Frank Gilbert, a preservationist who helped save Grand Central Terminal from being ravaged by a 55-story skyscraper and in the mid-1960s incubated New York City’s pioneering landmarks law, which undergirded preservation movements across the country, died on May 14 in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 91.
The cause was pneumonia and complications of Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Ann Hersh Gilbert, said.
Mr. Gilbert, a lawyer who had been New York City’s legislative lobbyist in Albany, had been instrumental in drafting the city’s belated barn-door-closing statute following the demolition in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station, the Beaux-Arts railroad hub designed by McKim, Mead & White on Manhattan’s West Side.
The legislation, passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1965, declared that the city’s global standing “cannot be maintained or enhanced by disregarding the historical and architectural heritage of the city and by countenancing the destruction of such cultural assets.”
The law created the Landmarks Preservation Commission and empowered it to designate buildings that were at least 30 years old and had either historical or architectural merit, and to spare them from development or demolition.
Mr. Gilbert served as the first secretary of the newly minted commission from 1965 to 1972 and then as executive director through 1974. Throughout, the fate of Grand Central loomed large for him.
“I was concerned because the chairman of the landmarks commission had said to me what happened to Penn Station must not happen to Grand Central,” Mr. Gilbert recalled in an interview with the New York Preservation Archive Project in 2011.
“I guess from the very beginning, my job was really to make sure that we follow due process and didn’t slip on a banana peel,” he added. “I recognized how serious the situation was. My primary thought was really to be very careful, and be prepared for a very challenging situation.”
The failing Penn Central railroad company hoped to build a skyscraper above Grand Central Terminal, which it owned, and to use rents from the offices to subsidize the company’s deficits from declining train travel.
But the commission declared the terminal a landmark in 1967 and decided that all of Penn Central’s proposed designs for the skyscraper would eclipse the terminal’s architectural distinction.
Penn Central sued. Fully nine years later, a State Supreme Court justice voided the landmarks designation, ruling that preventing the bankrupt railroad from earning the income it would receive from the office tower would cause “economic hardship” and therefore amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its property.
Mr. Gilbert and other defenders of Grand Central rallied support from a wide spectrum of preservationists, including prominent architects and boldface names like Jacqueline Onassis, to uphold the landmark designation as the city pursued appeals in higher courts.
In 1978, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the city’s authority to preserve a landmark. The court found that the landmark designation did not interfere with Grand Central’s use as a railroad terminal, and that the company could not claim that construction of the office building was necessary to maintain the site’s profitability. The railroad had conceded that it could earn a profit from the terminal “in its present state.”
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision cited an amicus brief drafted by Mr. Gilbert, who by then was assistant general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. His brief pointed out that scores of cities across the country, including New Orleans, Boston and San Antonio, had already approved landmark preservation laws modeled on the New York statute.
Paul Edmondson, the president and chief executive of the National Trust, characterized Mr. Gilbert as “a giant in the field of preservation law.”
“Beyond his critical role in developing and defending New York City’s landmarks preservation law,” Mr. Edmondson said in a statement, “he was responsible for the protection of thousands of historic properties and neighborhoods across the country through his work in helping communities develop historic districts.”
Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, an early appointee to New York’s landmarks commission and its longest-serving member, said of Mr. Gilbert in an email: “Always wanting to do the right thing, he worked to balance the complex needs of all parties — property owners, the public, the press, developers and preservationists.”
Frank Brandeis Gilbert was born on Dec. 3, 1930, in Manhattan to Jacob Gilbert and Susan Brandeis Gilbert, both lawyers. His mother was the daughter of Louis D. Brandeis, the United States Supreme Court justice.
After graduating from the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, Mr. Gilbert earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard College in 1952, served in the Army from 1953 to 1955, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1957.
From 1973 to 1993 he was chairman of the graduate board of The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Earlier this month, he was among the Crimson alumni who signed a letter supporting Harvard’s Jewish community and condemning the paper’s editorial endorsement of the so-called Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement against Israel on behalf of what it called a free Palestine.
“The BDS movement claims to seek ‘justice for the Palestinians’ — a goal we share — but, actually, it seeks the elimination of Israel,” the letter said.
Mr. Gilbert joined the legal division of the Public Housing Administration in Washington in 1957 and went to work for New York’s city planning department two years later. He married Ann Hersh in 1973. She is his only immediate survivor.
From 1975 to 1984, Mr. Gilbert was the landmarks and preservation law chief counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He served as the trust’s senior field representative until 2010.
He advised state and local governments on preservation legislation and on issues regarding the designation of specific landmarks and the establishment of historic districts, like those New York City had created in SoHo, Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village and Chelsea.
Mr. Gilbert recalled in the Archive Project interview that when the fledgling commission officially selected its first batch of landmarks, The New York Herald Tribune’s headline declared, “Twenty Buildings Saved!”
“My reaction at that point,” he said, “was, ‘20 buildings designated,’ and we had a lot of work to do on these 20 buildings before they were saved.”
He was proved prescient by the decade-long legal battle then approaching over Grand Central and the disputes with the real estate industry and with individual developers over extending the commission’s powers to designate as landmarks the interiors of buildings as well as entire neighborhoods.
By the commission’s 50th anniversary in 2015, it had designated 1,348 individual landmarks, 117 interiors and 33,411 properties within 21 historic districts.