George F. McAneny’s accomplishments as a civic leader and private citizen during the first half of the twentieth century improved our city’s civil service, subway, city planning, zoning, parks, and historic preservation systems forever.
But his accomplishments hardly stopped at the city limits. By helping to establish the National Trust for Historic Preservation and heading the Regional Plan Association, McAneny ensured his vision would have regional and national ramifications for generations to come.
Nevertheless, his name is relatively unknown to twenty-first century New Yorkers. McAneny was quick to give credit to others and did not seek the limelight or even have time to write his memoirs.
We put forward this extended biography to bring George McAneny forward from relative obscurity during his 150th Anniversary Year, and invite you to explore it. We also encourage you to visit the New York Preservation Archive Project’s excellent summary of George McAneny’s life and accomplishments along with the transcript of our prior exhibition at Federal Hall.
McAneny wrote for the New York World where, among other things,
he wrote about the lives of the wealthy and early historic preservation efforts.
By 1891, McAneny was writing as a contributor to Harper’s Weekly, the POLITICO of its day and forum of choice for the legendary political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Editor George William Curtis soon recruited McAneny to become Secretary of the Civil Service Reform League. Curtis died shortly afterward, and Carl Schurz, as the new Chairman of the League, became McAneny’s self-described “godfather.”
Schurz guided McAneny through the reform landscape and introduced him to influential men that included Seth Low, Robert De Forest, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Seth Low, as Mayor of the City of New York in 1902, tapped McAneny to help draft the city’s civil service reform rules.
Schurz also introduced McAneny to his close friends, the Drs. Abraham and Mary Putnam Jacobi. These legendary New York physicians were especially concerned with the health of women and children when such efforts were less than fashionable. It was to be more than an arm’s-length friendship, as McAneny wed the Jacobis’ daughter, Marjorie, on January 4, 1900.
McAneny also worked for attorney Edward Morse Shepard, counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad – then the “Standard Railroad of the World.” Shepard wasted no time putting McAneny to work on the negotiations between New York State and the Pennsylvania over its plans to build New York City’s original Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station. The experience of lobbying for a monumental station and tunnel complex gave McAneny early insight into the complexities of transit and planning in the City of New York.
After such wide-ranging experiences, a pivot to politics was inevitable. Though a Democrat, McAneny joined with Republicans to lead a reform movement on the Fusion ticket. He was elected President of the Borough of Manhattan and served from 1910 to 1913. McAneny then served as President of the Board of Aldermen from 1914 to 1916, which also gave him a post on the all-powerful Board of Estimate.
A lesser man might have followed a storied playbook: Politics as personal piggybank. Instead, McAneny envisioned these posts as an opportunity to decrease the cronyism in government and improve the health and living conditions of New Yorkers crowded along existing subway lines and cramped into substandard neighborhoods
Although Gotham built its first subway at the beginning of the twentieth century, public officials agreed the subway system desperately required expansion. Nevertheless, controversy regarding where lines should go and how they should be financed resulted in a period of construction stalemate.
In 1910, as Borough President and past President of the City Club of New York, McAneny forged a coalition to break the transit logjam. From his leadership positions, McAneny spearheaded the development of new subway lines in Manhattan and out to the boroughs in an effort to spur safe, affordable, and healthy housing for the huddled masses.
To do so, McAneny championed a form of public-private partnership then known as the Dual Contracts. Under this framework – a model still used and heralded by infrastructure advocates to this day – the subways gained over 300 miles of track through a partnership between city and state agencies and the private IRT and BRT rapid transit companies. As historian Peter Derrick put it, implementing the Dual Contracts was “the most important decision made by New York’s government in the twentieth century.”
City planning and zoning also rapidly became hallmarks of McAneny’s career. He worked with attorney Edward Bassett to create New York’s 1916 comprehensive zoning ordinance. The ordinance was the first of its kind in the United States and a blueprint for other growing cities across the land.
Zoning provides neighborhoods with legal protections governing changes in the size, shape, and scope of their built environment. Prior to zoning ordinances, builders were free to construct in their image without concern for light, air, and the other innumerable factors that make communities inhabitable and enjoyable.
McAneny’s partner Bassett called him the “father of zoning in this country.” McAneny’s 1916 zoning ordinance brought forth height restrictions to let light and air into congested urban jungles. McAneny also widened Fifth Avenue and battled to remove encroachments such as stoops, structures, and vendor stalls. His administration oversaw building projects, and even pushed for construction of the Manhattan Municipal Building and the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.
To cap it all off, McAneny became the first President of the Regional Plan Association, which continues to advocate for McAneny’s principles to this day. From 1930 to 1942, McAneny used the post to advance his proven ideals across Greater New York and its environs
New York is scattered with examples of McAneny’s efforts to enhance and preserve the fabric and history of the city he loved. These efforts were not done singlehandedly, but historians and colleagues often credit him with having the passion, perseverance, contacts, and ability to encourage the involvement of multiple organizations, the media, and influential individuals to take on powerful businesses and political forces such as Robert Moses.
Like today, these efforts often took years before coming to fruition. Nevertheless, the results now stand as important landmarks that enable ordinary New Yorkers to celebrate the livability and uniqueness of the metropolis they love.
As Borough President, McAneny moved the roads of Northern Manhattan’s city grid to accommodate the geography of the Isham family’s gifted land now known as Isham Park. He worked with the Ambassador of Japan to plant thousands of cherry trees in Riverside Park. He championed the efforts to establish and name Carl Schurz Park in 1910. And in 1913, McAneny even helped save the Bronx’s beloved Edgar Allan Poe Cottage.
By the time 1915 came around, New York’s City Hall, although preserved, was famously decrepit. McAneny championed its restoration in partnership with Grosvenor Atterbury, William De Forest and Olivia Slocum Sage. He continued the effort to secure a complete restoration and, on February 28, 1949, was honored at a testimonial dinner after Mayor O’Dwyer secured approval for the expenditure of city funds to restore the structure’s exterior.
McAneny continued to play an important role as “facilitator” in the movement to create a grand Civic Center north of Chambers Street, including the construction of Foley Square and the New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street. This involved preserving City Hall Park and, inadvertently, the Tweed Courthouse – a notorious symbol of Tammany-era graft. Legendary attorney and preservationist Albert Bard urged that Foley Square be named for McAneny in honor of his ability, “with others, [to bring] a new spirit into the political and civic life of New York.”
McAneny also partnered with the Federal Government to designate Federal Hall a national landmark. From his post as Chairman of the Board for the 1939 World’s Fair, McAneny organized a preservation campaign to coincide with the 150th anniversary of George Washington taking the oath as President of the United States at that site. McAneny then went on to become chair of the Federal Hall Memorial Associates to elevate Federal Hall’s prominence. Pioneering a technique used by preservationists to this day, McAneny harnessed World War II-era patriotism to encourage everyday New Yorkers to preserve, improve, and celebrate the storied site.
For his many contributions, McAneny’s visage now graces a marble plaque on permanent display on Federal Hall’s monumental first floor. The plaque commends McAneny as a “Pioneer in City Planning, Protector of Historic Places, Leader of a City” and “Friend Beyond Compare
By casting a stone at New York’s infamous Master Builder, McAneny catapulted himself onto the national stage.
In 1939, McAneny and his colleagues lost their initial effort to keep Robert Moses from obliterating Battery Park with a massive vehicular bridge to Brooklyn. But McAneny’s friends and their connections at the White House, especially Eleanor Roosevelt, stopped the bridge and arranged for a loan to build a tunnel instead. This saved Battery Park from destruction – and enabled countless future New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy a view of the Statue of Liberty from the harbor she forever guards.
McAneny and his colleagues went on to prevent Moses from destroying Castle Clinton, the venerable fortification which graces the Battery’s southern front. McAneny encouraged a coalition of organizations to partner with the National Park Service to raise awareness of the fort’s significance.
In 1942, McAneny became President of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. In this role and through his perseverance and contacts, Castle Clinton became a Federal Landmark in 1950 and was thus saved from destruction.
McAneny’s later preservation efforts led to his intimate involvement with the establishment of the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation. This carried his influence across the country, and spurred a frenzy of activity in the final years of his life. During this period, McAneny advocated for the preservation of federal-style houses on the north side of New York’s Washington Square Park and helped save Revolutionary battlefields in Princeton, New Jersey.
Throughout his career, McAneny received many awards and medals, and multiple testimonial dinners were held to honor his leadership. In 1945, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society established the George McAneny Medal for Outstanding Leadership in Historic Preservation. This medal is now under the purview of the United States National Park Foundation.
Even his opponents, from Tammany Hall to Robert Moses, attended a variety of events held solely in his honor – a true testament to the level at which McAneny was respected and successful. His leadership skills are relevant today, as he developed inclusive coalitions, listened to constituents, expressed willingness to compromise, was a persistent negotiator who kept his word, called on friends and contacts made throughout his life, and quietly and professionally coped with disappointment.
Nevertheless, George McAneny never gave up his principles and vision. And most times, after many years of persistent efforts, he and his colleagues broke logjams and moved the city forward.
There are so many places in New York City where one can see, acknowledge, and honor George McAneny’s legacy firsthand. This biography barely scratches the surface of where one should be able to find a marker, a bench, or even a cherry tree.
We look forward to including you as we celebrate this 150th Anniversary of George McAneny’s birth, and invite you to contact us with your ideas for making it a year to remember.
On behalf of our entire alliance, we thank you for your time, interest, and dedication to the New York of George F. McAneny.