Frank Brandeis Gilbert, a lawyer who saved New York City's Grand Central Terminal and preserved tens of thousands of other historic properties nationwide while also wisely counseling generations of Harvard Crimson editors in his capacity as longtime chairman of the student newspaper's graduate board, has died.
Gilbert, a grandson of Justice Louis Brandeis, had Parkinson's Disease. I spoke to him on Wednesday May 4, and he agreed to join other Crimson alumni in signing on to a letter expressing dismay at the newspaper's recent editorial singling out Israel for a boycott. I told him in that conversation that I felt the Crimson had never really adequately thanked him for his years of service to the organization, and that I wanted to thank him, myself, for the time and energy and wisdom that he had devoted to the paper.
The highlight of Gilbert's professional career was almost certainly the 12-year battle to save Grand Central Terminal. Pennsylvania Station had been lost a few months before New York City created the Landmarks Preservation Commission, of which Gilbert was secretary and then executive director.
As Gilbert recalled it in a 2011 oral history interview, "I was concerned because the chairman of the Landmarks Commission had said to me— what happened to Penn Station must not happen to Grand Central. I guess from the very beginning, my job was really to make sure that we follow due process and didn't slip on a banana peel. I recognized how serious the situation was. My primary thought was really to be very careful, and be prepared for a very challenging situation."
In 1975 Gilbert left the Landmarks Preservation Commission and joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where he worked as a lawyer and as a field representative for decades, advising state and local governments on creating historic districts like the ones New York had created in Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and SoHo. At the Trust, he worked on an amicus brief that helped inform Justice Brennan's majority opinion, in Penn Central Transportation Co v. City of New York, that upheld the constitutionality of New York's landmark law and that effectively saved Grand Central Terminal. Parallel to the legal campaign, a public advocacy effort was waged that included allies such as Jackie Kennedy, who rode a train to Washington from New York for an event the Sunday before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.
At the Crimson, Gilbert served so long as graduate board chairman—it may have been as long as two decades, perhaps even longer—that eventually the organization rewrote the bylaws to impose term limits. The long service, however, had the virtue of providing experience, continuity, and institutional knowledge in an organization whose undergraduate leadership turned over entirely every year. Gilbert was a steady hand.
The graduate board chaired by Gilbert was a separate organization from the alumni-governed trust that owns the Crimson building. Gilbert provided a lawyerly attention to detail, regularly correcting undergraduates who referred to the Crimson's "profits"— in those years when the Crimson had profits— by advising them that, as the Crimson was organized as a nonprofit organization, he much preferred to stick to the term "surplus."
A highlight of my term as president of the Crimson was the chance to have lunch at the Harvest with Frank, who regularly made the trip from Washington to Cambridge for the annual graduate board lunch and meeting, and who was available by phone as needed for consultation in between.
He'll be missed. I was and am furious at the Crimson for that boycott-Israel editorial, but one virtue of its publication was that it caused me to be back in touch with Frank and his wife Ann after some years. He had long been active in the American Jewish Committee, as I learned when I served in Washington as the bureau chief of the Forward in the mid 1990s and Frank and I caught up. I am so glad I had the chance to talk to him before he died, and to have known him and learned from him.