The architect John Belle was a founding partner of Beyer Blinder Belle, a New York-based architectural firm which has spearheaded some of New York City and Washington, D.C.’s largest restoration and conservation projects.
Belle was born to Arthur and Gladys Belle on June 30, 1932 in Cardiff, Wales. Belle received a diploma from Portsmouth School of Architecture in England and obtained his AA Diploma from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1955.1 After his studies, Belle moved to the United States in 1959, where he worked with the modernist architects Josep Lluís Sert and Victor Gruen. Many of Belle’s earliest projects involved community planning projects in Manhattan. In 1968, Belle struck out on his own, along with founding partners John Beyer and Richard L. Blinder, to form the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle. Inspired by the writing of Jane Jacobs, the founders embraced a historically sensitive, preservation-oriented approach and oriented their work around the social integrity of communities and the daily life experience. 2 As Belle stated on the Beyer Blinder Belle website, “Preservation is one of the highest forms of good citizenship.”3
Throughout the course of his personal and professional endeavors, Belle became heavily involved in civic organizations, and worked on some of the most famous preservation projects in New York City, including the historically sensitive renovations of Ellis Island’s Main Building and the Grand Central Terminal. Belle was noted as an “active and hands on leader” who had a great “civic spirit,” which he displayed through his life’s work on projects at Beyer Blinder Belle.4 He also authored a book about his work on Grand Central Terminal, titled Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. Belle died in Remsenberg, New York on September 14, 2016, at the age of 84.5
Chair, Graduate Department of Urban Design
Chair, School of Architecture
American Institute of Architects
President of the New York Chapter
Commission of Fine Arts in Washington
New York Landmarks Conservancy
President Member of Conservation Advisory Council
Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners LLP
Belle was a leader in the conservation and preservation community in New York. His passion for the field and involvement in his surrounding communities led to some of the most memorable restoration projects in New York City. Belle combined his skills as an architect and as a leader in various organizations to successfully take on a wide variety of projects, from rehabilitating tenements to major landmarks such as Grand Central Station.6
Although the restoration projects that he spearheaded at Beyer Blinder Belle are Belle’s most tangible legacy on New York’s landscape, he was also noted for his intense involvement in the preservation community. Beyer Blinder Belle was formed in 1968, just three years after the passage of the New York Landmarks Law in 1965, and the spirit of the law clearly influenced Belle’s practice. In 1985, Belle joined the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and would go on to serve as a member of the board for thirty years.7 In that position, Belle engaged in several preservation campaigns that, along with his work as an architect, helped shape New York City.
In 1991, Belle was involved in opposing a contentious proposal in the New York City Council that could have adversely affected future preservation campaigns. The council was debating creating a hardship review panel that would consider religious and non-profit institutions’ petitions to be released from landmark status, allowing institutions to retain creative control over the building and avoid preservation requirements. This case emerged in the wake of the legal and preservation battle to save St. Bartholomew’s Church, in which the Church attempted to demolish the landmark-designated community house attached to the Church to make way for a 59-story commercial structure. During this struggle, the Episcopal Church attempted to claim a hardship exception and argued that its constitutional rights were violated. When this claim was denied, the Church later filed a suit against the Landmarks Commission.8 In response to the imminent threat to many of the City’s religious landmarks, Belle lobbied council members to ensure that applicants would have to produce substantial evidence for their claims.9 As a result of the lobbying efforts of Belle and other preservationists, a 1990 federal court decision ruled that religious structures should not be excluded from historic ordinances. Belle utilized similar lobbying tactics in many of his own preservation campaigns, proving to be a skillful civic leader.
Belle also was a passionate supporter of the New York Landmarks Conservancy over the course of his career, serving both as board member and board chairman at various points. His leadership in NYLC was instrumental in providing the city with a better management system to keep track of landmarks. While chairman, one of Belle’s key acts was lobbying to save the New-York Historical Society from a fiscal crisis. He approved Conservancy efforts to intervene in the situation, and personally lobbied the City for financial support. During his tenure, he also directed the Conservancy to create a citywide public buildings directory that is still in use today.10 His wide breadth of campaigns led him to be awarded the NYLC’s Preservation Leadership Award in 2012.11
However, at the heart of all this campaigning and organizational work remained an architect. Belle not only helped shape the New York City landscape through organizing other architectural and preservation organizations, but also with his own hands. Beyer Blinder Belle started working with the Manhattan Community Board No. 2 to plan the Greenwich Village waterfront, a historically unique mixed industrial/commercial/residential zone along the Hudson River. Other early projects were historically sensitive rehabilitations of tenements in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.12 From there, Belle went on to work on many prominent projects, including the restoration of Grand Central Terminal and the cleaning of the concourse ceiling, the Empire State Building lobby, and the Main Building of Ellis Island. Grand Central Terminal may be Belle’s most famous project: he acted as principal architect on the project, was applauded for his keen eye for historical context in the restoration, and affirmed Grand Central Terminal’s landmark details shortly following the Supreme Court case which upheld its landmark status. His book, Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives, chronicles the preservation movement’s fight to save Grand Central in the wake of the destruction of Penn Station, lending detail to the restoration project that became a watershed in the landmark preservation movement.13 In 1990, the $425 million plan for Grand Central was presented at a public hearing and adopted into concept by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.14 It was rededicated in October 1998 and stands as a reminder of Belle’s tireless efforts to serve the needs of both the architecture and preservation communities. Since 2000, Beyer Blinder Belle has continued to work on East Side Access, which includes the adaptive reuse of the Biltmore Room and Dining Concourse sections.15
Towards the end of his life and career, Belle continued to fight for new preservation goals as well as to maintain his past preservation victories. Because of this life’s dedication, Belle inspired the first, and only, poem to a Landmarks Conservancy chair by a fellow director. It goes as following: “His leadership inspires with energy that neither flags nor tires, supplying advice without town criers. That’s our John Belle. For the devotion in us he fires, preserving tall church spires, we hope he ne’er retires, thank you John Belle.”16
- Interview with John Belle and John Beyer by Tony Robins
- New York Preservation Archive Project
- 174 East 80th Street
- New York, NY 10075
- Tel: (212) 988-8379
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- James Marson Fitch papers, 1933-2000
- Located in the Dept. of Drawing & Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
- 1172 Amsterdam Avenue
- New York, NY 10027
- Phone: (212) 854-6199
- Email: email@example.com
- (n.b. material related to Belle appears in Series VI, Box 07, Fol. 3)
- Dunlap, David W. “An Architect Who Built His Career on Resuscitating New York Landmarks.” The New York Times, December 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/nyregion/john-belle-restoring-new-york-city-landmarks.html.
- Tony Robins, “John Belle & John Beyer,” The New York Preservation Archive Project, 2014, http://www.nypap.org/oral-history/john-belle-john-beyer/.
- “In Memorium: John Belle,” NYPAP, 3 May 2017, http://www.nypap.org/in-memoriam-john-belle/.
- “Thank You John Belle,” The New York Landmarks Conservancy, http://www.nylandmarks.org/advocacy/preservation_issues/thank_you_john_belle/.
- “”John Belle Dies at 84,” Contract Design, September 14, 2016, https://www.contractdesign.com/news/people/john-belle-dies-at-84/.
- Robins, “John Belle & John Beyer.”
- “Thank You John Belle.”
- Madeleine Randal, Comment, “Holy War: In the Name of Religious Freedom, California Exempts Churches From Historic Preservation,” Santa Clara Law Review Vol. 37, No. 1 (1996), 222, https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol37/iss1/5.
- “Thank You John Belle.”
- Robins, “John Belle & John Beyer.”
- John Belle and Maxinne Rhea Leighton, Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014).
- “History,” Grand Central Terminal, https://www.grandcentralterminal.com/history/.
- “Grand Central Terminal,” Beyer Blinder Belle, https://www.beyerblinderbelle.com/projects/124_grand_central_terminal?ss=historic_preservation.
- “Thank You John Belle.”