Iconic Figure, First Lady, Historic Preserver - Icon Week


By Molly Stazzone

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is an iconic American figure. She was known for her style, her time in the White House as First Lady, and she is–unfortunately–known for becoming a young widow. But did you know that she was also an historic preserver for national landmarks?

Throughout her time as First Lady in the White House she devoted herself to educating Americans on preserving national landmarks including Grand Central Terminal, Columbus Circle, and St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, as well as Lafayette Square in Washington DC.

Anthony C. Wood, the founder of the New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP) recalls to BTR how he met Onassis: “I was working with the Municipal Arts Society when she called me on behalf of traveling to Albany, New York to see the legislator put into effect St. Bartholomew Church’s preserved landmark law.”

NYPAP dedicates itself to documenting, preserving, and celebrating the history of landmarks in New York City.

“I think the reason why Jackie Kennedy was and still is an icon for all Americans is she was a smart, savvy, strategic, and personal woman. So many First Ladies who came after her like Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama idolize her and want to follow in her footsteps,” Wood says.

During her time in New York, after President Kennedy’s assassination, Onassis joined Wood and the Municipal Arts Society in Albany to fight for the preservation of St. Bartholomew’s Church.

“This was a larger effort for Mrs. Kennedy because religious groups and sites were unhappy [that St. Bartholomew’s was not preserved],” Wood tells BTR. “When Mrs. Kennedy went on the train to Albany, and when she got out, there was no security with her. I had to usher her around because there was so much intense coverage. The court was packed, you couldn’t hear her speak when the judge acknowledged and honored her for coming.”

While living and working in New York part-time, she remarried Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.

Wood explains Onassis was actively involved with preserving all historic landmarks. The first landmark that she saved was Lafayette Square in Washington DC. The White House was her building block–she started her historic preservation legacy with its foundation. Once the restoration of the White House was complete, she looked to Pennsylvania Avenue and focused on preserving her neighborhood. Onassis then went on to fight for Grand Central Terminal’s preservation. Wood said it took years of battling and hard work to keep the train station where it stands today–she stopped future plans of demolishing the structure, and putting a skyscraper in its place.

The legal dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court, but she finally won. In 1967 Grand Central Terminal was designated a New York City Landmark and was listed on the National Region of Historic Places. Earlier this month the station honored Onassis by placing her name at the front entrance.

The Kennedy name is marked in stone all over the state and city of New York–such landmarks include, JFK Airport, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Columbus Circle, and most recently Grand Central Terminal. However, Wood states the reason why there are so many places in New York named after both Jackie and John F. Kennedy is because they were personal, down to earth people.

“When Jackie went outside of her apartment there were photographers who followed her, but she was just a normal person. She didn’t use a limo to get around,” Wood says.

Even when she died of a Lymphatic cancer system in 1994 at the age of 64, her dedication to preservation lived on.

“First Ladies [after Onassis] continue some preservation causes,” Wood explains. “However, this is not the case with Michelle Obama, she is concerned with health issues, not preservation, but that is getting the public’s attention, too. What Jackie started, First Ladies have had a similar intention when they enter the White House.”

Even though Onassis died abruptly and at a reasonably young age, she established a legacy of preserving future historic landmarks. Every year since her passing, politicians, women, and the general public try to follow in her persistent footsteps to save and preserve history.