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Preserving the Past is Female!

Historic Preservation is a field where we seek to preserve communities and history through the built environment. The field requires knowledge of architecture, planning, law, and culture, among other areas. With such a multitude of skills required, no wonder it attracted so many prominent women like First Ladies Jackie Onassis and Lady Bird Johnson. In addition to the women of the White House who had an attraction to preserving American history, in New York City we had female preservationists who made huge contributions to the field and success of historic preservation. These women created guides to understand the architecture, protested creatively to save our buildings, and paved the way for women at the helm of city commissions. 

(left) First Lady Jackie Onassis Kennedy, who is widely regarded for her role in saving Grand Central Terminal, and (right) First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson who advocated for civic beautification and historic preservation.

Greenwich Village is blessed with many remarkable female preservationists who not only advanced the cause of historic preservation but quite tangibly helped save our neighborhoods. And Village Preservation is blessed to have archival material and exclusive oral history interviews with many of them.

Evelyn G. Haynes was a preservationist who became a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in its early days who, along with her family, donated her archives to Village Preservation as well as a photo collection. Before her time on the LPC, Haynes worked for vogue in the 1930s through to the mid-1950s. In the 1960s, Haynes began curating a collection of drawings, photographs, sketches, and building descriptions for Greenwich Village, the (future) Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District, and Lower Manhattan. Her work specifically focused on Federal and Greek Revival row houses and architecture in this era. 

45-53 Charlton Street, part of the Evelyn G. Haynes image collection, ca. 1899

Haynes’ also completed A Builders’ Guide To the Restoration of The Old Row Houses of New York City. Linked above is the manuscript to the book, which details the proper treatment of Greek Revival and Federal-style rowhouses. The resources Haynes created are crucial as they are still referenced 60 years later. As parts of the areas she surveyed weren’t landmarked for some years after the completion of the report (Greenwich Village in1969, the Greenwich Village Extension I/Far West Village in 2006, and Greenwich Village Extension II/South Village in 2010), the guides serve as primary source references completed by a talented and dedicated preservationist. 

Doris Diether, whom we lost in 2021, was a longtime preservationist and self-styled “zoning maven” who was a long-serving member of Community Board 2 and helped found Save the Village. Doris Diether donated a historic photo collection to Village Preservation, and explained the organization’s four-point program in her Village Preservation Oral History. These included changing the rent laws, zoning laws, and historic preservation. Diether explained that changing the rent laws to protect the tenants was imperative so landlords couldn’t just throw them out. Next, she explained one of the key elements to a historic district, at that time, was amending the zoning laws. 

Doris Diether with a pig on a leash at “Pig Picket”, 1960, Associated Press

In her oral history, Diether explained perhaps one of her most famous moments pictured above. While protesting for zoning reform, Diether was holding a pig. She explained that since the public didn’t typically sit down to read an article about zoning, you had to do something to grab their attention, and a pig did just that. She said Save The Village was one of the first to use an animal for attention, making it to papers as far afield as Utah, and soon she saw another group using different animals, even one using a duck. Work like Doris Deither’s was imperative because she and Save The Village were doing their work prior to the implementation in 1965 of landmark regulations, using zoning regulations to protect neighborhoods like Greenwich Village from loss of character and historic buildings and out-of-scale development. This is knowledge she brought with her to community board 2 and the planning and preservation for the next 60 years. 

Marionette of Doris Diether in Washington Square Park, by The Dusty Rebel

Beverly Moss Spatt, a leading preservationist for over fifty years, discusses in her Village Preservation oral history how she earned the title of “maverick” for her leadership on the City Planning Commission, her time on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and her work in the preservation community. When Spatt was appointed as the first female chair of the City Planning Commission by Mayor Wagner in 1966, the New York Times also called her a “maverick.” She earned this title because she frequently opposed previous positions of the Commission and often sided with the public and communities. During her time on the Commission (1966-70), she instituted a Master Plan which included a rezoning in the East Village after she accused the City of “selling” zoning there.  

“New City Planner; Beverly Moss Spatt” from the New York Times, August 19, 1965

After her time on the City Planning Commission, Spatt was appointed as the first female Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1974 by Mayor Abraham Beame — a position she held until 1978. During her time at LPC, Spatt also made drastic changes to the norm on the commission. There, she instituted an open-door policy. In her oral history, she explained that previously the commission was closed, but during her time, the public could talk to her as the chair, to the preservation department, and to the designation department, Spatt said: “people were allowed to walk into my commission….” While at LPC Spatt was also heavily involved in saving Grand Central Terminal. Her work at LPC and the City Planning Commission was pivotal in creating a space for women in City government and know advancing the causes of historic preservation and sound planning that engaged local communities and their public.

In her Oral History, Spatt highlights her role in Grand Central

Evelyn G. Haynes, Doris Diether, and Beverly Moss Spatt opened the field of historic preservation for women, made the field more accessible for the public, and created guides that still help professionals in reconstructing and preserving the historic building in the city. These women dedicated their professional careers and lives to preserving the history of New York, and in doing so, they became part of New York’s history. They are, however, not the only female preservationists who moved us forward. Click here to access all our oral histories with notable preservationists, by far the majority of whom are women.

At 10th St and Greenwich Ave, demolishers dismantle a former sculptor’s studio, the facade of which is painted with the slogans ‘Save the Village’ and ‘Wake Up Mr. Mayor!’ New York, New York, May 16, 1960. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

You can also head to our Homes of Preservationists Tour on our Greenwich Village Historic District Map to learn more about the great women (and a few men) who helped preserve and protect Greenwich Village.

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