History

Celebrating 125 years of advocacy on behalf of New York and New Yorkers.

1893

The Municipal Art Society Is Founded

The Municipal Art Society (MAS) is established on March 22, 1893, by Richard Morris Hunt and other civic activists, with a founding mission to beautify New York with public art. Throughout its first century, the organization expanded its mission to include the city’s buildings, streetscapes, and public spaces, with the aim of bringing the voice of the public into the debates that impact the lives of New Yorkers.

Municipal Arts Society Medal
1901

Calling for Isles of Safety

With automobile use on the rise, MAS convinces the City to create a pedestrian traffic island, a so-called isle of safety, at the dangerous intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 23rd Street. In the following year, the City created several such isles of safety at various intersections along busy Broadway.

illustration of early 20th century traffic islands in New York City
1902

“Block Beautiful” Is Born

Inspired by the broader City Beautiful movement, MAS launches New York’s first major tree-planting campaign, dubbed the “Block Beautiful” movement.

Cover of Block Beautiful booklet
1903

Advocating for a Consolidated Transportation System

MAS starts to advocate for a citywide passenger transportation plan and subway system.

Vintage transit map for New York City

MAS Library Founded

Established more than a century ago, MAS’s library is devoted to the complex ecology of cities, urban culture, and the natural and built environment. Now named the Greenacre Reference Library, our collections contain thousands of books, reports, publications, and historical ephemera.

1908

MAS Advocates for Public Housing

As New York City’s population burgeons, MAS advocates for the construction of public housing, increased services for poor residents, and more public bathhouses.

1916

Establishing the Zoning Resolution of 1916

Following years of advocacy by MAS, political reformers win approval of the Zoning Resolution of 1916, the first citywide zoning code in the country.

1920

Defeating Proposals to Extend the Subway into Central Park

MAS helps defeat proposals by Mayor John Hylan to build the IND subway through Central Park.

1922

Reforming Outdoor Advertising

MAS campaigns to place restrictions on outdoor advertising and require that major billboards be subject to a City tax.

Vintage advertisements on wall
1930

MAS Urges Construction of Rockefeller Center

MAS urges construction of Rockefeller Center, an unpopular, pro-Modernist position at the time.

people gaze at the fountain in Rockefeller Center
1938

New York City Establishes a Permanent City Planning Commission

After decades of advocacy by MAS, New York City establishes a permanent City Planning Commission under its new City Charter.

logo for the New York City Planning Commission
1954

Identifying Future Landmarks

Between 1954 and 1957, before a mechanism existed for preserving historic properties, MAS surveyed buildings in all five boroughs to create a database of potential landmarks to preserve. Local residents and MAS staff compiled individual sheets devoted to about 200 buildings. Each sheet outlined the building’s date, location, and style and provided a description and small photograph.

Vintage form to apply for landmark status
1956

MAS Holds New York City’s First Walking Tour

MAS begins to curate architectural walking tours of New York City, a key tool for our preservation and advocacy efforts. Visit our events page to join us for a tour this month.

People on a walking tour in New York City
1961

Saving the Jefferson Market Courthouse from Demolition

MAS organizes a successful public campaign to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse, described by the AIA Guide to New York City as “a mock Neuschwansteinian assemblage … of leaded glass, steeply sloping roofs, gables, pinnacles, Venetian Gothic embellishments, and an intricate tower and clock; one of the City’s most remarkable buildings.” The campaign led to the Courthouse’s reuse as a branch of the New York Public Library.

Exterior of the Jefferson Market Courthouse
1965

Creating the First Historic District

MAS galvanizes Brooklyn Heights residents to campaign for their streets to be designated the first Historic District in New York City, establishing a new model for preserving not just individual buildings, but entire neighborhoods.

Row of brownstones

Passing the Landmarks Law

MAS helps win passage of New York City’s Landmarks Law, substantially broadening the powers of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today, the law serves as the model for preservation statutes in more than 500 municipalities across all fifty states.

Signing of the Landmarks Law
1968

Advocating for the South Street Seaport

MAS, the Friends of South Street, and the State Council on the Arts cosponsor an exhibition called “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” which focuses attention on threats to the historic neighborhood. The Landmarks Preservation Commission designates the South Street Seaport Historic District in 1977.

graphic showing the heights of landmarks near South Street Seaport
1974

Saving the Tweed Courthouse from Demolition

MAS, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and others successfully fought for the building’s survival when a task force under Mayor Beame recommended that the Tweed Courthouse be torn down and replaced with a City Hall annex. It has since been saved and fully restored and, since 2001, houses the City’s Department of Education.

The Tweed Courthouse in New York City
1975

Planning for the Second Avenue Subway

MAS partners with the City Planning Commission on a joint study of the planning implications for the proposed Second Avenue Subway and issues a set of permanent policy recommendations to achieve the new line.

1978

Saving Grand Central Terminal from Demolition

With MAS Board Member Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the lead, the MAS formed the Committee to Save Grand Central Terminal in response to the Penn Central Railroad’s proposal to demolish the station. On April 16, 1978, more than 400 advocates traveled by train, dubbed the “Landmark Express,” to Washington D.C., in order to call attention to the Supreme Court hearing on the designation of the train station as a city historic landmark. Photo: Associated Press.

Joan Mondale speaks at a rally to save Grand Central. Photo: Associated Press.
1979

Producing “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

In conjunction with William “Holly” Whyte, MAS establishes the Street Life Project in 1969 to observe and record how people use public space in the city. The most acclaimed result was The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1979 documentary that aired on PBS in 1980 and an accompanying book. Photo: Giles Ashford.

Men playing chess in the park. Photo: Giles Ashford.

Saving Radio City Music Hall

When Radio City Music Hall is threatened with demolition, MAS fights to block construction of an office building on the site. Photo: Ed Schipul.

Exterior of Radio City Music Hall. Photo: Ed Schipul.
1980

Winning Landmark Status for the Lever House

As Lever House is threatened with demolition, MAS successfully advocates for its designation as a landmark, the first from the mid-century era. Photo: Seth Tisue, Boston, Massachusetts.

exterior of Lever House in Manhattan
1984

Publishing the Juror’s Guides

MAS publishes the first edition of A Juror’s Guide to Lower Manhattan: Five Walking Tours, which offers people on jury duty opportunities to experience nearby architecture while on lunch break. Three more editions will follow.

cover of the Juror's guide

Protecting the Times Tower from Demolition

In partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, MAS sponsors a competition in March for alternate ideas for the City’s proposal to demolish the Times Tower in favor of four anonymous office towers. More than 500 entries were contributed and the competition helped galvanize public opposition to the City-backed proposal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, the Brown Brothers.

Crowds outside the Times Tower in 1919 to hear World Series results. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, the Brown Brothers.

Saving the Lights of Times Square

MAS organizes the “Shut Off the Lights” protest in November, in which most illuminated signage in Times Square temporarily went dark with the exception of a message that read: “Hey, Mr. Mayor It’s Dark Out There: Help Keep Bright Lights In Times Square.” Two years later, the City updates the theater subdistrict zoning to require illuminated signage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Jean-Christophe Benoist.

Times Square at dusk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Jean-Christophe Benoist.
1986

Protecting the City & Suburban Homes

MAS submits the National Register nomination for the model tenements at the City & Suburban Homes York Avenue Estate. In 1990, the Board of Estimate modifies the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation, an action later overturned in court.

tenement building in New York City
1987

Standing Against the Shadow

More than 800 New Yorkers, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Bill Moyers, join MAS in Central Park and raise black umbrellas aloft to demonstrate the shadow that would be cast onto the park by a tower proposed for the Former Coliseum site on Columbus Circle. That project was modified to mitigate shadows effects in response to the public outcry. Thirty years later, our advocacy for light, air, and sound city planning continues through the Accidental Skyline project.

Stamp from 1956 with illustration of New York Coliseum on it

Protecting Public Art through Adopt-A-Monument

In response to the deterioration of many of New York City’s outdoor statues and public murals in hospitals, schools and libraries, and the limited resources to preserve them, MAS (in partnership with NYC Parks and the Public Design Commission) launches the Adopt-A-Monument program to raise private funds for the conservation and maintenance of public art.

Adopt-A-Monument Restoration

Establishing the Brendan Gill Prize

MAS establishes the annual Brendan Gill Prize, which honors the creator of a specific work of art produced in the previous year that best captures the spirit and energy of New York City. The inaugural prize is given to Rudolph Burckhardt for a film series at MoMA.

logo for the Brendan Gill Prize
1991

Saving Saint Bartholomew’s Church

MAS successfully appeals a lower court decision that would have allowed the landmark St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue to demolish its Community House and garden, replacing them with an office tower. The decision affirms the power of the City’s Landmarks Law over sacred sites.

Illustration of Saint Bartholomew's Church with proposed tower in background

Protecting Public Art through Adopt-A-Mural

Following the success of Adopt-A-Monument, MAS launches its sister program Adopt-A-Mural. Together, the programs have raised more than $5 million to conserve and maintain 51 works of public art across all five boroughs.

Mural Restorers
1994

Establishing the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal

MAS establishes the annual Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal to honor individuals and organizations that have made an extraordinary impact on the quality of New York’s built environment. The inaugural Medal is presented to New Yorker theater and architecture critic Brendan Gill.

1995

Opening up Governors Island

MAS advocates for the creation of Governors Island as a public park shortly after the United States Coast Guard base is closed.

Governors Island with Manhattan in the background
1998

Creating “Place Matters”

MAS and City Lore establish Place Matters, an organization that fosters the celebration of New York City’s culturally significant places, from bodegas to barber shops.

Map of Manhattan with places that matter

Creating New Tools for Preservation

After more than a decade of advocacy by MAS and partners, the City updated the subdistrict zoning for Times Square to allow for district-wide air rights transfers, as a tool for preserving the neighborhood’s low-rise historic theaters.

map of theatres in Times Square
1999

Spurring the Creation of Fresh Kills Park

Seeking to increase the city’s parkland, MAS collaborated with New York City in 1999 to sponsor an international design competition for the reclamation of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the world’s largest such facility. Built in phases through 2036, the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Park will be almost three times the size of Central Park and the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years.

Fresh Kills Park report cover

Promoting the Preservation and Reuse of the High Line

MAS advocates for the reclamation and preservation of the High Line, an abandoned spur of the New York Central Railroad line, now an icon of contemporary landscape architecture.

People stroll on The High Line in Manhattan
2002

Imagining New York

MAS launches Imagine New York, a series of public workshops to explore how to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Imagine New York Report Cover

The Tribute in Light

In the fall of 2001, MAS brings together a team of artists and designers in partnership with Creative Time to create a memorial to the victims of September 11. The Tribute in Light debuted on the six month anniversary of the attacks and MAS continued to produce Tribute in Light each September for the next decade. In 2011, MAS transferred the project to the newly-opened National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which has continued to present it annually on the anniversary of the attacks.

Tribute in Light
2006

Training CITI Youth

MAS’s Planning Center establishes a training program to provide Community Boards with local youth “mapping technicians” as part of the Community Information Technology Initiative (CITI).

CITI youth working at computer

MAS Launches the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

Following six years of coalition building and advocacy that includes successfully championing a waterfront committee of the City Council, MAS launches the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance as a new organization.

NYC Downtown Waterfront with Brooklyn Bridge
2007

Livable Neighborhoods Program Launched

Founded on the principle that community involvement is essential to successful city planning, the MAS Livable Neighborhoods Program (LNP) helps local leaders in under-resourced communities develop the knowledge and tools that they need to participate effectively in public land use review processes and engage in creative, community-based design and planning. In its first decade, LNP trained neighborhood advocates in Port Richmond, Red Hook, Brownsville, Flatbush, Flushing, Corona/Elmhurst, Mott Haven, Jerome Avenue, Bedford Park, and more.

2008

Preserving Admiral’s Row

MAS brings together community representatives, architects, preservationists, and other experts in a visioning session to develop alternatives to the proposed demolition of Admiral’s Row, a collection of 11 historic buildings located on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Abandoned building on Admiral's Row in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Imagining Coney Island

MAS launched an initiative called Imagine Coney, working with local stakeholders and an international team of architects, amusement designers, and economists to hold public workshops that would develop new ideas for the design and programming of Coney Island.

Person's hand drawing plans for Coney Island

Imagining Flatbush

MAS partners with the Flatbush Development Corporation in the creation of Imagine Flatbush 2030, an initiative to help bridge the gap between Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC’s sustainability goals and consensus-driven community-based planning.

Person speaking at Imagine Flatbush planning session
2010

Fashioning the Future: NYC’s Garment District

MAS launches a campaign to protect the Garment District, one of Manhattan’s last industrial hubs, from a Bloomberg administration proposal to rezone the neighborhood. This advocacy led to the release of a report highlighting the continued importance of the district and presenting case studies, new data, historical records, and policy recommendations to create a vision forward for the neighborhood.

Garments on a NYC street
2011

Founding the Summit for New York City

MAS hosts its first Summit, an annual symposium that connects policy-makers, industry leaders, and engaged citizens in a dialogue about contemporary civic issues.

Auditorium of people at Summit for New York City

Jane’s Walk NYC

On May 7 and 8, MAS organizes the first annual Jane’s Walk NYC, a weekend of free citizen-led “walking conversations” honoring activist Jane Jacobs. Today, the New York festival is the largest Jane’s Walk in the world, bringing thousands of New Yorkers onto the streets for more than 200+ walks around the five boroughs.

Janes Walk participants on street
2012

Rebuild by Design

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, MAS partners with three fellow New York City-based planning organizations to create an alternative model for how the federal government can respond to disasters and how regions other than New York can prepare for climate change uncertainties.

Illustration of Southern Manhattan coastline

Greening New York City’s Historic Buildings

In partnership with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, MAS publishes Greening New York City’s Historic Buildings, a manual to help property owners and managers improve the energy efficiency of small historic buildings without impacting their character.

Brownstones

Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS)

Drawing on over a decade of research, MAS partners with Jerold Kayden to launch APOPS, an advocacy campaign to better activate the city’s 500+ privately owned public spaces. The book builds on Mr. Kayden’s 2000 book, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York Experience, published by MAS.

2013

City Council Votes to Limit Madison Square Garden’s Permit at Penn Station

In the summer of 2013, at the urging of MAS, our partners at Regional Plan Association, and many others, the New York City Council votes to limit Madison Square Garden’s permit to operate on top of Penn Station to just ten more years. The decision represents a historic opportunity to shape the future of Manhattan’s west side and ensure the economic health of the city and the region. Over the next several years, the Penn 2023 coalition would release three reports analyzing the future of Penn, the Garden, and West Midtown.

The Accidental Skyline Project Pulls Back the Veil on Supertalls

MAS releases a first-of-its-kind analysis of the impact of supertall towers, raising the alarm about the need for new rules and regulations to protect public assets like light, air, open space, and the character of the city’s neighborhoods from out-of-scale development. In October 2017, the organization released a follow-up report outlining a detailed agenda for achieving these reforms.

Illustration of Manhattan skyline with super-tall buildings
2015

Analyzing the 421-a Tax Exemption

MAS releases a first-ever interactive tool mapping the impact of one of New York City’s most expensive housing incentive programs. The analysis shows that the City forfeited more than $1.1 billion in tax revenue through the program in 2014, 60% of which (nearly $670 million) subsidized buildings in Manhattan.

Map of 421-A properties in Manhattan
2016

Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York

MAS releases ground-breaking mapping tool that empowers decision makers, planners, and the public to identify opportunities for improving, protecting, and utilizing the 14,000 properties owned or leased by the City of New York–a public asset roughly the size of the Borough of Brooklyn. The accompanying report reveals that an area more than double the size of Central Park is classified by the city as having no current use.

Cover of the Municipal Art Society of New York's Public Assets report
2017

Sweeping Reforms to the Board of Standards and Appeals

In May 2017, the New York City Council passed a series of reforms to the Board of Standards and Appeals zoning variance process that enact reforms long called for by MAS. In 1976 and 2004, MAS released landmark studies identifying abuse and misuse of the variance process, which effectively resulted in the rezoning of certain communities, without taking into account the cumulative impacts on light and air, traffic, parking, school capacity, and other city services.

Elizabeth Goldstein and Bill deBlasio shake hands at signing of Board of Standards and Appeals reform bills
2018

Mapping Changes to Historic Properties

MAS creates a pair of interactive maps to inform preservation professionals and members of the public about how the Landmarks Preservation Commission processes and approves applications to modify designated buildings.

Map of landmarks in Manhattan

Celebrating 125 Years of Advocacy on Behalf of New York and New Yorkers

For 125 years, the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has worked to educate and inspire New Yorkers to engage in the betterment of our city. We hope you will join us in honoring the generations of MAS board, staff, and members whose dedication made these victories possible.

Municipal Art Society of New York logo

Help us advocate for the betterment of New York City as we have for 125 years.

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