|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.
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 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.