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Architecture School Honors Legacy of Preservationist James Marston Fitch

By Kristin Sterling

James Marston Fitch

Most New Yorkers are enchanted by the enduring historical aesthetics of Grand Central Station, Ellis Island and South Street Seaport. But what many don't know is that the preservation of these sites is a result of the pioneering work of former Columbia architecture professor James Marston Fitch, the inventor of Historic Preservation as a professional discipline. Columbia's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is honoring his legacy with the creation of the James Marston Fitch Professorship in Historic Preservation.

"The legacy of James Marston Fitch is worldwide," says Architecture Dean Bernard Tschumi. "He initiated a new sensibility toward historic buildings."

Fitch, an architect and reformer from the early days of modernism in America, played a critical role in the response to the demolition of Penn Station and the other events that gave rise to the preservation movement. Through contact with architects in Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, Fitch discovered extensive campaigns underway to preserve religious and secular historic buildings and special programs were established to train professionals to carry out this work.

With this information in mind Fitch, then an associate professor at Columbia, was instrumental in implementation of several historic preservation courses into the architecture curriculum. In 1967, a certificate program was created, and by 1972 Fitch succeeded in his quest to establish the first Master of Science degree in historic preservation in the United States, a program that has become the prototype for more than 50 programs that exist today nationwide.

Fitch was also a respected author in the field, with several books to his credit, including: "American Building: The Historical Force that Shaped It," and the second volume "American Building: The Environmental Forces that Shaped It."

His firm had a role in the preservation and redevelopment of South Street Seaport, the first phase of preservation of Ellis Island and the design of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. He also broadened the notion of what constituted important historical resources to include structures like the 19th-century cast-iron lofts of SoHo.

Without question, Fitch left his mark on the city and on trends in architecture. In fact, at the time of his death in 2000, in the architectural publication Oculus, Jayne Merkel wrote, "Without James Marston Fitch, New York wouldn't be the city it is today." Others added that without the cadre of devoted preservationists Fitch launched, cities and towns across the United States might today be characterized by monotonous architectural mediocrity without any distinguishing historic features.

Today nearly 60 students are enrolled in the two-year Master of Science program in Historic Preservation, specializing in design, history, conservation and preservation planning. The curriculum is taught by a faculty of scholars and working professionals -- architects, conservators, laboratory scientists and experts in preservation law. It addresses the widest range of public values in older buildings, landscapes and other works, and studies a broad array of contemporary techniques to protect these buildings and manage change. Columbia continues to enjoy the benefit of the nation's first conservation laboratory fully equipped for contemporary analytical work.

After his retirement from Columbia in 1978, Fitch retained an interest in the school and his former students, including Adele Chatfield-Taylor, president of the American Academy in Rome; Frank Sanchis, executive director of the Municipal Art Society, and John H. Stubbs, vice president of the World Monuments Fund.

"He came to feel it was important to strengthen the program by adding a full-time faculty position," says his widow Martica Sawin Fitch. "This [professorship] seemed to be the best way to carry on his ideas and the things he worked for."

"Starting with Jim, the Columbia program's stock in trade has always been innovation and leadership," says Paul Spencer Byard, director of the historic preservation program. "The professorship in his name comes at a wonderful time, just when we are renewing our capacity to provide them."

The Professorship is made possible through a gift from Fitch, himself, before his death, in conjunction with donations from his charitable foundation and wife, Beyer, Blinder, Belle (his architectural firm), the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Brown Foundation, Vinmont Foundation, Felicia Fund and alumni leadership and support.

"Preservation is about the meaning of old architecture," says Byard. "We protect it so that as a society we can continue to learn from it every day and make our lives around it. Our work is creative, not preventive, protecting and maximizing the contributions of old buildings to our ability to understand our lives and live them well. Our job is to manage change, not prevent it, to spur, not stop, a process of innovation that builds appropriately on our architectural legacy.

A recent innovation in the curriculum is the new Joint Third Year Advanced Architectural Design/Preservation Design Workshop, the first of its kind in the nation, where preservationists are directly involved in a process of innovation, working with design students designing additions to modern monuments like the University of Mexico and Chandigarh, in India. This year the studio traveled to Brasilia to work on the addition to the monumental Brazilian capitol of a headquarters for the World Social Forum.

According to Byard, the historic preservation program is being renewed by a major effort to clarify its basic purposes. Through program enhancements and new faculty including the James Marston Fitch Professor, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, like Fitch, continues to bring innovation and leadership to the field of historic preservation, extending his legacy to new generations of preservationists.

Published: Oct 31, 2002
Last modified: Nov 25, 2002

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