This post was written by project archivist Larry Weimer.
Those familiar with The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro’s indispensable study of the will to power and its ability to subvert democratic institutions, might recall Caro’s chapter on Moses’s effort to demolish Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Now a National Monument managed by the National Park Service, Castle Clinton was a repurposed fort dating from the War of 1812 that housed the New York City Aquarium in 1941 when Moses announced his intent to tear the structure down. Caro traces the ultimately successful ten year fight against Moses, with substantial credit given to the efforts of the elderly government reform advocate, George McAneny.
Though N-YHS does not appear in Caro’s narrative, we can take some pride in the part we played in this struggle for historic preservation, a part documented in N-YHS’s institutional archive. For starters, McAneny himself was a member of N-YHS, allying himself with the organization in November 1941 as the fight against Moses ramped up. But while McAneny may have led the charge, including from his position as organizer and president of The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, he worked in close collaboration throughout with N-YHS executives.
N-YHS’s involvement started in early 1941 with the formation of a committee of three members of the Board of Trustees to investigate whether N-YHS should oppose Moses’s demolition plan. The committee visited the site and found the historic integrity of the building to be sound. On March 18, the Board accepted the committee’s recommendation to join with other organizations in support of preservation and Director Alexander J. Wall began meeting with McAneny and others to coordinate actions. One such action was a radio broadcast by Wall stating the case on June 26, 1941. The address was printed in pamphlet form and distributed nationally to press outlets, historical societies and others.
By October 1941, Wall reported to the editors of Time, which had run an article on the matter, that 400 letters from all over the U.S. had been received at N-YHS protesting Castle Clinton’s impending demolition. N-YHS also drew on its collection for supporting documents in the fight, including drawings from the John McComb architectural collection.
Alexander Wall died in 1944, but his successor as N-YHS Director, R.W.G. Vail, continued to press N-YHS’s opposition to Moses’s plan. On September 19, 1945, Vail co-signed a letter with McAneny urging the Board of Estimate to reverse its decisions of 1942 allowing demolition of Castle Clinton, a decision not acted on at the time because of wartime restrictions. A meeting at N-YHS on October 2, 1945, of over 400 members and guests passed a unanimous resolution opposing demolition, and the resolution was forwarded to Mayor LaGuardia the next day.
Vail and N-YHS President (i.e., Board Chairman) George Zabriskie appeared and spoke briefly in advance of McAneny at the Board of Estimate meeting of October 11, 1945. Though that vote went against the preservation effort, McAneny was able to engage the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, D.C. in the effort. Eventually, this was the path to victory, as Castle Clinton was preserved as a national monument, leading to mutual congratulations in an exchange of letters between Vail and McAneny.
The 2015-2016 New-York Historical Society Institutional Archives project was made possible by a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation.