Doris Diether Oral History: Activist and Zoning Maven
Occasionally referred to as the “Grand Dame of Washington Square Park,” Doris Diether (January 10, 1929 — September 16, 2021) was a critical figure in the early preservation battles of Greenwich Village. Doris was a dedicated member and the eventual head of the Zoning Committee for Community Board 2. Additionally, she was an early member of the Save the Village, known for fighting the destructive efforts of developers at the time and advocating for the landmarks law we know today.
In 1996, we conducted our oral history interview with Doris Diether. The transcript covers the early stages of her civic involvement with Save the Village to her ongoing (at the time) role at Community Board 2.
Doris got her start in civic life in 1959 when Robert Moses had designed a plan to phase out the free, ongoing event of Shakespeare in the Park with a new, ticketed event at the Wollman Rink. When Doris read this news in her local paper, she decided to head to City Hall and take on the planned injustice herself. Following her speech at City Hall, Diether became involved heavily in ‘Save the Village,’which at the time only consisted of a few folks from the neighborhood.
In her Village Preservation oral history, Diether remembers the origins of the Save the Village campaign well, beginning with the eviction case of Arnold Bergier. Arnold had been a long-time resident of a small carriage house at 131 West 10th Street and was in the midst of battling against developers. After connecting with Alan Marcus, the two initiated the Save the Village group with the intention to start taking on large developers and promoting aesthetic zoning laws. The group consisted of neighborhood figures like Robert C. Weinberg, Arthur Cort Holden, and Whitney North Seymour. When Doris joined the group, she was immediately put in charge of “handling the press and handling tenants’ problems,” beginning what would eventually become a storied career in preservation and advocacy for decades to come.
Published by The Villager, the group shared its goal of pressuring Mayor Wagner to utilize the Bard Act of 1956 to create a Landmarks Preservation Commission with teeth, that could actually save buildings in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. The group grew in size after this announcement in September 1959, later collaborating with other coalitions in the neighborhood. In our 1996 interview, Doris recalled the four-point plan that the Save the Village campaign had in mind, ranging from tenant protections to preservation. Yet, she recalls the initial importance of one point: zoning.
The importance of zoning was gaining traction when the Save the Village campaign was formed. In 1956, James Felt, (who would eventually develop the Zoning Resolution of 1961), became the Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission. By 1960, Doris also began her work in zoning law when she became the informal “spokesman of zoning” for Save the Village. Acting as a liaison between the group’s earliest members, she gained valuable expertise in one of the most critical realms of preservation work.
Her experience in zoning eventually contributed to a significant victory for the Save the Village campaign. In 1960, founder Arnold Bergier began his correspondence with Mayor Wagner regarding the Bard Act. Without certain elements of zoning, like those controlling the height and bulk of buildings, the Bard Act still allowed for uncharacteristic developments. Even more, the city would not implement the ordinances of the act, leaving neighborhoods like Greenwich Village vulnerable to much of the same harm that existed prior to 1956.
With Felt’s successful passage of the Zoning Resolution of 1961, new protections were put in place regarding the bulk and configuration of new buildings in the Village. However, Village streets would not see these protections for another year. In light of this delay, and in a race against developers, Doris Diether, Robert C. Weinberg, and Save the Village, alongside other committees, came together to draft the amendment that would play a large part in protecting the neighborhood until the Landmarks Law of 1965.
Years later, Doris Diether would begin a decades-long tenure at Community Board 2, becoming their longest-serving member. Her passing in September of 2021 was marked by countless publications throughout New York City and the Village due to her everlasting impact on our community.
Explore the full transcript of our oral history with Doris Diether, and learn more about the Save the Village campaign at the New York Preservation Archive Project. We’ve also written about the women of early preservation battles here.