Preservation Issues

Thank you John Belle


-John Belle accepting a Lucy G. Moses Preservation Leadership Award in April, 2012

February 7, 2017

A memorial service for noted architect John Belle, of Beyer Blinder Belle, a 30-year Conservancy Board Member and former Chair, was held last night in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal—one of the many historic buildings John helped restore. At the memorial, Conservancy President Peg Breen highlighted John’s many contributions to the Conservancy and his other civic endeavors and awards.

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Good evening. I’m Peg Breen. President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

The Landmarks Conservancy has had the good fortune of being led by a number of distinguished Chairmen. But John’s national and international stature as an architect and preservationist set him apart. Having John at the helm boosted our credibility and stature at an important time. But his thirty-year association with us was also an incredible opportunity to know him as a mentor and friend.

John was profiled in New York Newsday shortly after his election as Chair in 1990. He told the paper he wanted to make our preservation efforts much stronger. And he had a message for then Mayor Dinkins: He said “don’t underestimate the human value of preserving our neighborhoods. The whole movement of historic preservation is one that’s been rooted in the communities of this city.” Mayor Dinkins not only heard John, he came and saluted him at a Conservancy holiday party a year later. That’s because John was an active and hands-on leader.

1991 saw a contentious debate in the city council over creating a hardship review panel that would hear religious and non-profit petitions to be released from landmark status. John lobbied council members along with Brendan Gill and other Conservancy board members. He convinced the council to make sure that applicants would have to produce substantial evidence for their claims.

When the New-York Historical Society was in dire fiscal straits, John approved Conservancy efforts to intervene and again personally lobbied for city support to save it.

When the Conservancy sponsored a national workshop on cast iron, John didn’t welcome everyone and leave. He moderated a panel of experts that was the centerpiece of the event.

John was also concerned about the number of public buildings no longer in use. He directed the Conservancy to create a citywide public buildings inventory which is still invaluable. Along with that, he approved funds to hire architects who converted a vacant former bathhouse into a drop-in center for a settlement house.

John also oversaw the initiation of our annual Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards. He went on to win several—as well as our Chairman’s Award.

We loved John for many substantive reasons. But he also endeared himself to us for a less substantive one. John was part owner of a historic pub and donated wine for several Conservancy events. I don’t’ think the wine had anything to do with this, but John inspired the first and only poem to a Conservancy chair by a fellow director.

I quote: “his leadership inspires with energy that neither flags nor tires, supplying advice without town criers. That’s our John Belle. For the devotion in us he fires, preserving tall church spires, we hope he ne’er retires, thank you John Belle.

John devoted so much of his time to the Conservancy that it was nice to think that he was ours alone. But, of course, John had a great civic spirit and received a slew of local, national and international awards—three presidential design awards, honorary doctorates and fellowships, more than 100 architectural awards.

He chaired Pratt’s Graduate Department of Urban Design and Pratt’s School of Architecture. He was president of the AIA New York chapter and chaired the national AIA committee of urban planning and design; he worked with Jane Jacobs on a waterfront plan for Greenwich Village; he was a member of the Commission of Fine Arts in Washington. He lectured throughout the world.

When I went through John’s file at the Conservancy, I was struck by the number and variety of requests that I and my predecessors made of him. We bugged him a lot. He never refused. But he ended almost every hand-written note by saying, “I only wish I could do more.”

The only more we wished for was more time with you John. But we have all been blessed by the time we had. “Thank you John Belle.”