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Clay Lancaster

By Dan Brenner

Posted on August 28, 2019

[Clay Lancaster and August Heckscher, reception at Gage & Tollner], November 28, 1967, v1973.5.1582; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Architectural Historian and author Clay Lancaster (on left) was born on March 30, 1917 in Lexington, Kentucky. After receiving his Master’s from the University of Kentucky he moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and worked as both a librarian in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and as a lecturer on architectural history at Columbia University in Manhattan.

One of Lancaster’s most noteworthy accomplishments was his involvement in designating Brooklyn Heights as New York City’s first historical district. The growing threat of unchecked development throughout the city in culturally significant neighborhoods spurred locals to action. Founded in 1958, the Community Conservation and Improvement Council (CCIC) selected Lancaster to survey and document Brooklyn Heights as a means to justify qualification for landmark status.

Published in December 1961, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb was the result of his documentation. Within an area of fourteen blocks long and eight blocks wide, Lancaster found several hundred buildings well over one hundred years old and deserving of landmark status. As a result of his achievements, the Municipal Art Society of New York City honored Lancaster with a Certificate of Merit in 1962. The book was also success for the CCIC. Lancaster’s efforts ultimately paved the way for the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission’s designation of Brooklyn Heights as a historic district in 1965 and its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

In January of the same year, Lancaster was tapped by Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving to be the curator of Prospect Park. Over the years, upkeep to the park had fallen by the wayside and Hoving hoped Lancaster’s expertise would provoke interest from the city for a future restoration project. As curator, Lancaster built a convincing argument for preserving and restoring the park to the original vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. As a result, Lancaster published the Prospect Park Handbook in 1967. On November 28 of that year, Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn Heights hosted a reception in honor of the book’s release which saw the likes of August Heckscher, Marianne Moore, and others in attendance. The photograph above, taken at the reception, depicts Lancaster and Heckscher both holding a copy of the book.

Lancaster eventually returned to Kentucky in 1978 where he took a job at Transylvania University lecturing on local architecture. He continued working until his death on December 25, 2000 at the age of eighty-three.

This image comes from the Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection (ARC.202). For more information please see our finding aid here and for more photographs from this collection please visit our image gallery here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections; visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected].

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