Preservation’s “Dr. Watson” To Be Honored At Bard Breakfast Christabel Gough’s Forty Years on the Front Lines
December 1, 2022
By Adrian Untermyer
The Archive Project’s twentieth Bard Birthday Breakfast Benefit will feature an honoree who has done much for historic preservation. However, she has also done a great deal of work to document the story of the preservation movement in New York City.
Preservationist Christabel Gough’s four decades as what New York magazine dubbed the “quietest influence in New York” began—quite literally—with a big bang.
In the darkness of a Greenwich Village morning decades ago near Gough’s home on Christopher Street, her neighbors, Ron Kopnicki and Matt McGhee, heard a “sickening crash” just as the bell tolled three.
An architectural crime was afoot. The victim, in this instance, was the former Behlen Paint Company’s distinctive façade. And the perpetrator—the structure’s new owner, a man known to history only as “Mr. Oros”—had plowed a station wagon directly into his building in an attempt to avoid designation by New York City’s nascent Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
Oros was “a man of action,” recalled Gough in her 2021 New York Preservation Archive Project Oral History with your correspondent. But as the Oroses of the world would soon learn, Christabel Gough was poised to become a potent, persistent force on the preservation scene in the decades to come.
Mobilized by that “sickening crash” in those early-morning hours, Gough teamed up with Kopnicki and McGhee to found The Society for the Architecture of the City. The group’s mission was to protect New York’s vanishing architectural heritage by reviewing every proposal before the LPC, offering testimony on nearly every item, and influencing individual commissioners using the group’s well-read publication, Village Views. And, as subsequent architectural crimes came across her blotter, Gough responded rapidly with resources, connections, and an unstoppable dynamism belied by her quiet voice and diminutive stature.
“[W]hat I like to say,” offered Gough in her Oral History, “is that I’m Dr. Watson. Ron is Sherlock Holmes. And Matt is Mycroft.”
Yet other co-conspirators find military analogies more apt. As Gough’s collaborator and protégé, Save Harlem Now’s co-founder Michael Henry Adams, explains, “Christabel is a commander-in-chief, perfectly and carefully arming her troops, but unafraid to ride her horse on the front lines for all to see.”
Although Adams concedes that Gough does not “lie in front of doorways”—or chain herself to the LPC in protest, as Adams once did—”what she does is far better than that.” Indeed, Adams believes that, “without her encouragement, I doubt some things I did would have seemed prudent to worry about.”
Adams points to Gough’s support for preservationists of color as an example of her battlefield acumen. Instead of paying “mere lip service to equity” in a city where preservation is often viewed “not only as elitist, but racist,” Adams recalls battles like the Addisleigh Park designation, where Gough assisted with research, lobbied the LPC, and convinced Adams that what he viewed as a “hideously hopeless cause was not one.”
The fight to preserve the history of preservation itself is another one of Gough’s forty-year preoccupations. Rather than consign her books, papers, and personal property to the curb when vacating her Christopher Street command center, Gough invited young preservationists inside to claim objects meant to inspire and inform their burgeoning generation. And today, Gough is working with the Archive Project to explore the prospect of digitizing the Village Views archives and preserving her personal papers for posterity. The publication’s many issues document a trove of preservation history, ranging from grassroots activism to legal developments at LPC.
There were larger battles too, like Gough’s behind-the-scenes efforts to extinguish New York’s notorious Board of Estimate via the Supreme Court of the United States, or her work protecting the Landmarks Law from illegal or immoral changes pushed by the developer class. Even unsuccessful skirmishes, such as the Save America’s Clocks litigation in the 2010s, set the agenda for future reforms and inspired an army of local advocates, even in defeat.
It was for these reasons, and so many, many others, that the Historic Districts Council bestowed upon Gough its first-ever Landmarks Lion—nicknamed “Primo” by its recipient—in 1990. And Gough’s work to preserve preservation’s story, in particular, is why the Archive Project has chosen to honor Gough with this year’s Preservation Award at the upcoming Bard Birthday Breakfast Benefit on December 8th. Christine Cipriani, who is writing a book on another influential woman in preservation, Ada Louise Huxtable, will present at the Breakfast on how archives have helped in crafting the biography.
So, with guests set to raise a glass to Gough’s lifetime of accomplishment soon, and with a wealth of grateful disciples now implementing her lessons throughout the five boroughs and beyond, the Archive Project salutes preservation’s quiet, persistent “Dr. Watson”—and the “elementary” example she has set for today’s preservation historians, and for the advocates of tomorrow.
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For further information about Christabel Gough, and to read her 2021 oral history with author Adrian Untermyer, please visit www.nypap.org.