Volume 74, Number 51 | April 27 - May 03 , 2005

To preserve and protect: H.D.C. to honor Diether

By Albert Amateau

Doris Diether, a Village preservation advocate for 45 years and a zoning expert of citywide repute, will receive the Historic District Council’s Mickey Murphy Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Council’s annual event next month.

A Community Board 2 member since 1964 — the longest board service in Manhattan, according to the Manhattan borough president’s office — Diether will be honored along with eight other persons and organizations at the May 12 event at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.

Diether, 76, a contributor to The Villager who writes about dance, entered the community preservation scene in 1959 when she joined the movement to save free Shakespeare performances in Central Park. The same year, as a tenant and housing activist, she helped found the Save the Village campaign to stop plans that included carving a new street — to be named Verrazano St. — in the southwest Village at Downing and Houston Sts. and replacing low-rise tenements with a large luxury housing development.

She went on to participate with Ruth Wittenberg and Jane Jacobs in the successful Village struggles against the devastating urban-renewal plans of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

This year’s Historic Districts Council Lifetime Achievement Award — named for Mickey Murphy, a citizen-activist who spent her life advocating for preservation of her Brooklyn neighborhood — will cite Diether’s tireless efforts to get appropriate zoning in historic areas.

Diether was first appointed to Community Board 2, which covers Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Soho and Hudson Sq., in 1964 and the following year she became head of the board’s Zoning Committee.

Over the years, Manhattan borough presidents and city councilmembers continued to sponsor her board membership, including Henry Stern, former Parks commissioner under two mayors, who was a Manhattan councilmember-at-large in the late 1970s.

“After Henry Stern reappointed me one year, he said, ‘See how Liberal I am. I appointed a Republican to the community board,’” Diether recalled last week. Stern is a Liberal Party member and Diether is a registered Republican who nevertheless was head of the Housing Committee of the Village Independent Democrats in the early 1960s.

Diether sometimes describes herself as “a Rockefeller Republican — even though I didn’t agree with him all the time.” That description seems to fly in the face of a Daily News clipping from 1960 that shows her leading a pig (rented) on a leash as part of a Save the Village protest in front of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Manhattan office.

She attributes her official Republican Party identity to the influence of her father, a Massachusetts Yankee and natural-born Republican with Mayflower antecedents. Diether, born in Queens, moved with her parents to Massachusetts and came to the Village in 1956. She was an actress and a painter, so where else would she wind up?

“I was living on University Pl. in the Albert Hotel — it was a pretty wild place,” she recalled. “My father came from Massachusetts to visit me one night and the desk clerk was drunk. He gave my father my room number without even asking his name. Then a hooker in the lobby offered to do it for a bottle of whiskey. When he got into the elevator there were two gay guys making out. He came into my room and said, ‘You’re coming home.’ But I didn’t.”

Stern last week said he always respected Diether’s community efforts because she had knowledge as well as opinions. “She was a citizen who made herself into an expert,” he said, “and she wasn’t always getting into the food fights that many community board members indulge in.”

Jack Taylor, a founder of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile Historic District and a member of the Historic District Council’s board of directors, quipped, “Doris knows more about zoning than the City Planning Commission.” Just recently, Ladies’ Mile advocates were trying to influence a zoning variance that impacted the historic district, Taylor said. “We went to Doris for the kind of advice that only she could give,” said Taylor.

The Historic Districts Council’s sixth annual Grassroots Preservation Awards will also honor architect Peter Levenson, the developer of 90 West St., the 1907 Cass Gilbert-designed building that was severely damaged on Sept. 11, 2001. Kate Ottavino, an officer of A. Ottavino, the private company that has restored monuments in Washington Sq. Park and creator of a preservation arts and technology program at Brooklyn High School for the Arts, is also on the H.D.C. honors list.

Landmark West!, the community-based preservation group that helped secure historic district designation for much of the Upper West Side, is also to be honored. City Councilmember Tony Avella of Queens is to be honored for work that includes securing passage of the Failure to Maintain bill that allows the Landmarks Preservation Commission to levy fines on owners who fail to maintain their designated landmark properties in safe, watertight condition.

The Riverdale Express in the Bronx; Rosemary Cappozalo, owner of the St. George Theater on Staten Island; the Richmond Hill Historical Society in Queens; and Judy Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historic Society, are also to receive awards.

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