Margot Gayle: Gotham's Iron-Willed Preservationist
Today, historic preservation in New York City is a well-oiled machine, with powerful organizations and government agencies working together to ensure respectful treatment of the city’s architectural treasures.
In 1975, however, even in New York, historic preservation was largely a shoestring operation fueled by passion and staffed with volunteers.
It was then that architectural historian and writer Anthony W. Robins met Margot Gayle, a seminal and inspiring figure in local community activism for preservation. Robins saw an ad for a walking tour of “pre-Civil War cast-iron buildings” in Tribeca sponsored by the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture and decided to check it out. At that time, Tribeca was neglected, decrepit, and at risk of being razed, while Soho had only recently received historic designation and was still in rough condition.
About 70 people showed up for the tour, Robins recalls. They were met by volunteers passing out membership fliers and selling books. And then, as he wrote in a speech about Gayle:“…An older woman with bronze‑colored hair and a benevolent if breathless stage presence stands up on a bench; everyone gathers round, and she launches into a spiel about the little‑known glories of American cast‑iron architecture. Then off we go, down commercial streets and alleys deserted on a fall Sunday morning, listening attentively to the guides Margot has trained in the fine art of making rusty old cast‑iron buildings shine like new in the imaginations of total strangers.”
Hooked, Robins volunteered with the group Gayle founded, spending many evenings in her Greenwich Village apartment doing whatever she wanted him to do for the cause—because that’s the kind of woman Gayle was: determined, single-minded of purpose (she had no time for small talk, Robins recalls), and impossible to refuse. To be asked by Gayle to take on a job, Robins says, was never an imposition—it was an honor. To be part of her inner circle was a thrill.
“She was brilliant,” Robins says. “People always did what Margot asked. It was part charm, part persistence.”
Born Margaret McCoy in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1908, Gayle lived several lives before devoting herself to preservation. She earned a master’s degree in bacteriology; was a script writer for CBS Radio; wrote an architecture column for the New York Daily News; worked in public relations; married, divorced and raised a family; and ran (unsuccessfully) for the city council in New York using the slogan, “We need a woman in City Hall.”Gayle was inspired to architectural activism in the late 1950s by the wildly elaborate and imminently threatened Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse around the corner from her apartment. In what she called an “opening gambit,” Gayle and a group she gathered in her kitchen lobbied to have the clock in the building tower repaired, figuring that if the clock worked, people might be less hostile towards the old building and it could ultimately be saved. Nearly a decade later, and with other preservationists joining the cause, the building reopened as the Jefferson Market Library. In 1969 it was designated part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
In 1966, with Brendan Gill and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Gayle co-founded the Victorian Society in America, responding to the horrific destruction New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. She founded the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture in 1970.
“She did it all on a shoestring,” says Robins, who eventually was co-chair of walking tours for the cast-iron organization. “Membership was $2 a year and you got this little card with a magnet on the back. You would see dozens of people walking past buildings with their little magnets, sticking them on cast-iron buildings.”
Gayle was the engine behind everything the group did. “Margot did the organizing,” Robins says. “She got the letter-writing campaigns going. If there was a threat to a cast-iron building anywhere in the country, not just in New York, she would say, ‘You can’t let this happen. You’ve got to write letters.’”
Thanks to Gayle’s efforts, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee designated about 26 blocks as the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District in 1973; it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Although the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture disbanded when Gayle ran out of steam late in life, the Victorian Society is today a well-established nationwide organization.
A true pioneer in preservation, Gayle died in 2008 at the age of 100.“Today preservation is established. There are government agencies and bureaucracies,” says Robins. “But there would be no such laws were it not for people like Margot. Behind every preservation success story is a person who put everything else aside in their life to make sure it happens.”