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Was this your first encounter with the South Street Seaport?
No. In the Lindsay Administration [1966 to 1973], I was in the City office that created the plan for this district. I had recently graduated from Vassar College as an English major. I was the cultural affairs assistant. It was the lowliest position. But there was so much responsibility that was allowed to you. If you messed up, it was no good, but you could try. That is actually a great kind of a background for your life. It gave us all the conviction that we can do it!
What exactly was that plan?
It was a preservation project that involved a great deal of public funds. Atlas-McGrath, who owned this block [Schermerhorn Row on Fulton Street], saw this as a site for a tall building. The preservation project involved the State of New York and the City of New York at the highest levels. Ultimately they put together a very novel plan, which was that the buildings in the Seaport district and the piers – all of that was to be within the control of the South Street Seaport Museum so that it could benefit from those incomes. There is a 1981 lease, which is still in effect. It’s between the City and the Seaport museum and the two entities in terms of the mall, which are Howard Hughes Corporation and Seaport Associates. The mall was never the success that its owners or the New York public at large hoped for. That is something that we hope to work with Howard Hughes Corporation on a plan to make this area here a place that New Yorkers want to come – where you have repeat New York traffic because they want to go to the shops and they want to go to restaurants. Right now it’s really geared to the international tourists.
What’s your vision for this place?
I always thought that the original vision of the ships and Schermerhorn Row — this preserved precinct of early 19th century commercial buildings, — there’s nothing wrong with the mission. The issue was the income statement. In 1995 during the Giuliani administration, that 1981 agreement was broken. The E.D/C. [Economic Development Corporation] became the lessor instead of the Seaport Museum. The revenue that was part of the novel funding scheme never did occur. The Seaport Museum never received one dime to my knowledge from the mall.
What did you do after you left City government?
In my 30’s, I got an M.B.A. from Columbia. By 1988, I had finished my M.B.A. and I went to work for Citibank. I was a lending officer. I went through the credit training program. Then [from 1990 to 1993], I was the director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and my projects downtown were the preservation and reuse of the customs house on Bowling Green, the Fraunces Tavern block, which was endangered, and Pier A, which we listed on the National Register of Historic Places because that was slated for demolition by the Battery Park City Authority. We also preserved and reused the federal archive building in Greenwich Village. We created the revolving fund for historic preservation using the proceeds from the sale of that building. In 1994, I started at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s devoted to celebrating American architecture, design and engineering. I was there for nine years. I came back in 2003 to the Museum of the City of New York.
Was that a challenging assignment?
We inhabited a building that hadn’t been renovated since 1932.
So you’re used to taking something that’s a little shabby and fixing it up again?
Yes. Incremental steps is how we think we can succeed.
You’ve had a very successful career at a time when women faced many obstacles in the workplace. Did you have a mentor?
Your board of trustees, in these not-for-profit settings, are mentors. There’s absolutely no question. That’s who I would say were my mentors over the years. An early mentor was Brendan Gill at the Landmarks Conservancy.
Do you have a husband and children?
Yes. I’ve been married 30 years. My husband is Richard Eaton. He’s a judge on the US. Court of International Trade in Lower Manhattan. I have 26-year-old and 28-year-old daughters.
Are you finding it tiring to split your time and attention between the Museum of the City of New York and the South Street Seaport Museum?
I’m getting used to it.