Beverly Moss Spatt (1924-2023) was a leading figure in New York City planning and preservation for over fifty years. She grew up in Brooklyn where she helped form that borough’s first reform Democratic club. She served on the City Planning Commission from 1966-1970 and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1974-1982. She served as the Landmarks Commission’s Chair from 1974-1978, the first woman to hold that position. Today we look at some of the important sites throughout the city and our neighborhoods that were landmarked during her tenure leading the agency.
On April 16, 1974, Central Park was designated the City’s first scenic landmark, due to its “special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.” Scenic landmarks are very rare, and only ten more have been designated since Central Park (out of close to 40,000 properties that are landmarked throughout NYC as of 2023).
New York Public Library Interior, 476 Fifth Avenue
Another first took place on November 12, 1974, when the interior of the main branch of the New York Public Library (now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) was designated a landmark. Interior landmarks remain quite rare, with only 126 designated throughout the city.
The designation extended to the main lobby, the north and south staircases from the first floor to the third floor, and the central hall on the third floor. This followed the landmark designation of the building’s exterior in 1967 and predates the 2017 interior landmark designation of the Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Catalog Room.
Grace Church Townhouses, 94-96 4th Avenue
Landmarked on February 22, 1977, these townhouses were redesigned in 1882-83 by James Renwick Jr. to match the Gothic style of the Church. These buildings were on the chopping block and threatened with demolition in 1974. A group of concerned preservationists formed the Joint Emergency Committee to Save Grace Church Houses and implored the LPC to designate the buildings as landmarks. Led by Professor James Marston Fitch of Columbia University, a lawsuit was filed to prevent the demolition of the buildings. The suit was settled via stipulation and the buildings were then designated as landmarks. The buildings remain a beautiful, contextual, and beloved part of Grace Church School. Read more about the historic landmarked Grace Church here.
First Houses, Avenue A between Second and Third Streets
Three more firsts all in one! The First Houses was the first housing project undertaken by the then-recently established New York City Housing Authority in 1935. They were the first publicly-funded low-income housing project in the nation. And they became the first public housing complex to be designated a NYC landmark when they were designated on November 12, 1974.
First Houses inaugurated the era of Urban Renewal—the decades when the United States saw the construction of more than one million units of subsidized housing, while also bulldozing and demolishing enormous amounts of existing housing and industry, as well as parks and entire communities — usually lower income communities and often communities of color. But First Houses is in many ways the exception that proved the rule that this “slash and burn” approach to helping our city’s is generally not the best approach. Instead of broad demolition, for First Houses a much more surgical approach was taken — only every third tenement was demolished to give the remaining two more light and air, and those that were preserved were upgraded and improved. The result? A development which provided high quality (for the time) affordable housing while maintaining the character of the neighborhood, with minimum displacement and demolition.
These four important landmark designations are just a few of the dozens that took place under the leadership of Beverly Moss Spatt, and we will be exploring more. Until then, click here to read more about Beverly Moss Spatt’s life and her time on the LPC, and read and listen to her full oral history here.