Saturday, October 29, 2011

James Marston Fitch, The Force That Shaped Preservation

The success of historic preservation in this country -- and some of the seasoned readers of The Devoted Classicist will be thinking "such as it is" -- owes much to James Marston Fitch, 1909 - 2000.  Co-founder with Charles Peterson of the country's first graduate program in historic preservation which was started at Columbia University in 1964, Professor Fitch's philosophy has been spread across the country, and even the world, as his students have continued his efforts.  James Marston Fitch changed the way Americans look at historic buildings.
The SoHo District in Manhattan, circa 1970.  Fitch was a prominent figure in the opposition of an expressway that would have bisected the district.

Born in Washington on May 8, 1909, he grew up in Chattanooga, and attended the University of Alabama and the School of Architecture at Tulane University.  But before getting his degree, economic necessities required his working for an architectural firm in Chattanooga, and then, as the effects of The Great Depression worsened, in Nashville, working for the firm of A. Herbert Rodgers.  (Just as today, Nashville was somewhat cushioned against ecomonic down-turns and Rodgers designed a number of large classical houses in Nashville during this period when much of the rest of the country was financially strapped.  Now Rodgers is best remembered for his interior design and being the first mentor to legendary decorator Albert Hadley).  In 1934 he worked for the Tennessee State Planning Board, conducting demographic research that further reinforced his feeling of the correlation between professions, economy, and architecture.  Despite his great appreciation of Thomas Jefferson and his classical design philosophy, Fitch became interested in the Bauhaus and Modernism, free of what many saw as the anti-social implications of traditional architecture.
"Brook House" at 4431 Tyne Blvd in Belle Meade, Nashville, designed by the firm of A. Herbert Rodgers in 1931 is one of the city's most highly regarded of the classical houses that still remains as a private residence.

In the mid-1930s, Fitch moved to New York City and worked as an associate editor for Architectural Record.  It was a great period of building where he was able to observe, first-hand, the technology that allowed an new aesthetic in architecture.  From 1942 to 1945, he worked as a meteorologist in the United States Air Force.  This new understanding of climate from the scientific point of view, combined with a re-evaluation of architectural history, stirred his social conscience and the desire to create a better world for all.  This led to his writing the book AMERICAN BUILDING:  THE FORCES THAT SHAPED;  first published in 1947, it has since been edited and republished, as two books at one time, and now still continues to be greatly influential.
Grand Central Terminal, New York City.  The loss of Pennsylvania Station galvanized the preservation movement to save this historic building, now restored to its original glory and still used as a railroad station.

After the war, he worked as technical editor for Architectural Forum until 1949, when he became architecture editor for House Beautiful.  While at the latter magazine, he directed a "climate-control project" with model houses showing how landscaping and architectural forms can amend the microclimate, an interest he was to keep the rest of his life.  In 1954, he joined Columbia University as an associate professor, helping to improve architecture by education.
The map of Savannah, Georgia, showing the unique plan with squares, as public parks, allowing welcome green spaces.

In the years following World War II, "urban renewal" razed whole sections of cities, leaving vast bare areas even though no replacements were planned in most cases.  Real estate developers, in association with politicians and planners, had little if any opposition from architects;  it was the amateurs who were able to stop the demoliton.  One of the first successful steps in preservation occured in Savannah, Georgia, around 1960.  The scheme to "modernize" the city, to allow a better flow of auto traffic by eliminating the historic squares, was successfully blocked by nineteen enraged citizens who secretly bought up forty-three strategic properties, killing the project.  The properties were subsequently rehabilitated and Savannah today remains one of this country's most unique cities.  During this time, Fitch met Jane Jacobs in New York City who was to be regarded as one of the great pioneers of preservation, pointing out the discrepancies between what planners promised and what actually developed.
Jane Jacobs, shown in a Google image by an unidentified photographer, circa 1963.  Although Pennsylvania Station, the 1910 Beaux-Arts  masterpiece by McKim, Mead, and White was lost, the demolition was considered to be the catalyst for the city's first architectural preservation statutes.

With the graduate program at Columbia, Professor Fitch was able to establish a new profession, the historic preservationist.  Under Fitch's training, a preservationist would be educated in all areas that effect architecture, not only history and conservation, but also politics and real estate.  Emphasis was put on community efforts, as opposed to narrow and isolated special interest projects, thereby building a social conscience.
The Museum Block of South Street Seaport, Manhattan.

Fitch's book WALTER GROPIUS was published by Braziller in 1960 as one of the volumes in the Masters of Architecture series.  ARCHITECTURE AND THE ESTHETICS OF PLENTY was published in 1961.  Two volumes of the second edition of AMERICAN BUILDING came in 1966 and 1972, the first subtitled THE HISTORICAL FORCES THAT SHAPED IT, and the second, THE ENVIRONMENTAL FORCES THAT SHAPED IT.  In 1982, HISTORIC PRESERVATION:  CURATORIAL MANAGEMENT OF THE BUILT WORLD was published, still considered the best compilation of theory in the field.
The Tweed Courthouse, Manhattan.

In 1979, Fitch re-entered private practice as director of preservation in the New York City firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, Architects and Planners.  He brought along as his assistant, former student John Stubbs (now the new director of graduate program in Preservation Studies at Tulane University).  The Devoted Classicist was recruited in 1980 as Second Assistant, providing an invaluable one-on-one practical as well as educational experience for this writer.  Dr. Fitch, as he was referred to after Columbia University conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1980, played a critical role in the preservation and redevelopment of South Street Seaport, the initial study to save the Tweed Courthouse, the first phase of preservation of Ellis Island, the preservation of the Alice Austen House, the restoration of Grand Central Terminal, and many, many more.  In 1985, he received the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 1992, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Landmarks Commission.
The Alice Austen House, Staten Island.
The program at Columbia University continues today, still enrolling about fifty students in the two-year, and the cirriculum has been adopted by other schools nationwide, producing a whole new generation of preservationists armed with the technical know-how to back their beliefs.  The successful graduates who have helped change the way people look at old buildings is a long one, but I would put architect Roz Li, my professor who was notable as one of Fitch's star students and now in private practice involved in projects worldwide, at the top of the list.  Also, there was Joseph Herndon, who was Fitch's student assistant at Columbia and now in private practice, who was my first boss when I was graduated from architecture school.  John Stubbs, my co-worker at B.B.B. is still a Senior Advisor for The World Monuments Fund.  Frank Sanchis has joined W.M.F. as Director of US Programs.  And Adele Chatfield-Taylor is President and C.E.O. of the American Academy in Rome. 
The Main Building at Ellis Island, New York Harbor.

In 1989, the James Marston Fitch Charitable Trust was established to support professionals in the field of historic preservation by providing mid-career grants to those working in preservation, landscape architecture, urban design, environmental planning, decorative arts, architectural design and architectural history.  2011 Fitch Fellow Kenneth Love has created a fascinating film about Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork Fallingwater which will be featured as part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's Friday Film Series;  screenings on November 4 and November 18, 2011, at 1pm and 3pm are included in the price of general museum admission.  A five minute video preview of this remarkable film can be viewed by clicking here.

A selection of books written by James Marsten Fitch are available for sale through The Devoted Classicist Library by clicking here.  The black & white photo of Dr. Fitch is by Mark Ferri and the color photos of the Beyer Blinder Belle projects are from that firm.


  1. I would like to learn more about at 4431 Tyne Blvd.

  2. Thank you for this profile on the man behind the preservation movement as we know it. There is likely an entire generation of people who need to be reminded of the precarious status of fine old buildings, and simply assume that every fine old building or town square is invulnerable to heartless demolition. It has been said more than once, that the single greatest act of vandalism upon architecture (in the 20th c) was the elimination of Penn Station, and it takes a real stretch of the imagination to fathom such wanton destruction.(the same can be said of Soane's Bank of England) Yet the philistines still walk among us and wield power over structures that others revere. It's never going away, that argument of progress over tradition.

  3. Terry, thanks for commenting.

    M.L.H.B., Dr. Fitch was very proud of another house from the same office, 4412 Howell Place (but unfortunately I do not have a digital image). He told me about travelling to Natchez, Mississippi, to study the historic mansion, "Auburn", and that house was the model for the residence on Howell Place. You would also appreciate my design at 4432 Tyne Boulevard (which has not yet been converted to digital but will be featured in the future); it is a one story Neo-Regency house with a center block having a pair of curving arms extending to a terminating pavillions (a garage on one side, and the master bedroom on the other).

    Toby, there were many issues that enabled the destruction of Penn Station, from politicians to labor unions to organized crime. Dr. Fitch believed that demolition was acceptable if the replacement was better; there is no question in the case of Penn Station that it was not!

  4. John,

    I didn't know that Brook House was by A. Herbert Rodgers when I posted it to my own blog, in a piece on Belle Meade. It's on the market now, what a beautiful property.
    Hopefully it will find the right buyer.


    1. Brook House has been on and off the market for years; the owner is a remarkable woman and one of the most admired personalities in Belle Meade. A Herbert Rodgers designed a number of notable houses in the community, but he is most remembered today for his interior design.


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