that what attracted you was the socially conscious members of its community, the Queens community. I’m wondering if you found that to be true, if there was more community engagement in Queens than you had found in Staten Island. Grubler: Well, I did get involved with—the long-time president of the Queens Historical Society, and the one who hired me, was Stanley Cogan. He was involved in preservation but then got even more involved by founding the Queens Preservation Council. Its emphasis was on Queens history and historic preservation. One of the preservation battles that I was involved in was the Bowne Street Community Church, built in, I think it was 1899, with some Tiffany windows. But the congregation was opposed to designation. It sat in a sort of limbo category for quite a few years. It was calendared, so we had some protection, and eventually it did get designated. Another preservation issue that’s still not completely resolved is the Brinckerhoff Cemetery in Fresh Meadows. We all went and testified at the Landmarks Commission and finally it did get designated. However, the city did something years back that it never should have done, which was sell it to a private owner. City-owned cemeteries or even private cemeteries are not supposed to be sold. This private owner has so far not been willing to sell to the city, even though the city had a position now that they’ve agreed to buy it. So it’s in an overgrown state. It would be nice to get in there, clean it out and see what remains of any stones, and better care for it as a sacred site and a historic site. The Brinckerhoffs go back to the seventeenth century. We know that there are Brinckerhoffs and descendants interred there. Q: Can you maybe talk more broadly about reasons that you’ve encountered for people to really resist or oppose historic designation? Grubler: Well, one of the things that comes up is in our capitalist democracy, property rights are often held sacred. So people oppose what they feel is any taking of those property rights. How dare you tell me what I can do with my building or my property? Then there is often this misconception that it takes more money to do the kinds of work that the Landmarks Commission requires. It’s not always the case. It may be in some cases, but if you do it the right way, in the long term, it’s often a greater savings. Religious properties sometimes feel that it’s against the—what amendment is it, the freedom of religion? Basically, I think that’s what it comes down to. The other thing, and this is sometimes a misconception, is that people feel it’s a way that leads to gentrification. Although studies have shown that that’s not really the case. Q: Have you found there to be different attitudes in the different boroughs that you’ve worked in? Grubler: I think Manhattan is a bit more savvy. You’ve got a lot more organizations and people involved in preservation in Manhattan. I think there’s still a lot of opposition in the Bronx, although they’ve made some progress. Back, what is it, two years ago, there were the ninety-five properties that had been calendared but never designated. And the Landmarks Commission, through pressure from preservation groups, agreed to hold hearings. Many of those properties were removed from the calendar and not designated, I think, because of people’s opposition to landmarking and political opposition. There are council members in Queens that are very opposed to designation, and landmarking has to go before the [New York] City Council to be approved now. So I guess the other boroughs—there’s a lot of progress made in landmarking in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is becoming a lot more like Manhattan in certain ways. But Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island still have a ways to go. A surprising number of properties in Queens and Staten Island were removed from calendaring without designation. Q: Thank you for that bird’s eye view. Can we talk a little bit about the Queens Preservation Council? You touched on it a little bit in terms of its focus on preservation, but I believe it also had a bringing-together of organizations, many organizations. Can you talk a bit about that? Grubler: Yes, we meet monthly in Queens Borough Hall. It was founded by Stanley Cogan, and at a certain point, he was no longer in the picture. They asked me if I would chair it and I agreed to. We have representatives from local Queens historical societies, Parkway Village Historical Society for example. Queens Historical Society is represented, people from Woodhaven, from Richmond Hill, from Elmhurst, from Forest Hills, from Bayside, Bayside Historical Society. One of the things that’s very timely is that together with the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, we meet with the chair of the Landmarks Commission periodically to review a list of properties where requests for evaluation have been submitted, or if not, we know that there’s a file on a property or a potential historic district at the Landmarks Commission. That’s coming up. Our meeting with the chair is coming up next month. These are landmark priorities of ours that we want to know the status of. Q: Can you talk about, I guess, the impact of development in Queens, just maybe over the last years that you’ve been chair and how that has impacted the preservation work that you’re focusing on? Grubler: Well, I know that the community of Jamaica has been rezoned, parts of it anyway, and it’s undergoing a lot of development that is threatening some of the historic properties. There’s also a Central Queens Historical Association and people there have been on top of Jamaica issues. It’s an uphill battle for a lot of people. The people in Richmond Hill have been trying for a historic district for many, many years and so far, have not been successful. Although there are a lot of people owning turn of the century houses that have been restoring them and love that community. I don’t know what else to say on that matter. They’ve tried for a historic district in Astoria where there are also Victorian houses and they’ve been unsuccessful there. Q: A lot of places, I think, like you said, an uphill battle. Can you talk about deciding to move here and the work that you’ve done in this neighborhood? Grubler: Sure. I have a lot of friends in Manhattan, and I did a lot of things in Manhattan. Even living on Staten Island, I realized I should be in Manhattan. So I put my name on some waiting lists and after twenty-three years, this one came up. It has been my practice when I lived on Staten Island, and now here, to get involved in local preservation issues. There’s a former nursing home on East Broadway, the Bialystoker Nursing Home, which closed. I learned about it, got together with a colleague of mine that I knew on Staten Island, who also moved into this area, and another colleague, and we formed the Friends of the Bialystoker [Home] to advocate for its landmarking. Members of the community opposed it. It came up to the Community Board  committee meetings. At one meeting, even the union for the workers opposed it. We met with George Arzt, who’s a political consultant, and he advised us to meet with the union and the union backed off. They didn’t come out in favor of landmarking, but they also backed off in opposing it. And eventually we did get it designated a landmark. Of course, the nursing home residents are scattered hither and yon. It’s no longer a nursing home. But the building is saved. There used to be a saying, “How can you tell a landmark in New York City?” And the answer was: it’s the one with the tall building or the skyscraper next to it. In many cases, although not this one, it’s because they bought air rights. But in this case, it was sold to a developer and it will be apartments with a new building built next to it. But at least, the building is there. And then I learned about the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors. Since I live on the Bowery, it was a natural. We did get a number of Bowery buildings landmarked. It is on the State and National Register [of Historic Places], but there’s no New York City historic district. Every time you turn around, there’s another building going for new construction. But we did get the Germania Bank Building designated; 357 Bowery, which was a German insurance company headquarters designated; 97 Bowery, which is a cast-iron-fronted building and several others; the bank across the street, the old Citizens Savings Bank. There’s a case where be careful what you wish for, because right next door is a twenty-eight story building. Q: Where do you find the energy to enter into what often becomes many different battles in favor of protecting buildings? Grubler: In many cases, they make for the variety of the streetscape. They’re our patrimony. I think of them as a gift from previous generations. They represent historical periods of history. They represent particular people that are important to commemorate and celebrate. And they contribute to our lives today. I do a lot of walking. So I walk the Bowery a lot. And I don’t want to see glass and steel buildings. I want to see architectural elements. I want to see balustrades. I want to see carved lintels. I want to see stone ornamentation. I want to see elaborate pressed-tin cornices. That’s what makes life varied and exciting. If you have to change the use or rehabilitate the interior, fine. It becomes part of our life today. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Q: That’s true. Looking back over your career, is there anything that stands out as being something that you’re most proud of, whether it’s a structure or a district or even something that didn’t really pan out, but something that you feel strongly about, looking back? Grubler: Well, I’m proud of the work I did at the Alice Austen House and making it better known and providing education and enjoyment to thousands of people. Same at the Queens Historical Society. I’m proud of exhibitions that I worked on at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. We helped a little bit with the Olmsted[-Beil] House on Staten Island when I was with the Preservation League. I’m proud of walking tours that I worked on for the Preservation League, house tours. I’m proud of the St. George Historic District, which I played a role in bringing about. Q: I think that might be all my questions. Is there anything else that you think you might want to add that we haven’t talked about? Grubler: No. Q: Okay. Thank you so much. [END OF SESSION]
Interview made possible through support from NYSCA and Thompson Hine LLP.