The big plans of Barry Benepe

Barry Benepe (photo by Dion Ogust)

Over the course of his long career, Saugerties’ Barry Benepe has had a beneficial impact on the quality of life in our cities and towns. His greatest contribution is perhaps the founding, with colleague Bob Lewis, of Greenmarket, the network of New York City farmers’ markets that began in 1976. The rest is history: New York City now has 70 market days – some locations, such as Union Square, have two or more markets a week – and the trend has spread to cities and towns all over America.

Benepe, who looks amazingly fit for age 89 – he still climbs the stairs to his fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village – earned degrees from Williams College and MIT, with a stint at Cooper Union in between. He is a licensed architect who worked at several architectural and planning firms starting in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, he was a planner in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, designing and overseeing the engineering of a series of pedestrian walkways and public squares; it was a radical departure from the job he was hired to do – design new highways and malls – but won the support of the municipality.

Back in America, he did design and planning work for New York City’s urban renewal agency, creating plans for the Upper West Side. By then, planning had evolved from Robert Moses’ brutal slum clearance, and the projects that Benepe worked on sought to rehabilitate existing buildings for low-income housing and preserve others, as well as tear down some tenement buildings on the basis of their poor design. He created a design that would integrate the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions into the neighborhood and streetscape, made renderings of multifunctional street amenities and benches and designed ways to improve that area’s walkability. While some of his plans sat on the shelf (one of the frustrations of the municipal planner is that he or she lacks the political clout and administrative tools to get the job done), decades later certain elements became reality.

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In 1968, Benepe brought his planning expertise to Newburgh, when he was hired as the city’s first planner. He discovered that the Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency was tearing down chunks of the early-19th-century streets that had attracted him to the city in the first place. He fought for plans that would harmonize with the existing neighborhood and save rather than destroy the historic buildings. He was successful in proposing a mixed-income housing project and spearheaded the creation of the East End Historic District, which stopped the bulldozers and saved many buildings of historic significance, such as the Dutch Reformed Church, the County Courthouse and several homes along Grand and Montgomery Streets.

Benepe’s passion for historic preservation manifested in two books: Early Architecture in Ulster County, commissioned by the Junior League of Kingston, and Newburgh Revealed, a survey of outstanding Victorian architecture, including buildings that had been torn down by urban renewal, with photographs by John Bayley and Benepe and text by Arthur Channing Downs, Jr. and Benepe.

In the late 1970s, he started spending time in Woodstock and had a hand in creating its first zoning map, which incorporated contour lines, floodplains and water bodies. It was at this time that he hired Bob Lewis to work at his planning firm. The two men began talking about how to save the farmland that was vanishing around them: a conversation that ultimately led to the founding of Greenmarket in New York City.

Today, Benepe and his wife, Judith Spektor, divide their time between their home in Greenwich Village, which he has had for decades, and their Saugerties farmhouse, bought in 1983. Married three times (Benepe notes that the twists and turns of his career were in some instances determined by his relationships), he has five children. His son Adrian followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as New York City’s parks commissioner for eleven years (currently he is senior vice president and director of city parkland for the Trust for Public Land). Benepe remains active in local planning efforts, serving as vice-chair of Saugerties’ Comprehensive Planning Committee and a member of its Historic Preservation Commission. He is also a founder and active organizer of the Saugerties Farmers’ Market. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Benepe.

You were born in 1928 and grew up in Gramercy Park. What did your parents do, and what were your childhood and student years like?

My mother was an artist who did fashion illustration, and my father had an embroidered-linen business on Madison Square. His company also imported Madeira wine from Portugal. I went to Friends’ Seminary, walking to school through a neighborhood dating from the mid-19th century: an exposure that probably explains why I have always been attracted to older parts of the city. I later went to St. Andrew’s, a boarding school in Delaware, then attended Williams College, where I initially majored in Economics and Spanish because I thought I would go into my father’s business. I took an art class in my junior year, which got me interested in European culture, and switched my major to Art History.

My dad paid for me to spend the summer in Europe; I traveled around on a bike with a roommate, staying in hostels. The influence was pretty profound: Amiens Cathedral impressed me, because even though it was so massive, the columns met the floor on a human scale. On a later trip, I saw Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel, which is extraordinary.

I entered a painting and a mixed-media piece into a student art show in my senior year, and both won First Prizes. I did stage design for the theater and worked on the class musical with Stephen Sondheim, who was a fellow student. After graduating from Williams, I went to Cooper Union. My father was really encouraging: When I was a child, he’d always take me to his office on Saturday and give me art materials. He had a resident artist who designed his printed cottons, and he had him teach me art. My mother gave me all her drawing materials and was a big influence also. I had an older brother who did go into the family business, so I was off the hook.

You were first exposed to planning principles at Cooper Union.

One of the basic courses I took at Cooper was Architectural Rendering, taught by Robert Stein, who was a member of the International Congresses for Modern Architecture, an interdisciplinary group of architects and artists who were following Le Corbusier. We would meet in the evenings at his office and discuss planning principles. I was part of a team project in which we had to design an outdoor museum. My task was to draw the site plan and coordinate the location of the buildings; even then I was doing planning, though architecture was the focus.

Stein talked about how to define communities in terms of their population. Planning intrigued me because it involved people and real life. Space can have a profound emotional impact, even if it’s not occupied. There’s a highrise by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill in Montparnasse, in Paris, that works with classical forms in a modern way. The building rises on classical columns and the scale is massive, but at the bottom of the building, people are having a good time running around. It works in a human way. Whereas the Barbican Center, in London, is dead.

You made a significant art purchase when you were at Cooper Union.

One of my teachers told me about a show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, so I went. The artist was Willem de Kooning, and I wanted to buy a small pastel priced at $350, entitled Woman. I only had $200 in my bank account, so Sidney said I could have it for that. I learned later I was the only buyer except for the Museum of Modern Art. De Kooning’s studio was in back of my loft, which was on the top floor and had a skylight; I never met him, but would see him painting. I later sold the pastel for $5,000. Recently it was featured on the cover of a brochure for an auction at Sotheby’s and was sold for $3.2 million.

What brought you to MIT? Any interesting summer jobs during this time?

One of my teachers suggested I apply to MIT, so I left Cooper after my second year (and never consulted my father; he was furious). I went to Morristown, New Jersey one summer to work on a housing project designed by Abraham Geller, who studied under Marcel Breuer. I was impressed with his approach: His ranch-style houses had low shed or peaked roofs and were connected to the garage or a carport with a breezeway, and he varied the texture of the board exteriors, which were vertical and horizontal, and painted them in earth colors. He also sited the houses so they fitted the land well. Part of my job was shaping the land, which I’d rake, like Rodin doing a sculpture.

One of the lecturers at MIT was Buckminster Fuller, and Carl Koch was a teacher of Architecture who designed a housing project in which the houses had a glass gable end, from the peak to the ground, outside of Cambridge. I took a course in Planning and left with a degree in Architecture, graduating in 1955.

What were some aspects of your plans for the Upper West Side?

The plan that encompassed West 86th, Central Park West, West 96th and Columbus Avenue had a three-pronged approach based on conservation, especially along Central Park West, rehabbing the brownstones on the side streets and redevelopment of Columbus Avenue. We tried to convert rooming houses into single-family homes. I was doing propaganda for urban renewal – making before-and-after renderings that showed a room with a single lightbulb, which after rehab had a modern elegant bedroom with good daylight.

Some of the tenements were bought by the New York City Housing Authority and converted into apartments, which was the most successful low-income housing because it was integrated into the existing housing. I made models of high-rises with glass fronts that weren’t great. We created pedestrian walkways that were set back 100 feet from the avenue, which didn’t make sense; later we refocused the sidewalk back to the avenue, to emphasize the traditional retail component. I also had open spaces created mid-block between the sides of the buildings. It didn’t happen in this project, but the concept has been adopted in the last 30 years.

What are your ideas for affordable housing?

When I was in Newburgh in 1968, I designed a housing project for single-person houses. I called them patio houses, since each had a veranda. The problem with public housing is the design is separate from the city, and there’s no frontage on the street. The developers didn’t create any ground-floor use, where people could sit outside and have a barbecue.

What was different about your experience in England?

Newcastle-upon-Tyne was unique because enormous numbers of people walked to the center or took buses. We linked the walkways to the center, the heartblood of the city; and we valued the historic architecture, including stairs that went down to the waterfront. All that history was still there. In England they take planning seriously; here it’s seen as advisory, with developers making the determination.

How did you learn about Newburgh?

I read about Newburgh in The New York Times and was intrigued by the photos of cobblestone streets; it was a hotbed of Romantic 19th-century architecture. I was hired by the city manager as the first city planner. John Stillman, who came from a lot of money – his family had given money for Palisades Park – was the director of urban renewal. He’d been hired through the Democrats and was a friend of Hubert Humphrey.

I learned about the Hudson River School of painting and landscape architecture and how that tradition was represented in Newburgh, and I found out on the job that it was being destroyed. I went into the houses, which were pretty much owned by black people, such as the Samuel Hodge funeral home on Montgomery, designed by Calvert Vaux for W. E. Warren in 1857. It was described by professor George Tatum as “the most outstanding of Vaux’s residential designs in the United States.” These people were middle-class black families who had moved to Newburgh early on, and the owners were proud of their homes. There were still remnants of professionalism and a solid middle-class community, but people were moving out to the Town of New Windsor.

What were some of your ideas?

Part of Colden Street had been torn down when I got there, and I brought in the developers Bogdanoff and Tangredi, who worked in Westchester, to show how the waterfront could be built. The city manager was very supportive and arranged a meeting with mayor George McNeally. After McNeally refused to meet with the developers, they concluded, “We know when we’re not wanted.”

I designed Palatine Square, a public space fronting the monumental 1835 Dutch Reformed Church. My design served to integrate the historic structure with three existing buildings around a square with a view of the Hudson; parking was provided underground. Unfortunately, it was never built. [Instead, the new public library was constructed with little regard for the adjacent church, which is now in a desperate state of neglect and serves as a backdrop for parked cars.]

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Rosen Associates had produced a plan in 1966 that would have leveled the entire East End, which Stillman supported. After a public hearing at which I spoke about the value of 33 historic buildings slated for demolition, Stillman said, essentially, “Drop dead.” The Federal Housing Act had just been amended to require urban renewal plans to take into account historic resources, which the Rosen plan did not do. One of the Republican members of the City Council supported my plan for the East End, because retaining the buildings meant there would be less pressure to relocate people.

Was racism a factor in making these decisions?

In 1970 I was living on Grand Street, and an interracial couple wanted to get married in a public park, where there was a natural amphitheater of evergreens. They had a permit, but at the last minute the city prevented them from having the wedding. I said, “You can have it on my lawn,” which they did. I had a sailboat, and I later heard from the head of the Planning Board, who was a member of the Yacht Club, something disturbing. A county legislator, who was head of the Yacht Club, had told the members, “Benepe wanted to become a member of the Yacht Club, but I told him I didn’t want him or his nigger friends here.”

Wow, that’s terrible. And this was in the early 1970s. Did anything positive come out of your plans?

Mario Cuomo was wrong when he championed the people in Queens who didn’t want low-income housing in Forest Hills Gardens. I proposed that the Lake Street District low-income project in Newburgh planned for the West Side of the city include middle-class housing and shopping. Mid-Hudson Patterns for Progress enlarged my project to three times the size and made it work. The state wanted to reroute a proposed arterial to the west, but I opposed that, and lobbied to keep Route 9W as an avenue and create a greenway that links to the waterfront.

After your job was eliminated by the new city manager, you didn’t go away.

With others, I started the Greater Newburgh Arts Council to carry through a plan for the East End Historic District. We produced an alternate plan entitled Newburgh Revealed, which was funded by the National Trust and New York Council of the Arts. Jack Present, who took over from Stillman, wanted to tear down the Dutch Reformed Church. That plan led to the creation of the Historic District by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, one of the earliest state-designated Historic Districts.

You and Bob Lewis had a great idea: starting urban farmers’ markets as a way to keep local farms in business. How did you actually make it happen?

We had a model in Syracuse, which we read about in The New York Times. I got in touch with Susan Snook, director of the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, who started the market, and found it was very successful. We went to foundations to fund a feasibility study and presented a proposal to the Council of the Environment of New York City, a nonprofit run by city agencies and businesses. I became their consultant and the head of the newly formed Greenmarket. My role was to raise money to pay my salary.

An employee of the Kaplan Foundation suggested using a lot near her house, on 59th Street and Second Avenue, which was used by the police to park their cars; I had to meet with a lot of people to make this happen. The market opened in 1976, and the locale was ideal because Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s department stores were a block away. I was in charge of publicity, sending out news releases, since there was no money for ads. The TV networks covered the story as a wrap-up on the weekend news. The word was out big-time.

The next year two additional markets opened in the city, including one at Union Square. The park was dying on its feet; drug traffic had taken over, and the adjoining stores were closing. After seeing the market at 59th Street, the head of the Manhattan Planning Office asked if we could open a market at the Square as a way to help save the neighborhood. I said, “Sure, if you can get the required permits from the Traffic and Highway Departments.” We got them, and the first few years were dismal.

But people began writing about us. Bob also opened a market in Harlem, partnering with Harlem Teams for Self-Help, and got writer John McPhee to work at the market behind a stand, which led to a story published in The New Yorker entitled “Giving Good Weight.” “Giving Good Weight” was read into the Congressional Record by a congressman from California. The farmers’-market movement went national.

You’re currently active in planning efforts in Saugerties. What are the challenges?

I’ve spoken to the woman who runs the HUD office in Saugerties, and she said the waiting list for low-income housing runs into the hundreds. There’s a great need and a lot of resistance. Although there is a provision in the zoning law that stipulates ten percent of new housing in conservation subdivisions should be affordable, no developers have adopted this. The provision allows for cluster planning, which creates an average zoning density for a given parcel, saving open space and allowing for ribbons of open space connecting development; but no such developments have yet been built. There’s also a proposal by the town to allow illuminated moving-image signs. I’ve done drawings showing both how bad they would look and how much better the normal permitted signs appear.

Any suggestions on how to change this mindset?

We should go back to the 19th-century roots of the Hudson River School of painting, architecture and landscape architecture. Those artists in the 1850s had a vision of nature and architecture working together that’s very relevant today. One positive effort is the creation of the Saugerties Farmers’ Market, which connects people to the land and saves working farms.

The Saugerties Farmers’ Market opens its 17th season on Saturday, May 26, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Cahill Elementary School parking lot at 115 Main Street in Saugerties. For more information, visit www.saugertiesfarmersmarket.com.

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