Paul Gunther, who died in May at the age of 65, was an advocate, curator, and executive at major New York City civic, architectural, and preservation organizations. For decades, he helped the public appreciate architecture’s significance and the crucial role it plays in enriching urban identity.
Though sunny with an easy sociability, Gunther was subject to depression. He died after a suicide attempt.
Gunther was not an architect: his bachelor’s degree from Yale was in art history. But the cause of architecture emerged as a constant across his career. Born and raised near Rochester, New York, he credited his parents—both avid birdwatchers—for inculcating in him acute powers of observation that enabled his architectural pursuits.
Working for New York’s Municipal Art Society in the late 1980s, Gunther helped the city’s Parks Department and its Art Commission find private sponsors to conserve neglected monuments and managed their restoration. He promoted the inclusion of exuberant signage in the planned redevelopment of then-decaying Times Square, to be applied even to sober office buildings—a gesture of respect to the area’s commercial and entertainment history.
As a development director, Gunther helped raise funds for the American Center in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry, and aided in the resuscitation of the New York Historical Society—a nearly moribund institution in the 1990s—which today fills a vital role in preserving and narrating the city’s history. In these complex endeavors, he affably yet persistently connected and convened interest groups, government agencies, and donors.
As president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America (now the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art), he invigorated two struggling organizations that had just merged, expanding chapters, classes, tours, and lectures. And he helped Habitat for Humanity develop low-cost homes that would fit gracefully into historic districts. A pragmatist, he developed a well-earned reputation as an honest broker rather than a rigid purist when stylistic debates turned ideological.
In 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Gunther curator of Gracie Mansion, the 18th-century Federal-style house that is home to mayors and their families. Working with outside curators and de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, Gunther enriched the work exhibited on the mansion’s walls beyond “lovely pictures of New York,” as he put it, favored by most mayors. These explorations of native culture, women’s accomplishments, and the place of slavery in the city’s history brought new relevance to the house’s collections.
He is survived by his longtime partner, architect Joel Sanders, principal of JSA/MIXdesign, and a professor at the Yale School of Architecture.