By Sabina Mollot
Jack Taylor, a historic preservationist and resident of East 18th Street in Gramercy, died last Thursday, February 7, in his sleep. He was 94, and had suffered some health problems, including with his leg in recent months, making it hard for him to get around.
For decades Taylor was known for his efforts to save buildings slated for the wrecking ball in the Gramercy, Stuyvesant Square and Union Square neighborhoods and to get them landmarked.
He was involved in numerous civic groups, including the Gramercy Park Block Association, the Union Square Community Coalition, the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association and the Historic Districts Council.
He’d been retired since the 1980s, when he served as managing editor for Family Circle for several years. After retiring, he still did some freelance editing work.
His legacy of preservation began when he was inspired by the loss of Luchow’s restaurant, according to a transcript of a 2004 forum he participated in held by the New York Preservation Archive Project. The place was over a century old when Taylor learned it was at risk and got involved with an informal group aimed at saving it, headed by the USCC. The “born and bred” Manhattanite noted he had been born in Greenwich Village, not far from Luchow’s.
“Was it an architectural landmark? Was it a cultural landmark? Just what was it?” Taylor had mused at the forum. “It didn’t matter to me then, because I didn’t know the ropes very much. But it just seemed to be something that the city of New York would be the worse without. Regardless of the food, which had plummeted in the meantime. It was the philosophy of the thing.”
Despite not being successful in this campaign, Taylor said he saw many positives in the experience, including the likeminded people he met. He soon learned to “arm (myself) with stamps” as well as call people when a building was in danger for the purpose of getting the word out, including by getting press.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the HDC, had worked with Taylor since 1997 on local preservation efforts, with Taylor having been a board member of the organization since 1986. He was also a “Landmarks Lion” honoree in 1992, for his tireless testimony on behalf of buildings on the chopping block at various community board meetings. He was also given the Victorian Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
“He was a fierce preservation advocate,” said Bankoff, “and a great person.” He recalled how Taylor was more often moved by buildings that had historic and cultural significance more so than those that were an “architectural masterpiece.” Examples were the former Tammany Hall building in Union Square, which he succeeded in getting landmarked after over a decade of effort and he also staunchly opposed the recent conversion of the building for office use.
He was the president of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District and fought for the designation of over 400 properties on parts of 28 blocks. As a result of these efforts in which seven organizations were involved, the city designated much of the area a historic district in 1998.
He also fought, albeit unsuccessfully in the 1990s, to save the Dvorak House in Stuyvesant Square, which was once home to the composer Antonin Dvorak. The building’s owner, then Beth Israel, demolished it and turned it into a hospice for people with AIDS. The building, owned by Mount Sinai today, is currently being used as a 28-bed shelter. But Taylor, wanting to keep the spirit of Dvorak in the neighborhood, campaigned successfully to have a bust of the composer from Lincoln Center installed in Stuyvesant Square Park as well as to have a Dvorak room, complete with a plaque that used to be on the Dvorak House, set up at Bohemian Hall on the Upper East Side. For the bust, he even had an endowment set up to ensure its maintenance and worked with the Parks Department to have it surrounded by a garden. He was also involved in the decades-long effort, only recently completed, to fully restore the cast iron fence around Stuyvesant Square Park.
Even more significantly for the area, he was the force behind a successful effort to create the historic Stuyvesant Park district. For this, he was honored by the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association at a gala last summer and there is a now a bench in his name at the park.
Taylor was also a World War II veteran, who’d served in the Army in London. At one point, he was wounded in action when hit by a stray piece of a building during The Blitz. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt and later came to think of the incident as funny, Bankoff said.
“I had a building come down on me and now I’m trying to save them,” Taylor would joke.
Taylor also, Bankoff recalled, “smoked like a fiend, filter-less cigarettes and lived life the way he wanted to. People used to say to him he should stop smoking, and he’d stop smoking, but then his cough would only get worse. He was in pretty good health for most of his life.”
Ana Maria Moore, the president of the SPNA, called Taylor “a living treasure to our organization,” of which he was involved for 45 years.
“He was truly and remarkably active until the end. Jack was always working to make NYC a better place for all of us. I am sure that he will be sorely missed by all the organizations that he helped maintain. He was a great preservationist and urbanist and a truly wonderful, caring person. Always a good friend and neighbor.
“He loved our city and he gave us a tremendous gift back in 1974 when he decided that the Stuyvesant Historic District needed to be created,” she added.
Taylor, said Moore, did the research and writing for the landmarking testimony and promoting the area by word of mouth and at meetings.
“He never bothered with email,” Moore said. “Jack was about meeting people and enrolling them into an idea but doing the bulk of the work himself.”
Eventually, his work paid off, with the district getting landmarked, including Stuyvesant Square Park. Over the years, Taylor also helped get donations for the SPNA, and Moore said his last project, left unfinished, was to add 305 Second Avenue to the historic district.
“Jack was our first honored member at the SPNA gala last year,” said Moore. “He was an inspiration to all of us.”
Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, said it would never faze Taylor if someone were put off by his sometimes gruff manner when testifying against landlords and developers on landmarking issues.
“Some people disliked him. They thought he was cranky. That didn’t interest him; it didn’t impact him in any way,” said Harrison, who knew Taylor for decades. “His mission was preservation.”
She added that often the only voice at a meeting opposing a redevelopment project would be Taylor’s and unlike many community activists, he was just as interested when the project was in a neighborhood that was not his own. He also, despite his mobility issues later on, continued his tradition of attending meetings to share his thoughts on proposed projects in person and often dropped off materials from his research at Harrison’s apartment, since they lived a couple of blocks apart.
“We’ll always have the memory of Jack Taylor for all the buildings he saved in The Ladies’ Mile,” Harrison said. “He was at all the meetings, whether it was Flatiron or Union Square. I really will miss this guy.”
Taylor, who had cousins in Canada — who’d attended his award ceremony by the SPNA— has been cremated. Plans have not yet been set for a memorial.