Obituary: John Belle, 1932-2016
John Belle, who died this week at 84, helped restore several of New York City’s most important buildings, including Grand Central Terminal and the soaring Enid Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. Those efforts earned Belle and the firm he co-founded, Beyer Blinder Belle, a reputation as guardians of the city’s architectural treasures. But when the same firm answered a call for conceptual designs for the World Trade Center site, it was broadsided by criticism from the public and the profession.
Born in Cardiff, Wales, and educated in England, Belle moved to the United States in 1959, just in time to witness the destruction of cities by proponents of “urban renewal.” “I was determined to find a different way,” Belle later wrote. In 1968, after working for Jose Luis Sert and Victor Gruen, he started a firm with Richard L. Blinder and John Beyer. Inspired by the writings of Jane Jacobs, they focused not on “urban renewal” but on the actual renewal of historic buildings. But, Beyer said in a 2014 interview, many architects “thought we were crazy. The profession came to preservation very, very slowly.”
The firm’s first projects were tenement renovations in Brooklyn and the Bronx. But its careful approach to restoration gradually led to higher-profile commissions. Its acclaimed 1990 renovation of the abandoned Main Building of the Ellis Island Immigration Station turned the structure into the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. The firm’s next triumph was the renovation of Grand Central Terminal, which included the creation of an all-new marble stairway on the east side of the building. With the new stairway, Belle proved that he was capable of making buildings not just good-as-new, but better. Writing in the New York Times, Herbert Muschamp said the firm’s greatest accomplishment was “to reveal that Grand Central is above all a monument to movement.” Other projects included the restoration of the South Street Seaport and the creation of a landscaped mall that brought lawns, fountains, and colorful plantings to the campus of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In May 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey selected Beyer Blinder Belle to present “concept plans” for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. But the firm, known for historically inflected architecture, never had a chance — and not just because it was given an overly ambitious program and an absurdly tight deadline. Muschamp wrote that the selection of Beyer Blinder Belle “confirms once again that architecture will play no more than a marginal role in the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan.” When the plans were released, Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in The Wall Street Journal, dubbed them "six cookie-cutter losers.” In August, the LMDC started from scratch, announcing the competition that eventually led to the selection of Daniel Libeskind as master planner. That Libeskind’s plan was very similar to one of BBB’s proposals, called Memorial Plaza, was beside the point. In 2003, Belle told the New York Times, “We were so heavily criticized by everybody for the blandness of the schemes,” a reaction he blamed in part on the whiteness of the firm’s presentation models. “If those had only been some glassy, shimmering material,” he said.
It’s true that what were meant as conceptual studies were viewed by some observers as architectural pitches. “He was being judged on buildings he hadn’t designed and had no intention of designing,” said Margaret Pine, a longtime friend. “Someone would say, ‘I don’t like that top,’ and people who should have known better went along.” She said Belle was devastated by the response.
Paul Goldberger, in his book Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York, quotes Belle as saying, “We were the first line of soldiers over the trenches, and you know what happens to them in wartime.”
Belle is survived by two sons, three daughters, and eight grandchildren, as well as the scores of buildings he helped bring back to life.