Events & News

Preservation History in Quotes: Words to Remember from the First Lady of Historic Preservation

September 27, 2017 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Fall 2017 Newsletter

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children. If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”

So wrote Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Mayor Abraham Beame in a February 24, 1975 letter supporting the Municipal Art Society’s campaign to save Grand Central Terminal when it was threatened by a skyscraper proposal. These words are immortalized on a plaque in the Terminal’s 42nd Street and Park Avenue entrance foyer, now named in her honor. Her efforts in this campaign went well beyond letter writing. She rolled up her sleeves and joined the battle, even boarding the special “Landmark Express” train to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the Supreme Court hearing that would ultimately save Grand Central Terminal and uphold New York City’s Landmarks Law. Due in large part to her involvement, this campaign received national attention. Hundreds of press stories from Banger, Maine, to Waco, Texas, and from Spokane, Washington, to Homestead, Florida, propelled preservation and the battle to save Grand Central into the national consciousness.

Mrs. Onassis was indeed the First Lady of Historic Preservation. She played a key role in Washington, D.C., preservation efforts when she served as First Lady of the United States from 1961-63. She was instrumental in saving the buildings surrounding Lafayette Square as well as helping preserve the Old Executive Office Building and the Renwick Gallery. Mrs. Kennedy moved to New York City in 1964 and became involved in local preservation issues there as well. In addition to Grand Central, she would join efforts to save St. Bartholomew’s Church and Lever House. These campaigns included travelling to Albany to help successfully beat back the Flynn-Walsh Bill, a piece of legislation that would have gutted New York City’s Landmarks Law by excluding religiously-owned properties from landmark protection.

As preservationists continue to battle the powerful forces often aligned against their efforts, the frequently-asked question is “Where is today’s Jackie O.?” Though it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of such an icon again, her words and actions live on. The next time you are rushing through Grand Central, stop for a moment in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Foyer, read her words, and then head off to the next public hearing, community meeting, or preservation rally, renewed, reinvigorated, and re-inspired.

Above: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy views a scale model of the historic preservation and redevelopment plans for Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., with the architect of the project, John Carl Warnecke, ca. 1962; Courtesy of Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum