Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 James Marston Fitch
James Marston Fitch "The ultimate task of architecture is to act in favor of human beings."

James Marston Fitch (1909–2000)
LittD (hon.) 1980
Faculty 1954–77

A central figure in the U.S. historic-preservation movement, James Marston Fitch changed the way Americans look at old buildings. Fitch opposed the urban renewal strategies adopted by many cities in the 1950s and '60s, arguing that, architectural distinction notwithstanding, structures should sometimes be preserved and appreciated simply as valuable representations of the cultures that erected them—a view that eventually gained widespread acceptance in planning circles. At the same time, Fitch appreciated that cities inevitably grow and change, and did not seek to preserve buildings merely by virtue of their age. In New York he helped prevent the construction of an expressway through Soho, argued to save the buildings at what is now the South Street Seaport, and, in the 1990s, supervised the renovation of Grand Central Terminal. An Air Force meteorologist during the Second World War, Fitch bracketed his wartime service with stints as an editor at various architecture magazines. In 1954 he joined the Columbia faculty, where he remained for more than two decades before leaving to become director of historic preservation at Beyer Blinder Belle, a private architecture and planning firm. Fitch wrote dozens of articles as well as notable books such as American Building: The Environmental Forces that Shape It (1947, updated 1999) and Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (1982). Upon his death the noted scholar and activist Jane Jacobs told the New York Times that Fitch "was the principal character in making the preservation of historic buildings practical and feasible and popular."

In 1964, Fitch worked with architect Charles Peterson to establish at Columbia's architecture school, the nation's first academic program in restoration and historic preservation, which he then ran until his departure for Beyer Blinder Belle. Today the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation enrolls more than fifty students in its two-year M.S. program in historic preservation, also offering a certificate program in the conservation of historical buildings and archaeological sites. The school remembers Fitch with both a named professorship and an annual colloquium each spring. The New York City–based James Marston Fitch Foundation, established in 1988, awards 25,000-dollar research grants in support of historic preservation in the United States.


The program that Fitch created.


Take an online walking tour of the University.


Robert Moses had different goals.

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