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Selma Rattner

Selma Rattner

Selma Rattner was an architectural historian best known for her expertise on the American architect James Renwick, Jr. and preservation advocate whose efforts led to the preservation of several Renwick structures.

People: James Renwick, Jr.
Organizations: Society of Architectural Historians, Victorian Society in America
Places: Church of All Saints, City Hospital, Grace Church, Parish of Calvary – St. George’s, Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Above: Selma Rattner, pictured in the Sarah Lawrence yearbook.

Selma Rattner was an architectural historian and preservation advocate. Rattner was born Selma Ann Silberman in New York City on June 5, 1929 to Austrian immigrants.1 Her father, Israel Silberman, founded and chaired the successful Paragon Paint and Varnish Corporation that Rattner herself later ran in the 1990s.2 Rattner grew up in the City and later attended Sarah Lawrence College.3 She graduated in 1950 with a degree in economics and literature.4 While in college she married George Rattner, a playwright who would also run her family’s paint business for 40 years.5 After having three children Rattner returned to graduate studies at Columbia University and in 1977 she received a Master of Science in Historic Preservation.6 Her thesis focused on James Renwick, Jr.’s design for Grace Church in New York City.7 This interest in James Renwick, Jr. continued throughout Rattner’s life and drove her advocacy efforts to preserve his works.8 Rattner also accumulated a large body of primary and secondary source research on Renwick which now comprises the Selma Rattner Research Papers on James Renwick, 1856-2001, archived at Columbia’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.9 In 2005, Rattner died at the age of 75.10

Society of Architectural Historians (New York Chapter)11
Vice President, 1974-1976
Preservation Officer, 1976-1979

Victorian Society in America12
Vice President: 1970-1980, 1986-1988
Director, 1980-1989

Paragon Paint & Varnish Corp.
CEO and President, 1990-1998

An astute preservationist even before receiving her official degree, by the 1970’s Selma Rattner was giving historic tours of lower Manhattan and was planning to write a book on James Renwick, Jr.13 The book never came to fruition but Rattner penned the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects entry on James Renwick, Jr. which still functions as an essential reference on the architect.14

Beyond research, Rattner composed travel and architecture oriented pieces for the New York Times. Topics ranged from small historic hamlets in Ontario, Canada to Colonial German architecture in Maryland.15

Her writing and research also gave gravitas to her role as a preservation advocate, especially when working to save known and lesser known works by James Renwick, Jr. In 1974, she led the effort to stop the demolition of Renwick’s Grace Church Houses.16 Here, she was the chairman of the joint emergency committee and advocated against the destruction at public hearings.17 In 1984, she spoke out against the slated demolition of the S. Klein store façade whose destruction would pave the way for the planned Union Square revitalization.18 The façade was previously unknown as a work by Renwick until Rattner proved its provenance. In 1986, she lent her expertise to articles describing the potential demolition of another one of Renwick’s works – the City Hospital on Roosevelt Island, NY.19

Rattner also took on leadership roles in prominent preservation organizations. She served as Vice President of both the Victorian Society in America as well as the New York Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.20 She further engaged with the preservation community through teaching as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the New York School of Interior Design.21

In 2011, six years after her death, Rattner’s research papers were discovered at the abandoned Paragon Paint and Varnish Corporation office in Long Island City. The papers were saved and now comprise the Selma Rattner Research Papers on James Renwick at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.22 The collection spans both primary and secondary sources on the architect including research on Grace Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian and numerous unofficially unidentified works.23 Further, the collection extends beyond Renwick’s works and includes Rattner’s research on institutional architecture in New York City along with Rattner’s sketches, landmark nomination forms, correspondence, and other work products.24 This showcases the depth and breadth of decades of research by Rattner, carrying on her legacy as an educator and advocate for historic preservation.

  1. Ancestry.com. “1940 United States Federal Census for Selma Silberman.” Accessed 15 September 2020.
  2. Ancestry.com. “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999 for Selma Silberman Rattner.” Accessed 15 September 2020.
  3. “Chapters.” Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians XVII, no.1 (February 1974): 7 https://www.sah.org/docs/default-source/newsletter-archive-pre-2012/feb1974-vol-18-no-1.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
  4. “Chapters.” Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians XXI, no.1 (February 1977): 2. https://www.sah.org/docs/default-source/newsletter-archive-pre-2012/feb1974-vol-18-no-1.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
  5. Churcher, Sharon and Mary Murphy. “S. Klein’s Pedigree’ Could Stall Union Square Plan.” New York Magazine. 2 April 1984.
  6. Columbia University. “Selma Rattner Research Papers on James Renwick.” Accessed 20 September 2020. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/archival/collections/ldpd_6229570/.
  7. Columbia University. “Selma Rattner Research papers on James Renwick, 1856-2001, bulk 1960s-2001: Online Finding Aid.” Accessed 20 September 2020. https://findingaids.library.columbia.edu/ead/nnc-a/ldpd_6229570.
  8. Dunlap, David. “Historic Roosevelt I. Building Faces Demolition as a Hazard.” New York Times. 14 July 1986.
  9. Feiden, Douglas. “Erudite Paint Manufacturer is Trying to Cover the Earth.” Crain’s New York Business 8, no.20 (18 May 1992): 1.
  10. Goldberger, Paul. “Meeting Planned on Grace Church: Landmarks-Unit Parley Set on Fourth Avenue Houses.” New York Times, 23 March 1974.
  11. “G.S. Rattner, Paint Maker and Writer, Dies at 82.” New York Times. 17 December 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/17/nyregion/g-s-rattner-paint-maker-and-writer-dies-at-82.html?mcubz=3.
  12. “Israel Silberman.” New York Times, 26 March 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/26/archives/israel-silberman.html.
  13. http://www.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/4584saint_nicholas_of_myrareport.pdf.
  14. Maddex, Diane, ed. Master Builders: a Guide to Famous American Architects. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1985.
  15. “Marriage Announcement 2 – No Title.” New York Times, 4 September 1949.
  16. Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America. “Metropolitan Chapter Officers and Directors 1967-2017.” Accessed 25 September 2020, https://vicsocny.org/metropolitan-chapter-officers-and-directors-1967-2011/.
  17. New York Preservation Archive Project. “Selma Rattner Papers Saved!” 14 May 2011. https://www.nypap.org/selma-rattner-papers-saved/.
  18. “Paid Notice: Deaths RATTNER, SELMA: [Paid Death Notice],” New York Times, 16 January 2005,
  19. Rattner, Selma. “Renwick’s design for Grace Church: religious doctrine and the Gothic revival.” Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1977.
  20. Rattner, Selma. “Renwick, James, Jr.” in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, edited by Adolf K. Placzek, Vol. 3, 541-548. New York: The Free Press, 1982.
  21. Rattner, Selma. “Union Sq. Beauty.” New York Times. 18 September 1983.
  22. Rattner, Selma. “A Niagara of Serenity in Ontario.” New York Times. 19 June 1988.
  23. Rattner, Selma. “A Masterpiece in Maryland.” New York Times. 5 November 1989.
  24. Reif, Rita. “Learning to ‘Look Up, Not Down,’ as They Walk.” New York Times. 29 March 1973.
  25. Sanchis, Frank. “Frank Sanchis, Session 1.” Interview by Sarah Dziedzic. New York Preservation Archive Project, 8 October 2012. Transcript. https://www.nypap.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Sanchis_Frank_2012.pdf.