New York and Beyond Conservation Expert Frank Gilbert dies at 91


Conservationist Frank Gilbert, who helped save Grand Central Terminal from destruction by a 55-story skyscraper and incubated the pioneering icon law that supported New York City’s nationwide conservation movements in the mid-1960s, died at Chevy Chase on May 14. The doctor was 91 years old.

His wife, Ann Hersh Gilbert, said the cause was pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Gilbert, a lawyer who was New York City’s legislative lobbyist in Albany, had been instrumental in drafting the city’s belated barn door closure law in 1963 after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, the Beaux-Arts railroad hub designed by McKim. Mead & White on the West Side of Manhattan.

The law, passed by the City Council in 1965 and signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, declared that the city’s global position “cannot be maintained or enhanced by ignoring the city’s historical and architectural heritage and condoning the destruction of such cultural assets.” ”

created the law Landmarks Protection Commission authorized to identify buildings that are at least 30 years old and of historical or architectural value and to improve them or save them from demolition.

Mr Gilbert served as first secretary of the newly formed commission from 1965 to 1972 and then executive director until 1974. Throughout, the fate of Grand Central seemed big to him.

“I was worried because the head of the Bookmarks Commission told me – what happened to Penn Station shouldn’t have happened to Grand Central,” Mr. Gilbert said. New York Conservation Archive Project in 2011.

“I think my job from the very beginning was to make sure we followed the legal process and the banana peel didn’t slip,” he added. “I realized how serious the situation was. My primary consideration was to be really careful and prepared for a very challenging situation.”

The failed Penn Central rail company hoped to build a skyscraper above its owned Grand Central Terminal and use the rents from the offices to subsidize the company’s deficits from reduced rail travel.

However, the commission declared the terminal a landmark in 1967 and decided that all Penn Central’s proposed designs for the skyscraper would overshadow the terminal’s architectural distinction.

Penn Central has sued. Exactly nine years later, a State Supreme Court judge nullified the landmark designation, ruling that preventing the bankrupt railroad from generating revenue from its office tower would cause “economic hardship” and thus lead to the unconstitutional takeover of its property.

Mr Gilbert and other defenders of Grand Central collective support from a wide range of conservationists, including prominent architects and bold names like Jacqueline Onassis, to support her landmark appointment as the city goes to appeal in the high courts.

United States Supreme Court in 1978. approved the city’s authority to maintain a landmark. The court found that the landmark designation did not interfere with Grand Central’s use as a railroad terminal, and the company could not argue that office building construction was necessary to maintain the site’s profitability. The railroad had admitted that it could profit from the terminal “as it stands”.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority decision referred to an amicus summary penned by Mr Gilbert, who was then deputy general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. His brief noted that many cities across the country, including New Orleans, Boston, and San Antonio, have already passed landmark preservation laws modeled after the New York statute.

Paul Edmondson, chairman and CEO of the National Trust, described Mr Gilbert as a “giant in the field of conservation law”.

“Beyond his critical role in advancing and advocating New York City’s landmark conservation law,” Mr Edmondson said in a statement, “he was responsible for preserving thousands of historic properties and neighborhoods across the country through his work in helping communities improve history. counties.”

Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, an early-appointed and longest-serving member of New York’s landmark commission, said in an email about Mr Gilbert: “She has always worked to balance the complex needs of all parties – ownership, always wanting to do the right thing. owners, the public, the press, developers and conservationists.”

Frank Brandeis Gilbert was born on December 3, 1930, in Manhattan, to Jacob Gilbert and Susan Brandeis Gilbert, both lawyers. His mother was the daughter of United States Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis.

After graduating from the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, Mr. Gilbert earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard College in 1952, served in the Army from 1953 to 1955, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1957. .

He was the graduate board chairman of the student newspaper Harvard Crimson from 1973 to 1993. Earlier this month, she was among the Crimson alumni. signed a letter denouncing the newspaper’s editorial endorsement of the “Boycott, Secession, Sanctions” movement against Israel in the name of what it calls a free Palestine.

“The BDS movement claims to seek ‘justice for the Palestinians,’ a goal we share, but actually seeks the elimination of Israel,” the letter said.

In 1957, Mr. Gilbert joined the legal department of the Housing Development Administration in Washington, and two years later went to work in New York’s city planning department. He married Ann Hersh in 1973.

From 1975 to 1984, Mr. Gilbert was the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s chief landmark and conservation law advisor, and served as the foundation’s senior field representative until 2010.

He advised state and local governments on conservation legislation and the identification and installation of certain landmarks. historical districtsAs New York City has created in SoHo, Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village and Chelsea.

Mr Gilbert recalled In the Archive Project interview, The Herald Tribune’s headline was “Twenty Buildings Saved!” when the rookie commission officially selected their first group icon. Announced.

“My reaction at that point,” he said, “was 20 buildings identified,” and we had a lot of work to do on those 20 buildings before they were rescued.”

The then-approaching decade-long legal battle over Grand Central and the real estate industry and individual developers proved farsighted by the commission’s powers to expand its powers to designate the interiors of buildings and entire neighborhoods as landmarks.

By the commission’s 50th anniversary in 2015, it had identified 1,348 individual landmarks, 117 interiors and 33,411 properties in 21 historic sites.


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