The Villard Houses on Madison Avenue were one of Lenore Norman’s first projects at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Andrea Puggioni/Flickr)
Lenore Norman, a pioneer of historic preservation, died at 83 years old in her home on the Upper West Side on December 21st. She spent over 4 decades working tirelessly to preserve some of New York’s most iconic buildings and historic districts. Ms. Norman first stepped into her role as the executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the mid-1970s—a time when the idea of landmark preservation was fairly new and unpopular among some New Yorkers.
“The whole idea of preservation was not something that people really understood, and of course, all of the larger institutions and buildings, for the most part, fought it,” said Ms. Norman in an interview for The New York Preservation Archive Project.
The New York Timesdescribed Ms. Norman as someone who was influential, but “did her work behind the scenes” and “was content to let the commissioners, developers, advocates and lobbyists occupy center stage.” During her tenure as executive director, she played a critical role in designating a number of significant landmarks including Grand Central, St. Bartholomew’s, the neo-gothic-style Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert, and the Villard Houses by McKim, Mead & White.
Her approach with the real estate industry was collaborative, even when discussions grew contentious: “We always try to compromise, to find a way where we could co-exist,” said Ms. Norman.
Ms. Norman left the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the early 1980s and took a position as the director of intergovernmental affairs at the city’s Department of Buildings. In her later life, she served as the co-chairwoman of the preservation committee of Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side—the very neighborhood she lived in and helped designate as an historic district when she worked at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
While a preservationist by profession, she didn’t see development as a black and white issue. She understood the need to balance the city’s growth with its architectural history.
“I want to live in a city that has diversity but I also want it to be reminiscent of what it was like years ago,” Ms. Norman said in the interview. “The city has to change, it won’t grow if it doesn’t, and don’t misunderstand, but I don’t believe that we are rooted in tradition to the point where nothing new can be built or there can be no modifications to accommodate life as it is today, I think in general, there are verboten areas that we shouldn’t be going into.”