Landmarks Research Director Mary Beth Betts on her Career, the Commission, and the Fabric of the City

Betts Profile

Mary Beth Betts

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Director of Research Mary Beth Betts supervises a staff of 12 that is responsible for the research and writing of designation reports, the review of requests for evaluation submitted to the Commission, and the conduct of surveys to identify buildings or districts worthy of designation. She is also involved in the environmental review process for major City projects, the identification of significant historic resources, and helps to educate the public about the City’s landmarks.

Betts has served the Commission for almost 14 years, after a career spent largely in academia and museums. She received her doctorate in architectural history from City University after obtaining her undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Virginia. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was Austrian-born architect Joseph Urban, whose work in the City includes the New School and the Hearst Building. She has taught architectural history at the Cooper Union, worked for the Brooklyn Museum, where she helped organize their archives, and served as curator of architecture for the New York Historical Society. She began serving the City in the mid-1980s through the Art Commission, where she worked in the archives and curated exhibitions. Betts applied to Landmarks after the preceding Director of Research, Marjorie Pearson, left the position in 1999, and has been at Landmarks ever since.

Betts identifies the Bedford Stuyvesant Historic District, which was the subject of spirited hearings where wide community support was voiced, as matter of particular pride. In a process which began in the 1980s, Landmarks outreach, which included educational seminars by research department staff, forged successful community partnerships and helped persuade residents of the benefits of landmark protection. The Commission is expected to vote on the designation by the end of June, which Betts hopes will bring satisfactory “closure” to the department’s efforts in “a beautiful, beautiful area.”

She was also pleased by the designation of the Cities Service Building which she says “I have loved since I moved to New York,” in 1979. Given her love of Modernist architecture, the Summit Hotel, the Japan Society, and the Paul Rudolph House are also sources of satisfaction. Fieldston, Sunnyside Gardens, St. Paul’s Avenue-Stapleton Heights, and DUMBO Historic Districts are district designations she identifies as personally resonant.

Betts says the biggest change in the research department during her tenure has been that “we have definitely leapt on the technology.” When she first arrived at Landmarks, research was almost entirely “library-driven,” and a significant amount of staff time was spent travelling and accessing resources in public institutions. The research done by Betts’s department is often original and from the ground up, using Department of Buildings and Department of Finance records, tax photos, and  contemporary periodicals, as well as some secondary sources like the works of Robert A.M. Stern. With the online accessibility of resources like the New York Time’s archives,, and Google Books, the research department’s work has become exponentially more efficient. She cites the recently designated Rainbow Room as a rare example of a subject with a plethora of secondary histories, but staff still went to the Rockefeller archives to understand the site’s early history and the contributions of various architects and designers for different components of the space.

Betts stated that the thinking on landmarking has changed during her time to include more than just striking architecture remaining substantially intact since its construction. Such thinking was reflected in the designation of individual landmarks in Staten Island’s Sandy Ground, where, though the structures have been substantially altered, they are significant as “the last things that remain” of the unique community in an area that is being “subsumed by rowhouse development.” Thinking about significant structures and areas can also change as scholarship evolves, and Betts maintains involvement in the Society of Architectural Historians and the Vernacular Architecture Forum, to stay abreast of scholarship in her field, and to know which colleagues to reach out to. As an example, Betts notes that the City’s apartment buildings were not considered a significant building type before Elizabeth Cromley’s work on the subject in the 1990s. Similarly, Art Deco architecture, a style for which there is now “a real appreciation,” was widely disregarded prior to the establishment of Landmarks.

Under Betts’s guidance, the Research Department has grown from two full-time and two part-time staff members, to its current team of 12, a number at which Betts believes is finally able to “respond to demand,”  and can adequately survey and make recommendations on historic districts, and in being responsive to advocacy groups and other community stakeholders. Betts credits the Bloomberg administration for allowing the Commission to expand its staff across departments in response to increased permit activity.

Betts has also seen the level of community engagement with preservation increase during her time at the Commission. Staff members are “in the field” interacting with communities in areas of historic interest and her office is also open to inquiries from community members. She describes this aspect of public interaction as “mostly a real pleasure.” Another benefit of the hands-on work of Landmarks, is the “incredible way to see parts of New York, that, if you were an academic, you would never see.” She describes her position as “not only engaged with the built fabric, but you’re engaged with the social life of the community.”

–Jesse Denno


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