Edward Kirkland, who helped preserve historic Chelsea, dies at 96

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Edward Kirkland, who helped preserve historic Chelsea, dies at 96
Edward S. Kirkland on Aug. 12, 2012 on the High Line, a ribbon of green on a former rail line in Manhattan that he had a role in establishing. Kirkland, a preservationist who played a role in shaping some of the most beloved and characteristic sections of lower Manhattan, including the High Line, Hudson River Park and Chelsea’s historic districts, died on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. He was 96. Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Edward S. Kirkland, a preservationist who played a role in shaping some of the most beloved and characteristic sections of lower Manhattan, including the High Line, Hudson River Park and Chelsea’s historic districts, died Tuesday. He was 96.

His death, at his Manhattan apartment, was confirmed by his guardian, Pamela Wolff.

A New Englander who moved to New York in the late 1950s, Kirkland became a member of his block association in the West 20s in the Chelsea neighborhood. At the time, the historic low-rise district was threatened by residential and commercial development, and longtime tenants faced displacement.

That involvement blossomed into full-time dedication to local governance and betterment. In 1982, he became a member of Community Board 4, where he headed the Preservation and Planning Committee. He was a founder of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association and, for periods, served as chairman of the Hudson River Park Advisory Historic Working Group and as chairman of the citywide Historic Districts Council’s designation committee, whose mission is to protect individual structures and neighborhoods in New York from development and destruction.

He also successfully lobbied for the enactment of the first New York City zoning plan developed by residents rather than centralized city planners and the designation of the West Chelsea Historic District.

Kirkland was not an early enthusiast of preserving the derelict elevated freight tracks that snaked through the Lower West Side. But he was visionary enough to introduce Robert Hammond, a vocal supporter of preserving the structure, to Joshua David, a community board member who also opposed its demolition, at a special committee meeting of the community board in 1999.

“Everything went from there,” Kirkland recalled in an interview for the New York Preservation Archive Project in 2010.

As Hammond told The New York Times in 2012, “I had called Ed after reading an article that said the High Line was going to be torn down, and he filled me in on what he knew and called me back a few weeks later to tell me about that special meeting.” He added, “If not for Ed, I would never have known about it.”

Hammond and David joined forces and created Friends of the High Line, raised funds, successfully lobbied officials and transformed a rusting eyesore into an aerial pedestrian greensward that has become one of the city’s most popular new outdoor attractions.

“When it came to preserving the High Line as a park, at first I didn’t think it would work,” Kirkland said in another interview. “But the boys wound up showing me I was wrong.”

And once he became convinced, Kirkland lent his support.

“At every step of the High Line’s adaptive reuse, Ed was a passionate advocate for thoughtful city planning and the best interests of a community he held dear,” David said.

Tom Fox, founding president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, credited Kirkland with championing the Chelsea Waterside Park and the entire 4-mile-long Hudson River Park, which was authorized by the state in 1998, a strategy, Fox said, “which is increasingly rare in this current age of advocacy increasingly focused on one’s self-interest."

“He was a dogged community advocate, knowledgeable, irascible, but flexible with a good sense of humor,” Fox said. “He played a major role in the park’s foundation.”

Simeon Bankoff, a former executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said Kirkland “always regarded himself as a planner before being a doctrinaire preservationist” and “wanted to preserve all the many historic aspects which still survived, while making room for new development which respected the historic forms of a neighborhood.”

Edward Stevens Kirkland was born June 15, 1925, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Edward C. Kirkland, an economic historian, and June (Babson) Kirkland. He grew up in Rhode Island and Maine, where his father taught at Bowdoin College.

He served in the Army during World War II and was a prisoner of war in Germany, earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, where he studied French and math, and embarked on a doctorate at Yale. He taught French at Williams College and worked as a computer programmer when he moved to New York. He also supported himself with a modest inheritance.

In his work for historic preservation and in his service on the community board, from which he retired in 2012, he established a reputation for Old World gentility in a neighborhood more accustomed to intemperate name-calling.

“When he spoke, we listened carefully,” Robert B. Tierney, a former chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, said. “He was a passionate preservationist, and a man of integrity, never afraid of standing alone when the situation called for it.”

Kirkland put it this way: “I am genteel. I even get along with developers. While I may not agree with them, I realize they probably believe what they’re doing is right, because otherwise you can’t like yourself.”

Kirkland’s wife, Ruth, died in 2009, and he had no immediate survivors.

He said he joined the community board in part because his wife bemoaned his lack of a hobby.

“I do ask myself, ‘Would I have been more useful if I had gone into a regular career?’" he recalled. “Surely it would have been easier for my wife not to have to continually explain why I was not gainfully employed. But would it have been better for this community? No, I don’t think so.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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