An architect, preservationist and fifth generation New Yorker, Bronson Binger was a co-founder of the Historic Districts Council and played a pivotal role in the New York City preservation movement during the 1960s-1980s.
Bronson Binger was born on October 17, 1930 in New York, New York to Walter and Beatrice Sorchan Binger.1 Binger graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1948 and Harvard College in 1952.2 After serving in the U.S. Army, he obtained a degree in architecture from what is now Carnegie Mellon University.3 In adulthood, he became a prominent New York based architect and preservationist. Binger was particularly concerned with the buildings and landscapes that he felt constituted New York’s architectural and cultural history. He began his preservation career in the 1960s advocating for the preservation of the “Old” Metropolitan Opera House and soon expanded his efforts to include other parts of the city.
Binger followed in his family’s footsteps by taking an interest in historic preservation. His father, Walter Binger, was a civil engineer and served as the Commissioner of Borough Works in Manhattan in the 1930s.4 Walter advocated for the preservation of Castle Clinton in opposition of Robert Moses who planned to demolish it.5 Further, Binger’s grandmother, Charlotte Honeywell, built Turtle Bay Gardens.6 Binger’s own career took him from private architectural practice to the Municipal Art Society of New York to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) and the Office of General Services. He married twice and had three children and two step-children.7 He passed away on December 13, 2013 in Massachusetts at the age of 83.8
Municipal Art Society of New York
–Vice President and Head of Landmarks Committee
Historic Districts Council
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
– Assistant Commissioner
Binger’s first foray into preservation was a failed attempt to save the “Old” Metropolitan Opera House which began in 1965.9 The theater was built in 1883 and was the epicenter of music in America during its early years.10 Unfortunately, despite Binger working “eighteen months full-time” to save it, the building was demolished in 1967.11 Not disillusioned by failure, Binger continued to advocate for preservation and co-founded the Historic Districts Council in 1971 as an organization within the Municipal Art Society. Prior to this he worked with the then sitting NYC Landmarks Preservation commissioners in attempt to establish guidelines for historic district regulations. 12
Binger believed historic districts, as opposed to individual buildings, more effectively supported the development of city fabric and city communities.13 As such, he was actively involved in the designation of three historic districts: the Special Madison Avenue Preservation District, the Fifth Avenue Subdistrict and the Carnegie Hill Historic District.
The Special Madison Avenue Preservation District was established in 1973 to preserve the unique character of Madison Avenue, especially the use of a building’s ground floor for retail purposes.14 It extends along Madison Avenue from East 61st Street to East 96th Street.15 The Fifth Avenue Subdistrict, within the Special Midtown District, was designated in 1982.16 The subdistrict focuses on maintaining shops and other commercial uses in effort to preserve the unique use of the district as a showcase of New York and national retail shopping.17 It extends along Park Avenue from West 33rd Street to West 58th Street and from East 34th Street to East 58th Street.
Binger was also involved in the designation of his own neighborhood of Carnegie Hill which became a historic district in 1974 and expanded in 1993. 18 The Carnegie Hill Historic District extends from East 86th Street to East 98th Street and from Fifth to Lexington Avenues19 This district became one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods after Andrew Carnegie built his mansion on Fifth Avenue in 1901 and other mansions soon followed. 20
In 1972, Binger went to work for South Street Seaport Museum for three years.21 Binger was in charge of restoration and unofficially managed planning and personnel.22 During the 1970s Binger also served as the Vice President and head of the Landmarks Committee of the Municipal Art Society.23 He had to resign from the role after taking a job with NYC Parks because it was considered a conflict of interest.24 Binger’s tenure with NYC Parks, which began in 1979, put him in charge of several high-profile preservation and renovation projects. These included the restoration of the Wyckoff House and numerous projects in Central Park and Prospect Park.25 When Binger started at NYC Parks the budget was minuscule. By the time he left in the 1980s there were $250 million worth of park projects in progress.26 His most prominent effort was his work on Union Square Park.27 The park had fallen into disarray and Binger helped develop a plan that replaced concealed walkways with a large open lawn. This made for a more inviting park and the general public returned.28 Union Square Park was also the site of the first Earth Day festival on April 22, 1970.29 On that day, Binger was part of a team that staged an exhibition by Union Square’s James Fountain on the reuse of historic buildings.30 This drew a large crowd including then Governor Nelson Rockefeller.31
In the 1980s Binger worked at the Office of General Services where he took on one of the biggest challenges of his career—the restoration of McKim, Mead, and White’s Municipal Building. Binger became involved in the project after finding granite on the street that had fallen from the building’s twenty-fifth floor.32 After leaving the Office of General Services in the late 1980s, Binger spent much of his time on building committees actively advocating for preservation as a component when developing and implementing projects. Examples include Grace Church and a foster care agency in Queens.33 In his 2008 interview with the Archive Project, he stressed the role that preserving buildings plays in telling the story of the architectural design process.34 Binger believed that drafting on computers removed a crucial connection in the design process between architect and final building. As a result, he felt that scale, structure and texture were lost on modern buildings. By preserving older buildings, Binger believed, this lost link would be preserved and be there to represent “what architecture should be.”35
- Oral History with Bronson Binger
- New York Preservation Archive Project
- 174 East 80th Street
- New York, NY 10075
- Tel: (212) 988-8379
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. David Dunlap, “Bronson Binger, 83, who saved New York Parks and Buildings Dies.” The New York Times, 6 January 2014.
5. Bronson Binger, interview by Melissa Burnette, The Reminiscences of Bronson Binger, NYPAP, 17 October 2008, https://www.nypap.org/oral-history/bronson-binger-2/.
7. David Dunlap, “Bronson Binger, 83, who saved New York Parks and Buildings Dies.” The New York Times, 6 January 2014.
9. “Old Met,” New York Preservation Archive Project, accessed 1 October 2020, https://www.nypap.org/preservation-history/old-metropolitan-opera-house/.
12. Kent Barwick, email message to the author, 8 April 2021.
13. Bronson Binger, interview by Melissa Burnette, The Reminiscences of Bronson Binger, NYPAP, 17 October 2008, https://www.nypap.org/oral-history/bronson-binger-2/.
14. “Special Purpose Districts: Manhattan,” NYC Planning, accessed 26 March 2021 https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/zoning/districts-tools/special-purpose-districts-manhattan.page.
18. “Carnegie Hill,” Friends of the Upper East Side, accessed 20 March 2021 https://friends-ues.org/about/carnegie-hill-hd/.
20. “Manhattan Landmarks – Carnegie Hill Historic District/ Carnegie Hill Extension, Historic Districts Council, accessed 26 March 2021 https://hdc.org/hdc-across-nyc/manhattan/manhattan-landmarked/carnegie-hill-historic-district-carnegie-hill-extension/.
21. Bronson Binger, interview by Melissa Burnette, The Reminiscences of Bronson Binger, NYPAP, 17 October 2008, https://www.nypap.org/oral-history/bronson-binger-2/.
23. Bronson Binger, interview by Melissa Burnette, The Reminiscences of Bronson Binger, NYPAP, 17 October 2008, https://www.nypap.org/oral-history/bronson-binger-2/.
27. David Dunlap, “Bronson Binger, 83, who saved New York Parks and Buildings Dies.” The New York Times, 6 January 2014.
29. “Union Square.” New York Preservation Archive Project. accessed 23 April 2021.
30. Kent Barwick, email message to the author, 8 April 2021.
32. Matthew Coody, “In Memoriam: Bronson Binger” New York Preservation Archive Project, accessed 1 October 2020 https://www.nypap.org/in-memoriam-bronson-binger/.
33. Bronson Binger, interview by Melissa Burnette, The Reminiscences of Bronson Binger, NYPAP, 17 October 2008, https://www.nypap.org/oral-history/bronson-binger-2/.