Christopher Stewart Gray, an architectural historian and author who wrote the popular Streetscapes column in The New York Times, died on Friday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 66. According to the Times, the cause of death was “pneumonia, complicated by an unspecified underlying illness.”
Between 1987 and 2014, Gray composed more than 1,450 columns, focusing on the architecture, history and preservation policies of New York City. He said his goal was to “write about the everyday buildings, to investigate even the most trivial, incidental, oddball structures.”
A review of his articles reveals the sorts of questions he would ask and the subjects he would examine, typically with a wry sense of humor:
- “How much to tip an automatic garage?“
- “Pre-emptive Moves, Predemolition” (on the steps taken by property owners to make sure a non-landmarked building doesn’t suddenly become one)
- “Where the Ghosts Smoke Cigars” (on Tammany Hall)
- “When Streets Eat Buildings” (on avenue extensions and street widenings that didn’t result in demolitions but just awkward facade disfigurements)
- “The Store That Slipped Through the Cracks” (on the Bonwit Teller building demolished for the present Trump Tower)
- “Upper West Side Rowhouse With a Rather Severe Haircut” (his term for a disfiguring rooftop addition that obscured the forgotten site where Francis “Two-Gun” Crowley was trapped after a shootout in 1931).
- “Whinny If You Miss Central Park’s Horses“
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Gray received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Columbia University in 1975. He also studied at the New School for Social Research and Trinity College in Connecticut. He worked as a seaman, a cab driver, and a mailman.
Before joining the Times, Gray wrote a column for Avenue magazine, followed by a column about American streets called “All the Best Places,” for House & Garden magazine. He also established the Office for Metropolitan History in 1975, an organization that provides research on the history of New York buildings. His work has received awards from the American Institute of Architects, Classical America, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, among others.
Though decidedly not a preservationist, his wit and cynicism led him to be revered by preservationists and those interested in New York City alike as something akin to the David Letterman of architectural history. After learning that he had been awarded the 2015 Lucy G. Moses Preservation Leadership Award by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and that the award ceremony would be held in the newly restored Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Brooklyn, he purchased a Henry VIII outfit in which to march down the aisle and seize his award.
Gray was the author or co-author of half a dozen books, including a collection of his columns entitled New York Streetscapes: Tales of Manhattan’s Significant Buildings and Landmarks, and many other forwards, including one for Andrew Alpern’s The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building. He generously vetted countless other books for historical accuracy, including John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters. He contributed to a Streetscapes page on Facebook, for which he chose a Mystery Photo of a building every Tuesday and invited readers to identify it. Readers may have known something was amiss when no Mystery Photo ran last Tuesday.
On his Facebook page in recent years, Gray continued to find stories others would completely miss. For instance, 102 West 81st Street, a 1981 luxury condo by architect Marvin Meltzer, notable for being opposite the American Museum of Natural History with a Pizzeria Uno on the ground floor, piqued his interest as a tortured amalgam of several buildings combined and altered “in a hard-to-call style—shall we call it Romantic-Brutalism,” where in the 1890s, the central building had been the center of the Upper West Side’s real estate development. “Platt & Marie, Samuel Colcord, Clarence True, Alonzo Kight, Charles Judson and others had offices there,” he noted.
Gray evaluated every structure in its context, sometimes loftily: “For its time, [the 1981 building on West 81stStreet] was a rather classy, thoughtful operation. There is a certain Mallet-Stevens // Paris // 1930s about it, no? Or am I still just coming down from business class?” Upon speaking with the architect, Gray learned that practicality and not Mallet-Stevens/Parisian modernism was the inspiration.
“In the course of some 1,450 weekly columns, Christopher authoritatively and wryly unearthed the forgotten history of New York’s cityscape for his legions of readers,” said Times staff writer and novelist John Freeman Gill. “He was also a great friend and teacher… He is irreplaceable.”
“He will be remembered fondly for his ability to open up the world of history and preservation of NYC’s architectural heritage to a broad readership,” architectural historian John Kriskiewicz wrote on Facebook.
According to the Times, Gray is survived by his wife Erin, whom he married in 1980; his son Peter Gray; his daughter Olivia Gray Konrath, and sisters Andrea Stillman and Adrienne Hines.
In his biography for the newspaper, Gray noted that he felt it was important to write about more than the major landmarks. “To me, these did not capture the essence of the city,” he explained. “It was the little dead ends, the deserted loft districts, the old ethnic clubs—these were what were interesting.”