Saving a Preservationist’s Legacy: Jack Taylor’s Papers
June 6, 2019 | Josie Naron, Jeffe Fellow
Jack Taylor’s legacy as a preservationist is a sterling one in New York, and for good reason. Behind both successful and failed preservation campaigns—the Ladies’ Mile and Tammany Hall in the former category, composer Antonín Dvořák’s house and Lüchow’s restaurant in the latter—Jack possessed an innate drive to preserve sites important to the City’s history. Although he was not a trained preservationist, he rapidly achieved a high degree of success. After Jack’s recent passing, the Archive Project soon discovered that he had bequeathed all of his preservation papers to NYPAP, providing an unprecedented chance to tell preservation stories while cementing Jack’s legacy as a leading New York preservationist.
We’ve all seen the photos of Jack leading tours of Ladies’ Mile with a microphone in hand and a boombox on his arm— and if you haven’t, they’re soon to be a modern classic of preservation history. But an initial exploration of Jack’s papers shows that he was an even more dedicated preservationist than we knew. He kept four decades’ worth of archival papers in his apartment in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, and they tell the story of his multifaceted work. Jack’s personal archives were his treasure during his lifetime, and now, following Jack’s death in February, the Archive Project is working to ensure that they will be valued by New York historians and the preservation-interested public as well.
As an archives student, I found diving into a slew of papers alongside Anthony C. Wood of the Archive Project and Diego Robayo of Historic Districts Council to be both a thrilling and a terrifying experience. What will an unlabeled box contain? Will the papers be of historic value…or merely envelopes of receipts to sift through? Will the materials have survived the sands (and dust) of time, or will there be nothing left but brittle shreds of lost documents?
Fortunately for us, the answer to almost all of the above questions is a positive one. It is almost unheard of to walk into a room of uncatalogued archival papers and quickly realize that almost every single paper is relevant to the topic at hand, but that is what happened to us.
In the course of sifting through Jack’s papers, we found the threads of the true extent of Jack’s involvement in the New York preservation community emerging in vivid detail. Sorting stacks upon stacks of papers into new piles based on broad themes and preservation campaigns whenever possible, we began to understand the scope of Jack’s career as a preservationist. From his foray into organizing with the Union Square Community Coalition in an attempt to save Lüchow’s and other historic buildings in the area and beyond, Jack immersed himself in preservation campaigns with a tenacity unmatched by fair-weather supporters. Years ago, Jack had donated to the Archive Project a collection of papers and ephemera related to Lüchow’s that are now housed at the NewYork Historical Society. We did not expect to find more, yet it is to Jack’s credit that this remarkable personal archive of additional materials told each preservation story in such detail that of course there were more papers remaining.
Other treasures abounded: boxes upon boxes of correspondence with supporters of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District; ephemera from virtually every Historic Districts Council event and hearing in recent memory; correspondence with sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who would eventually be commissioned to sculpt a statue of Antonín Dvořák in Stuyvesant Square; handmade posterboards of historic photos of Tammany Hall; and Ladies’ Mile destinations that Jack most likely displayed at City hearings. What is just as remarkable, particularly given that Jack’s weekly calendar was already packed with preservation meetings, is that Jack applied the same zeal for preservation in his longtime neighborhood of Gramercy Park as he did to big-name campaigns. Jack also fiercely loved Union Square and the surrounding blocks, and seemingly voiced his opinion on every restaurant development, sidewalk café, and neighborhood disco (the bar in question had a disregard for evening noise regulation, it would appear). This documentation of so many famous preservation campaigns is also a poignant reminder that an individual like Jack had the passion and sense of purpose to shape the neighborhood around him and beyond through preservation work.
Brad Vogel of the Archive Project and I needed to pack up the papers in Jack’s apartment over the course of about ten hours. Faced with a limited window of time, we had to make quick, spur-of-the-moment decisions about how to package certain fragile documents for safekeeping in transit, come up with an organizing principle to apply to 30 boxes of papers and five boxes of books, and maintain a semblance of order in making sure that no paper went unchecked. Unsurprisingly, in that span of time, we also made two trips to the store to buy about thirty-odd boxes, required multiple coffee refuels, and swept thick layers of dust off our hands and sweat off our brows before the end of the day.
After a good deal of heavy lifting, nobody on Team NYPAP needed to go to the gym that weekend! Old papers can add up to a profound weight, and most boxes we packed were upwards of 30 pounds. It took two car trips to our storage space, graciously provided to us by Merchant’s House Museum, in order to ferry all the papers from Jack’s apartment to the storage locker. Brad did the hard work of navigating through the traffic of the East Village in a car packed to the gills with boxes, while I sat with white knuckles in the front seat, hoping the 40-pound box on my lap would not slide out of my grasp. But in the end, the boxes were unloaded, labels were applied, and Jack’s papers were saved. Now, another day’s work—or perhaps six months of work—remains for processing and arranging the papers to prepare them for public access.
Many people were instrumental in making sure that the Archive Project could pull off a smooth and successful archives rescue: Pi Gardiner of the Merchant’s House Museum, Diego Robayo of the Historic Districts Council, Matt Cline and Katie Petryna for the use of their car, “Lil’ Red,” our own Anthony C. Wood (who donned a work shirt over his suit to pick up dusty boxes!), and of course, Jack’s family, who graciously allowed us to work in Jack’s apartment and honor Jack’s memory while mourning their own loss.
Listen to Jack Taylor’s 2004 oral history interview with NYPAP here.