Our Collections

Historic Districts Council

Historic Districts Council

Founded in 1970, the Historic Districts Council advocates for the preservation of historic neighborhoods across New York City.

Location: 232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003  |  Google Maps
Places: HDC has been involved in the process of allowing many of New York City’s over 150 historic districts to achieve legal status.
Above: HDC Executive Director Simeon Bankoff leading a rally at City Hall in 2003. (edited)

The Historic Districts Council (HDC) was founded in 1970 to advocate for the preservation of historic neighborhoods in New York City. HDC does this primarily by providing support to groups and individuals to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods, as well as by giving public testimony and providing public programs. HDC works to uphold the integrity of New York’s Landmarks Law and further the preservation ethic.

1970: HDC forms as a committee of Municipal Art Society

1986: HDC becomes an independent 501(c)(3) organization

1990: First annual Landmarks Lion award presented

1995: First annual Preservation Conference

2011: “Six to Celebrate” program is begun

The Historic Districts Council was formed as a committee of the Municipal Art Society in 1970.1 Initially, HDC was primarily a vehicle to help the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) secure additional funding.2 The new Executive Director of MAS, Kent Barwick, and Bronson Binger, the head of the MAS Landmarks Committee, recognized that advocacy from constituents across the city before the City Council would be the most effective way to advocate for additional LPC funding. For this purpose, they organized representatives of historic and aspiring historic districts to testify before the City Council, a strategy that proved successful.3

For the first several years of its existence, HDC operated as an informal hub that facilitated communication between local neighborhood activists, connecting them to one another and to additional resources to assist them in achieving landmark designation for their respective potential districts. Members of HDC, which included representatives from each historic district as well as certain aspiring historic districts, also testified before the LPC.4

Following a period of relative inactivity in the mid-1970s, HDC was reinvigorated at the behest of Barwick, who became the chairman of the LPC in 1978. A collaborative relationship between the two organizations began to develop, in which the LPC trained volunteers in aspiring historic districts, organized by HDC, to write their own designation reports.5 HDC assumed a greater role in advocating for historic districts in the 1980s.

In 1986, HDC spun off from MAS to become an independent organization in order to focus more directly on helping “worthy areas achieve landmark status”6 and to establish itself as an independent grassroots advocate for preservation. From this point, the previously all-volunteer organization worked to become more structured, including by hiring an administrator.7 The first full-time executive director, Franny Eberhart, was hired in 1992.8 Since then, HDC has continued to grow and offer increasing levels of public programming, in addition to providing resources to historic districts and monitoring LPC activity. Simeon Bankoff became the Executive Director in 2000.9

From its inception, HDC has proved an effective advocate for historic preservation, especially of historic districts, in New York. Only a few years removed from the passage of the Landmarks Law and the establishment of an official, empowered Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, HDC was conceived of in 1970 as a way to support the nascent LPC by advocating on its behalf before the City Council.10

Consisting of representatives from historic districts, as well as districts which were not yet designated, HDC in its first decade became a central node in the network of local preservationists across the city’s districts. HDC members helped connect activists with one another and with the resources to learn how to have their districts designated.11 The 1980 MAS annual report described HDC as “a major force for communication and cooperation between districts, and between each district and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”12

These organizing activities successfully helped many historic districts get designated. From the 18 historic districts which existed when HDC was founded, there were 42 designated districts a decade later.13 The HDC took on a central role in some of the more complex districts, including the Fort Greene Historic District, designated in 1978, the first major project it was involved in.14 In its early form, the largest district the HDC helped to shepherd to landmark status was the Upper East Side Historic District, a multiyear process which finally resulted in designation in 1981.15

By the early 1980s, HDC and the LPC had developed a collaborative relationship. HDC began a program which trained residents of potential historic districts to research their own designation reports in order to expedite the process before the LPC.16 The first stage, which included Clinton Hill, Ditmas Park, Greenpoint, and the Park Slope Extension, was completed in 1980.17 This program was ended a few years later as the LPC resumed conducting all its own research in-house.

As the political climate evolved in the 1980s and 1990s, HDC emerged as the most robust grassroots advocate for preservation on a citywide scale. The newly independent HDC built its capacity to become the leading voice for historic districts as well as a major voice for policy issues related to preservation. The group adopted a larger monitoring role than it had before, reviewing proposals before the LPC and pressuring them to resolve violations. 18 Currently, the HDC reviews every new landmark designation proposal, as well as all public proposals to alter both individual landmarks and buildings within Historic Districts. Representatives of the HDC testify at every LPC hearing. 19

HDC has also pushed forward the cause of preservation in New York by bringing together leading preservationists from across the city. Over the course of its existence, many of the most effective neighborhood advocates in New York City have been members of HDC’s board. In 1990, the HDC began issuing the annual Landmarks Lion award to honor influential preservationists. 20 A conference on preservation is held annually, beginning in 1995, which allows major figures in the preservation world to speak to one another and the public. This conference is a platform to share concerns and themes being developed in the preservation field.

In recent decades, the HDC has continued to be the leading citywide grassroots preservation advocacy group, but has increasingly taken on educational and outreach work as well. This includes issuing policy papers, providing public programs, and organizing classes on historic preservation and community organizing. Since 2011, the organization has run the “Six to Celebrate” program, in which six local groups receive extensive HDC help over the course of a year with tools for policy and public outreach. The program has proven effective in elevating both lesser known and established neighborhoods in the city, and has successfully helped local groups establish National Register districts and designated NYC landmarks and historic districts. 21

  1. “About,” Historic Districts Council, accessed 12 May 2020, https://hdc.org/about-2/hdcs-history/
  2. Anthony C. Wood in “In the Beginning: The Creation of the Historic Districts Council” (panel discussion, 16 Gramercy Park, New York, NY, June 21, 2011)
  3. Kent Barwick in “In the Beginning,” transcript.
  4. Michael Gruen, interviewed by Lauren Peters, 28 October, 2008, transcript, http://www.nypap.org/oral-history/michael-gruen/
  5. Joseph Rosenberg, interviewed by Portia Dyrenforth, 17 October 2007, transcript, http://www.nypap.org/oral-history/joseph-rosenberg/
  6. Historic Districts Council, “About” and Municipal Art Society Annual Report, 1984-1985, MAS 01, Series VI, Municipal Art Society Archives, New York, NY.
  7. Joseph Rosenberg, interview.
  8. Franny Eberhart, interview by Filip Mazurczak, 11 November, 2017, transcript, http://www.nypap.org/oral-history/franny-eberhart/
  9. Historic Districts Council, “Our Staff,” accessed 12 May 2020. https://hdc.org/our-staff/
  10. Barwick in “In the Beginning,” transcript.
  11. “In the Beginning,” transcript.
  12. Municipal Art Society 1980 Annual Report, MAS 01, Series VI MAS Archives.
  13. “HDC’s History,” Historic Districts Council, accessed 12 May 2020. https://hdc.org/about-2/hdcs-history/ and Municipal Art Society Annual Report, MAS 01, Series VI MAS Archives.
  14. Rosenberg, interview.
  15. Lorna Novwe in “In the Beginning” and Carter B. Horsley, “Battle Lines Drawn Over Plan for East Side Historic District,” New York Times, 27 May 1979.
  16. Rosenberg, interview.
  17. Municipal Art Society Annual Report 1981.
  18. Rosenberg, interview.
  19. “Testimony,” Historic Districts Council, accessed 12 May 2020. https://hdc.org/testimony/
  20. “Landmarks Lion Award,” Historic Districts Council, accessed 2 July, 2020, https://hdc.org/events/landmarks-lion-award/
  21. “About Six to Celebrate,” Historic Districts Council, accessed 24 August, 2020, https://6tocelebrate.org/about-us/