Frank Gilbert, curator in New York and beyond, dies at 91


Frank Gilbert, a curator who helped save Grand Central Terminal from being devastated by a 55-story skyscraper and in the mid-1960s incubated the pioneering New York Landmarks Act, which underpinned the movements of preservation across the country, died May 14 in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 91 years old.

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

Mr. Gilbert, a lawyer who had been the New York City legislative lobbyist in Albany, had been instrumental in drafting the barn door late closing law after the 1963 demolition of the train station of Pennsylvania, the McKim, Mead & White-designed Beaux-Arts Railroad Center on Manhattan’s West Side.

The legislation, passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1965, stated that the city’s worldwide reputation “cannot be maintained or enhanced by ignoring the city’s historical and architectural heritage and encouraging destruction.” of these cultural assets. .”

The law established the Monuments Preservation Commission and empowered it to designate buildings that are at least 30 years old and of historical or architectural value, and spare them from development or demolition.

Mr. Gilbert served as first secretary of the newly created commission from 1965 to 1972, then executive director until 1974. Throughout, the fate of Grand Central hung heavy on him.

“I was worried because the chairman of the landmarks commission told me that what happened at Penn Station shouldn’t happen at Grand Central,” Gilbert recalled in an interview with the New York Preservation Archive Project. in 2011.

“I guess from the start my job was really to make sure we followed due process and didn’t slip on a banana peel,” he added. “I recognized the seriousness of the situation. My main thought was really to be very careful and be prepared for a very difficult situation.

The bankrupt Penn Central railroad company hoped to build a skyscraper above Grand Central Terminal, which it owned, and use office rents to subsidize the company’s deficits from a drop in rail travel. train.

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

Penn Central sued. Nine years later, a state Supreme Court judge overturned the landmarks’ designation, ruling that preventing the bankrupt railroad from earning the revenue it would receive from the office tower would cause ” economic hardship” and therefore amounted to an unconstitutional taking of his property.

Mr. Gilbert and other Grand Central advocates have rallied support from a wide range of conservationists, including prominent architects and bold names like Jacqueline Onassis, to maintain the historic designation as the city was pursuing appeals in higher courts.

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court upheld the city’s authority to preserve a landmark. The court found that the historic designation did not interfere with Grand Central’s use as a railroad terminal and that the company could not claim that construction of the office building was necessary to maintain the site’s profitability. The railway had conceded that it could make a profit from the terminal “as it stands”.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision cited an amicus brief written by Mr. Gilbert, who was then assistant general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. His memoir pointed out that dozens of cities across the country, including New Orleans, Boston and San Antonio, have already passed landmark preservation laws modeled after New York’s statute.

Paul Edmondson, chairman and chief executive of the National Trust, called Mr Gilbert “a giant in the field of preservation law”.

“Beyond his pivotal role in crafting and advocating for New York City Landmarks Preservation Law,” Mr. Edmondson said in a statement, “he was responsible for the protection of thousands of historic properties and neighborhoods across the country through its work to help communities develop historic neighborhoods.”

Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, one of the first appointees to the New York Landmarks Commission and its longest-serving member, said of Mr Gilbert in an email: ‘Always wanting to do the right thing he worked to balance the complex needs of all parties – property owners, the public, the press, developers and curators.

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 military from 1953 to 1955, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1957.

From 1973 to 1993, he served as chairman of the board of directors of Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Earlier this month, he was among Crimson alumni who signed a letter supporting Harvard’s Jewish community and condemning the newspaper’s editorial endorsement of the so-called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel on behalf of this which he calls a free Palestine.

“The BDS movement claims to seek ‘justice for the Palestinians’ – a goal we share – but, in fact, it seeks to eliminate Israel,” the letter reads.

Mr. Gilbert joined the legal division of the Public Housing Administration in Washington in 1957 and went to work for the New York City Planning Department two years later. He married Ann Hersh in 1973. She is his only immediate survivor.

From 1975 to 1984, Mr. Gilbert was the Chief Monuments and Preservation Lawyer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He served as the trust’s senior field representative until 2010.

He advised state and local governments on preservation legislation and on matters concerning the designation of specific landmarks and the establishment of historic districts, such as those New York had created in SoHo, Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village and Chelsea.

Mr. Gilbert recalled in the Archive Project interview that when the fledgling commission officially selected its first batch of landmarks, the New York Herald Tribune headline said, “Twenty Buildings Saved!

“My reaction at that time,” he said, “was ’20 buildings designated,’ and we had a lot of work to do on those 20 buildings before they were saved.”

It was proven prescient by the decade-long legal battle then approaching Grand Central and disputes with the real estate industry and with individual developers over the extension of the commission’s powers to designate as landmarks the inside buildings and entire neighborhoods.

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


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