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James Marston Fitch

James Marston Fitch

James Marston Fitch co-founded the Graduate School of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, the first of its kind in the United States.

People: Charles E. Peterson, Jane Jacobs
Organizations: The James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission 
Places: Ellis Island, Grand Central Terminal, South Street Seaport, Central Park
Above: Professor James Marston Fitch (right) and instructor Theo Prudon (second from left) examining a joint thesis project by students in Columbia University’s historic preservation program, 1974; Courtesy of Michael A. Tomlan

James Marston Fitch was an architect and preservationist who played a major role in the historic preservation movement of the 1960s. Fitch was born in 1909 in Washington, D.C. and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the age of 17, Fitch moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University’s School of Architecture. Financial circumstances forced him to leave before completing his degree (he received an honorary doctorate from the institution in 1997).1

During the Great Depression, Fitch worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee State Planning Board. Fitch was subsequently invited to work for the newly formed Federal Housing Authority in Washington, D.C. In the 1930s, Fitch also served as editor for three important architectural journals: Architectural Record, Architectural Forum, and House Beautiful. In 1948, he wrote his first book, American Building and the Forces that Shape It, in which he drew connections between architecture and climate.2

James Marston Fitch passed away in 2000 at the age of 91. Upon his death, Jane Jacobs remarked that Fitch “was the principal character in making the preservation of historic buildings practical and feasible and popular.”3

The James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, started in 1988, honors Fitch’s legacy and disseminates his ideas both within and outside the preservation field. The Foundation awards research grants to support inquiry into the “wide range of problems encompassed by the preservation and rehabilitation of America’s historic, architectural and urbanistic heritage.”

First Conservator of Central Park, 1974-1975

Commissioner, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

Co-founder, Graduate School of Planning, Architecture, and Preservation at Columbia University

Graduate School of Planning, Architecture, and Preservation at Columbia University, 1954-1977

Director of Historic Preservation, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, 1979

In 1954, Fitch joined the faculty at Columbia University. In 1964, he co-founded the Graduate School of Historic Preservation at Columbia University with Charles E. Peterson. The preservation program, chaired by Fitch from 1954 to 1977, was the first of its kind in the United States. The curriculum, largely focused on restoration, served as a model for subsequent preservation programs throughout the country.4

The Columbia University program helped create a new class of preservation professionals by standardizing their training and education. Fitch famously defined historic preservation as “the curatorial management of the built world” (in a 1982 book by the same name).

In 1979, Fitch left Columbia to become director of historic preservation at the renowned architecture firm of Beyer Blinder Belle. Fitch oversaw the firm’s involvement in restoration projects such as South Street Seaport, Ellis Island, and Grand Central Terminal. He also traveled widely, lecturing on preservation around the world. He also established the preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania.

  1. “About: James Marston Fitch,” James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. Article retrieved 12 March 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. David W. Dunlap, “James Marston Fitch, 90, Architect and Preservationist,” The New York Times, 12 April, 2000.
  4. “C250 Celebrates Columbians Ahead Of Their Time: James Marston Fitch,” Columbia250. Article retrieved 12 March 2016.