Remembering Joan K. Davidson: The Godmother of New York Preservation

Joan Davidson at the Tenth Anniversary of Westbeth 1980. Photo by Shelley Seccombe. Courtesy of Westbeth. 

Joan Kaplan Davidson, preservationist, philanthropist, and ardent supporter of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts since its inception, died on Friday, August 11th, 2023 at the age of 96. Ms. Davidson's unparalleled legacy in historic preservation is best illustrated through the projects supported by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a foundation established by her father in 1945 that she helmed from 1977 to 1993. Some of Ms. Davidson's most impactful contributions to the City of New York include the creation of Westbeth Artists Housing, her fight to preserve Broadway theaters in the 1970s and early 1980s, and her support of the rescue and restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side. 

FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts owes an immense debt of gratitude to Joan K. Davidson and the J.M. Kaplan Fund. FRIENDS began as a group of volunteers interested in supporting preservation soon after the designation of the Upper East Side Historic District in 1981. In 1982, The Municipal Art Society, with the support of the J.M. Kaplan fund, headed by Ms. Davidson, assembled FRIENDS’ first Board of Directors. Halina Rosenthal became our first president, and our first employee was John Weiss, now LPC’s Deputy Counsel. Without Ms. Davidson's generosity, FRIENDS as we know it today may not exist.

In 2021, FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, along with the Historic Districts Council, LANDMARK WEST!, the Municipal Art Society of New York, and Village Preservation, hosted a book talk featuring It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York, with author Roberta Brandes Gratz and Kaplan Foundation alum Anthony C. Wood, about the immeasurable impact Ms. Davidson had on the historic built environment of New York City. You can learn more about Joan K. Davidson's legacy by watching the program below.