In 1975, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis brought to the Municipal Art Society her commitment to the splendors of New York City—and sparked an unforgettable collaboration for which every preservation-minded New Yorker has been grateful ever since.
As First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, she had already established herself as an advocate for historic preservation when, during her pre-inauguration tour of the White House, she saw that the interiors and furnishings had little connection to the building’s historic past. Moving quickly, she established a fine arts committee to oversee and fund the restoration process. Later she turned her energies toward stopping plans to demolish the 19th century homes of Lafayette Square — buildings that played an important role in the capital city’s history.
But it was in New York, in the 1970s, that Mrs. Onassis used her stature and influence to bring national attention to the most important preservation battle of its time: the campaign to save Grand Central Terminal.
Shabby, cluttered and dark, Grand Central was in dire financial condition and had seen physical decline since the 1950s. In 1969, the station’s owner, Penn Central Railroad, alighted on the plan to build an office building (designed by architect Marcel Breuer) above and across the entire south portion of the Terminal, effectively obliterating it. Faced with the prospect that the city would repeat the crime of permitting the destruction of one of its great edifices — the 53-year-old Pennsylvania Station had been torn down in 1963 — Municipal Art Society immediately recognized the threat to New York City’s Landmarks Law, which it had fought hard to establish in 1965.
MAS marshaled its forces to ensure that the Landmarks Commission rejected Penn Central’s proposal. But when, in February 1975, the New York State Supreme Court decided in favor of Penn Central and overturned Grand Central’s landmark status, it was clear to MAS that a broader, more public campaign would be necessary to save the station.
Perhaps the greatest boost to the MAS cause was the phone call which came into Executive Director Kent Barwick’s office the day after Judge Irving Saypol’s decision. Jacqueline Onassis had read Paul Goldberger’s coverage of the decision in The New York Times and asked how she could help. For the impending battle, the MAS suddenly had a general, who would popularize preservation, garner press coverage for the campaign among national and international press and enlist an army that could win the war.
With Mrs. Onassis in the lead, the MAS formed the Committee to Save Grand Central Station with former mayor Robert Wagner as chair, and including such luminaries as Philip Johnson, Brendan Gill, Doris Freedman and Fred Papert. “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future,” said Mrs. Onassis at the press conference announcing the Committee, held appropriately at the Terminal’s Oyster Bar. The group then traveled by train, dubbed the “Landmark Express,” to Washington D.C., in order to call attention to the Supreme Court hearing.
Mrs. Onassis, now an MAS board member, put a charismatic public face on an intensive MAS effort involving many behind-the-scenes strategic actions, and she knew her role. She sent a personally hand-written letter to Mayor Abe Beame, successfully convincing him to file an appeal with the State, and when photographers flocked to her, she waved away those who wanted to shield her from them. “She was an astute politician, and a real advocate,” Mr. Barwick has recalled. “As opposed to guarding her time, she really wanted to help. She understood the power of her presence and was very shrewd. She was a good sport, with writing skills, political savvy, and an instinct for people.”
After an arduous campaign to save America’s beloved and historic railroad station, Mrs. Onassis, MAS, and all of New York were rewarded with a triumphant outcome. The New York City Landmarks Law, appealed by the Penn Central railroad all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court was upheld, saving Grand Central Terminal and setting a precedent for historic preservation throughout the nation.
A few years later, in 1982, Lever House — Gordon Bunshaft’s modern masterpiece on Park Avenue at East 51st Street — was threatened with destruction. The building was seen as too small, and its owners planned to demolish it and replace it with a larger tower. However, the design and preservation communities rallied; its loss would have surrendered the ideals of restraint that are the hallmark of its Modernist design. Its landmark status rested with an evenly split New York City Board of Estimate, and a deciding vote held by the City Comptroller, Jay Goldin.
At the time, Mrs. Onassis was aware that Mr. Goldin wanted a photograph of himself with her, and in it Mrs. Onassis saw a potential political lever. After Mrs. Onassis and fellow MAS board member Fred Papert met with Mr. Goldin at City Hall, the paparazzi swarmed as she and Mr. Goldin emerged onto the steps. She turned to Mr. Goldin and planted a kiss on his cheek, for all to see. The photo ran in all the tabloids the next day; one with the headline “The Kiss that Saved Lever House.” Mr. Goldin voted to save the building; MAS and Mrs. Onassis were again triumphant.
Mrs. Onassis waved the preservation banner again in 1984 when the Interfaith Coalition Against the Landmarking of Religious properties lobbied in support of the Flynn-Walsh bill. The legislation sought to exempt religious properties from landmark status, of particular relevance to the ongoing battle at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue where the congregation hoped to replace their community house with a 59-story office building. Mrs. Onassis agreed to attend a public hearing in Albany, and her presence was a giant magnet pulling the public. Departing from Grand Central on the second “Landmark Express,” she reversed her own decision not to testify. Not only did she testify at the hearing, the seemingly tireless Mrs. Onassis visited Governor Mario Cuomo and a string of legislative offices. One after another, state lawmakers had their picture taken with her. The Flynn-Walsh bill was roundly defeated and eventually, St. Bart’s lost its hardship case.
Mrs. Onassis also lent her support to the issue of the redevelopment of 42nd Street, and in the 1980s she was again standing with MAS in a new protest over the plan to erect a gargantuan new building at Columbus Circle. At the MAS meeting on this issue at her apartment, Mr. Barwick has recalled, “she crystalized things.” Standing looking out the window, she said: “They’re stealing our sky.” Because the new building would have thrown an oppressive shadow across Central Park, the proposal was defeated.
In 1994, the year of her passing, MAS created the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal in honor of her passionate efforts to preserve great architecture. The Municipal Art Society is proud to bestow this annual award upon individuals and organizations that have made an extraordinary impact on the quality of New York’s built environment, as she did, out of a dedication to a more glorious New York City.