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The Tragedy That Changed the Face of the City

The main thing Lori Gold remembers about her kid sister Grace was her boundless potential. When they were growing up in Coney Island’s Brightwater Towers, Grace didn’t seem to understand the concept of limitations.

“She was a talented writer and singer, she was fluent in Spanish, and she played the guitar,” Lori recalled recently. “She could have done anything. Instead, she got hit on the head with falling bricks and mortar and her friends watched her die.”

That tragedy unfolded on the evening of May 16, 1979, shortly after Grace had completed her freshman year at Barnard College. She was walking near the corner of Broadway and 115th Street when a chunk of masonry worked loose from the eighth-floor facade of a building owned by Columbia University. The masonry plunged to the sidewalk, killing Gold. She was 17.

Thanks in part to Lori Gold’s tireless efforts to keep her sister’s memory alive, Grace Gold’s death continues to reverberate in New York City today. It inspired the city council to pass Local Law 10 in 1980, which required building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to perform regular inspections and repairs of facades. To save money, some owners removed decorative flourishes, while others worked to preserve them. The law later morphed into Local Law 11 and is now known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program. It explains the ubiquitous sidewalk sheds throughout the city, which are designed to protect passersby and prevent tragic deaths like Grace Gold’s when workers perform mandated facade inspections and repairs. Surprisingly, New York is one of only a dozen American cities with such a law.

But that law is just part of the story of Grace Gold’s legacy – and of Lori Gold’s work as keeper of her sister’s flame. Lori, a 1978 Barnard graduate, lobbied to get Local Law 11 renamed the Grace Gold Law – but was informed that the city does not name laws after individuals. Undeterred, she worked successfully to get the city to name the fateful intersection Grace Gold Way. She commissioned a portrait of Grace and helped establish the Grace Gold Digital Photography Center on the Barnard campus. And in 2011, she started raising money for the Grace Gold Memorial Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to Barnard students in such building-related disciplines as architecture, engineering, and city planning.

Grace Gold was the reason more than a hundred people from New York City’s building community convened recently for a breakfast on the Barnard campus. It was a chance to discuss the state of building maintenance in the city – while donating to the Grace Gold Scholarship Fund.

Dan Allen, principal at CTA Architects and president of the Historic Districts Council, served as moderator of the morning’s panel discussion, which inluded city councilman Ben Kallos and the architects Sharon Lobo and Michael Peterman. Allen came equipped with a paper written in 1985 by a Columbia University student named Gregory K. Dreicer, who was studying toward a master’s degree in historic preservation. In his paper, Dreicer chronicled numerous New York Times reports of building facade failures dating back half a century. The harrowing litany includes this headline from the day after Grace Gold died: Falling Masonry Fatally Injures Barnard Student.

“Grace’s death caused us to focus on maintaining the city’s building stock in a way that had not been done up to that point,” Allen said after the panel discussion ended. He added that the Facade Inspection and Safety Program has had a “ripple effect” among the city’s architects, engineers, historic preservationists, contractors and ironworkers, and it has been instrumental in reviving the once-dormant terra-cotta and ornamental sheet-metal industries. “As a result,” he said, “New York City is in pretty good shape today.” Before the crowd departed, Lori Gold announced that the event had raised $100,000 toward the scholarship fund. Appreciative murmurs swept the room. Then she added a surprise: “I’ve just learned that every dollar we raised today will be matched by Barnard College!” The murmurs exploded into applause.

The event served as a reminder that Grace Gold’s death has, through the efforts of Lori Gold and others, led to positive, ongoing change in New York City. It spurred the city government to take long-overdue action on building safety. It continues to foster the education of aspiring architects and engineers. And it has made this city a safer and more beautiful place.

After the breakfast crowd had departed, the keeper of the flame offered a modest assessment of the morning’s event. “It was quite a success,” Lori said. “Since everything’s a building block – onward.”

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