CRM Journal


An Interview with Dorn C. McGrath Jr.

by Constance Werner Ramirez and Antoinette J. Lee


Dorn C. McGrath Jr.

Dorn C. McGrath Jr.

Dorn C. McGrath Jr., FAICP, is an urban and regional planner whose academic and professional career influenced a generation of preservation planning practitioners. He grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and received his undergraduate degree in architecture from Dartmouth College and a master's degree in city planning from Harvard University. He began his planning career in the late 1950s as a consultant in urban renewal and city and transportation planning in New England. Between 1964 and 1968, he directed offices of the federal Urban Renewal Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. From 1968 to 1984, he served as chairman of the department of urban and regional planning at George Washington University. Today, McGrath is a preservation planning consultant. Constance Werner Ramirez, director of the Federal Preservation Institute, National Park Service, and Antoinette J. Lee, CRM Journal editor, interviewed McGrath at his Washington, DC, home on September 15, 2004.


Q: Please tell us about your family, where you grew up, and early influences that led you toward a career in planning and historic preservation.

A: I was born in Bradford in the northern part of Pennsylvania, near the border with New York State. Buffalo was the closest big city. At that time, Bradford was a city of 18,000 people and, at its prime, a center of the oil industry. My family was in the oil business. I became interested in architecture and planning at an early age. My family lived across the street from an architect, who graduated from Carnegie Technological University, studied at the Sorbonne, and operated an architectural office out of his home. I did drafting work for him in 1953 when he was designing the new headquarters building for the Zippo Manufacturing Company, which produced cigarette lighters. I remember designing a spiral staircase that led from the executive suite to the lobby. After working with him on detail drawings that he prepared from 1931 through 1935, while he was awaiting the end of the Great Depression on a Nebraska farm, I decided that I did not want to do detailed architectural work. I was more interested in broader issues.

Q: Tell us where you went to college and planning school. Who were influential professors?

A: My high school principal instructed me to fill out an application for Dartmouth College, which I did, even though I had been approached by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. At Dartmouth, I managed to play varsity baseball, but I also studied design with Theodore and Peggy Hunter and architectural history with Hugh Morrison. My teachers were scholars with strong ties to New England traditions. Professor Morrison encouraged me to continue my studies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

I began my studies in city planning at Harvard in 1952. At that time, professors were interested in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and did not view them as separate disciplines. At Harvard, there was an assumed respect for historic buildings. I studied at Harvard for only one year and left because of financial problems and the likelihood of being drafted. I was advised to enlist in the Navy, which I did.

Q: Tell us about your experience in the military and the travel you did while in the service. What influence did some of the locations, such as Spain, have on your thinking about planning and older cities?

A: I served on active duty in the Navy for four years. In 1953, I entered officers' candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island. After I was commissioned as a Seabee officer, I was sent to the West Coast to study military engineering. I served with the Seabees in Little Creek, Virginia, in Puerto Rico, and in Central America. In 1955, I went to Spain to become assistant to an admiral who was responsible for the construction of Air Force and Navy facilities there. I helped the admiral with negotiations for the new bases and later worked on several projects. Because I had learned Spanish in college and then worked to develop fluency while in Puerto Rico, I was relied upon for many matters. While in Spain, I traveled throughout the country with the admiral and helped to negotiate many agreements, including the rights to land for major construction projects and ammunition storage. People often ask whether I was "stationed at Rota Naval Base near Cádiz." No, actually, I was on the ground floor for building Rota!

In Spain, most planning was centralized in Madrid. At that time, there were no local planning authorities. Spanish architects and planners were better trained than those in the United States and had a better sense of their country's historic legacy.

My duties in Spain gave me the opportunity to travel throughout the country, and I was able to study the centuries-old legacy of Spanish architecture and town-building. Toledo, Sevilla, Segovia, Barcelona, Cartagena, Zaragoza, Mérida, Vigo, El Escoriál, San Sebastián, Aranjuéz, and Cádiz—all provided lessons in the rich heritage of a charming country. I was also a skier, and through strange circumstances, I became a stockholder in the chairlift in the Sierra de Guadarrama just west of Madrid! The stock is worthless now, alas.

My Navy duties also took me to Germany, France, and England, where I learned still more about European architecture. I was impressed especially by the frugality of most European countries, where land is relatively scarce, and by their attention to the environmental aspects of development. Europe provided a sharp contrast with the United States, where the easy availability of land and the automobile was contributing so heavily to the postwar process of sprawl.

After leaving the Navy, I returned to Harvard University where I completed my master's degree in city planning in 1959. One of my most influential professors at Harvard, whom I served for a year as his graduate assistant, was Charles Eliot II. Professor Eliot was a noted preservationist and made major contributions to preservation law in Massachusetts. After graduating, I taught at Harvard for four years while working for a planning firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: Tell us about your early planning jobs—where were these jobs and what did you do?

A: In my early planning career, I was a partner in a firm that I helped to found, the Planning Services Group, and worked with clients throughout New England in cities such as Gloucester, South Hadley, Holyoke, Arlington, and Plymouth, all in Massachusetts. These towns were historic and needed comprehensive plans in order to qualify for federal grant funds for housing and urban renewal projects.

I was able to assert my interest in historic buildings in the first urban renewal project undertaken in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I was the planner for the project. It turned out that the historic Fitzhugh Lane House, once the home and studio of the now-famous luminist painter, stood on a knoll of solid rock in the middle of the urban renewal area. It was built of stout granite blocks and had seven gables. My impulse was to retain the building and the knoll as a historic site from which visitors might view the very interesting activity of a working waterfront. Local officials, however, thought that the city would be better served by demolishing both in order to create a parking lot. I managed to convince the city council that a rock-bound parking lot would cost too much to build and produce little benefit, and they voted to save the house and restore it. It stands there today as a tourist attraction and information center.

After passage of the Housing Act of 1954, rehabilitation and open space acquisition, as well as demolition, were permitted in urban renewal projects using federal funds. This was well beyond the limitations of the Housing Act of 1949 that focused primarily on demolition and clearance. Thus, my clients were interested in historic preservation plans that reflected their New England heritage. It is a misunderstanding of the evolution of planning in the post-World War II years that urban renewal—a term that entered the language of the law only in 1953—meant tearing everything down. It never did. Not only could federal funds be used for preservation of buildings and structures but, after 1965, federal funds also could be used to relocate historic buildings within urban renewal projects.

I recall that after I had assumed the role of director of the planning and engineering branch of the Urban Renewal Administration in Washington, the agency was approached by an indignant citizen protesting the probable demolition of a historic house, the Bishop House, in the Plymouth, Massachusetts, urban renewal area. Oddly enough, I had written into the plan for that project a provision for relocating the same structure to a safe place across a street that had to be widened. The provision, however, required U.S. Congressional approval, and we were hoping for the best when I left Cambridge for Washington, DC. Happily, the protesting citizen knew Senator Ted Kennedy quite well, and the next day, she presented to the Senator the proposed legislation, which I drafted, to enable the use of federal funds for building relocation. It was adopted in 1965 and has been the law of the land ever since. The house was moved across Summer Street and stands there today. Without that citizen's indignant intervention, this important change in the law allowing for federal funds to be used for relocating historic buildings probably would not have come to pass.

Q: When did you take the job at the Urban Renewal Administration? What was the agency's track record on urban renewal? How was it evolving at the time that you arrived?

A: I left private practice because William Slayton, head of the Urban Renewal Administration, invited me to join his staff. In 1964, I arrived in Washington, DC, to become an advisor to Slayton and shortly thereafter became director of the planning and engineering branch. All of the agency's responsibilities for historic preservation were focused in my office, and I was fortunate to have Constance Werner Ramirez on my staff. Together, we published Preserving Historic America, which became a well-known reference for local public agencies and avid historic preservationists. Later, I was appointed as the first director of the metropolitan planning and analysis division in the new Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was established in 1966.

Through our Washington office and HUD's seven regional offices, highly qualified professional planners advised communities nationwide on the comprehensive planning grant program, established under Section 701 of the Housing Act of 1954, and the department's urban renewal program. We worked with communities to help them use federal funds for historic preservation planning and rehabilitation. Many local governments made good use of federal funds for historic preservation—in New Bedford, Plymouth, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, and in numerous other cities throughout the country.

During this critical period, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was passed and implemented. I met all of the early figures in the National Park Service, including Ernest Allen Connally, later head of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation. Through my office at the Urban Renewal Administration, I established the first Planning Advisory Service Team (PAST) to deal with an apparent preservation problem in Salem, Massachusetts. Connally, then a professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois, chaired that first PAST group. Many preservationists were slow to realize that HUD funds could be used to rehabilitate historic buildings. Carl Feiss, George Marcou, and other early preservationists realized this potential and used federal funds to study some important buildings and places.

Major preservation projects that HUD supported during the 1960s included the historical and architectural survey of the Vieux Carré in New Orleans. A highway was planned for the top of the levee on the river side of the city's historic Lafayette Square. Initially, planner Carl Feiss did not have sufficient funds to complete the transportation aspects of the Vieux Carré survey. I negotiated with Louisiana highway officials to provide funds from the Urban Renewal Administration's historic preservation demonstration grant program, and within 65 days, the proposed offensive highway was "de-mapped" by Hubert Humphrey, then Vice President of the United States. Earlier, in 1959, HUD supported the preservation demonstration project in the College Hill section of Providence, Rhode Island. As you know, both the Vieux Carré and College Hill studies resulted in classic preservation projects of the era.

Other projects in which we invested urban renewal funds included the preservation of Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, and the old Custom House in Monterey, California. For the Custom House renewal area, we convinced officials to depress the new highway under the buildings and underwrote the cost with urban renewal funds. Through a series of seminars held throughout the United States, including Puerto Rico, we discussed what was or was not eligible for HUD funding so that local governments would see how flexible these funds were.

The support that HUD provided to historic preservation projects nationwide came to an end in 1974 when the Nixon administration replaced categorical grants with block grants. The dialogue between HUD planners and local government over planning and preservation issues came to a close.

Q: Why did you decide to move to George Washington University and establish the department of urban and regional planning?

A: In 1968, the dean of the School of Government and Business Administration invited me to serve on an advisory committee and make recommendations on their graduate planning program. I recommended that the program be shut down because it was not an independent department, the entire faculty was part-time, and the program therefore could not be accredited. As a result of my advice—and to my surprise—I was asked to "do it right" and was offered the job as chairman of the new graduate-level department of urban and regional planning. I decided to leave HUD and take this position. I wanted to provide the kind of planning education that would turn out good planners. The program required 60 hours of course work, including two planning studio courses and a master's thesis. This was more strenuous than many other planning degree programs of the time.

Q: What were some of the early projects that the urban and regional planning program undertook that demonstrated the connection between planning and preservation at George Washington University?

A: Soon after I arrived at George Washington University, I met John Kinard, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. He invited the faculty and students to visit the historic Anacostia neighborhood and assist with the planning for its preservation. We worked in Anacostia for nearly 22 years. We prepared and helped the District of Columbia City Council adopt the city's first Small Area Plan in 1984—a plan for historic Old Anacostia. For five years, our faculty and students taught a course at Kramer Junior High School at the invitation of the principal and faculty there. We taught the students about preservation laws and the protection of historic districts, and, most importantly, how to look at the assets of their neighborhood.

The needs of the city of Washington fit in well with how I envisioned the planning degree program; the city and surrounding communities offered many opportunities for graduate students to receive a rigorous education in planning and to incorporate historic preservation in project plans. The program was a plus for the city and for the community.

Q: Who were some of the faculty that contributed to the historic preservation focus of the planning program at George Washington University?

A: From the beginning, historic preservation was an important component of the university's planning curriculum. Initially three departments—urban and regional planning, American studies, and history—supported the historic preservation degree program. This cooperative, multidisciplinary arrangement allowed us to tap into a wide range of faculty talent. An easy relationship among the departments and the two larger schools—the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Government and Business Administration—allowed students to take courses leading to several different master's degrees.

Frederick Gutheim, a well-known urban planner and architectural critic in Washington, DC, became the first director of the graduate program in historic preservation in 1975. Gutheim and his successor, John Pearce, and the current program director, Richard Longstreth, were important contributors to this effort.

Q: What are some of the highlights of your international career?

A: One of my important involvements in the international sphere happened when we invited the former president of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, to teach in the planning program. Belaúnde was a practicing architect and former dean of Peru's leading school of architecture; he served as president of his country from 1964 to 1968. After he left Peru, exiled by a military junta, he taught at Harvard and Columbia. At George Washington University, he taught housing and planning for five years, until his exile was lifted in December 1976. A measure of the late Belaúnde was the fact that he declined to return to Peru immediately, insisting that he had classes to teach in the spring!

In 1977, Belaúnde invited an international group of scholars, planners, and architects to Peru to develop a successor document to the 1933 Charter of Athens. I was privileged to be one of the invited participants. The resulting Charter of Machu Picchu of 1977 was translated into more than 20 languages and has been adopted by the International Union of Architects, first in Mexico in 1978, then in Warsaw in 1981, and later in Barcelona and Bucharest. Thus it became a major element of several international charters. The Charter of Machu Picchu is a statement of the importance of historic preservation and ecology as fundamental elements of any urban planning activity.

The document became very influential as a statement of design and planning principles overseas, but it had relatively little effect in most architectural schools in the United States except for Harvard, where José Luis Sert was dean of the Graduate School of Design. Sert had been involved in the seminal 1933 document, the Charter of Athens, and therefore he understood how important it was in shaping the practice of post-World War II architecture and planning.

During the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, I oversaw and conducted a number of training programs for Spanish planners and architects. These were funded by HUD through the National Science Foundation pursuant to an agreement between HUD and the Spanish Ministry of Housing. Planning responsibilities in Spain were devolving to the local level, but Spain had no planners or architects properly trained to serve cities other than Madrid. More than 50 Spanish architects, planners, and economists participated in these programs, and several hold prominent positions in the Spanish government and in private practice today.

Q: What has been the legacy of George Washington University's urban and regional planning program?

A: After I stepped down from the chairmanship of the department of urban and regional planning, I became director of the Institute for Urban Environmental Research at the university and continued in this position until my retirement in 2003. In 1987, the university sought to reclaim the planning program's classroom space for new programs, and the focus of urban and regional planning shifted to real estate. The real estate/development program was terminated by the university two years later. Since that time, the university has had no program in urban and regional planning. In 1996, in addition to directing the research institute, I became chairman of the geography department and offered the university's only courses in urban planning.

Over the 16 years of the urban and regional planning program, more than 300 graduates earned the master of urban planning degree. All were well-grounded in both planning and preservation. Many of them are now working in local government planning and preservation agencies and in private firms around the country.

Q: Do you still recommend a planning background if people want to have preservation careers?

A: Yes, definitely. I still consider planning to be essential for effective historic preservation. Planners need to have design abilities and need to be able to illustrate alternatives if they are to have any serious influence over development projects. They should learn more than policy. Planning needs to be much more than administering bureaucratic processes if it is to influence the course of development in a community. I recommend that prospective planners get a solid education in both urban design and planning.

It has been said often that any city planner needs to form a strong alliance with the city attorney. I feel strongly that any would-be preservationist also needs to form a strong alliance with the city's planner. Both planner and preservationist are likely to have open minds and they can learn from each other. Alone, each may be little more than a vox clamantis in deserto [the voice of one crying in the wilderness].

Young people should remember that most states now have well-seasoned laws that require urban planning of their municipalities and that all have State Historic Preservation Officers. These are part of the legacy of the past 50 years. This legacy is there to be interpreted and refined as conditions change. History needs interpretation, and together the well-trained planner and the well-trained preservationist can be a powerful combination for an enlightened society.


About the Subject

Dorn C. McGrath Jr. can be reached at