Bill Morris in Building Operations on November 15, 2018
On May 16, 1979, shortly after completing her freshman year at Barnard College, Grace Gold 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.
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. 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 from a tragic death 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.
On Thursday, more than a hundred people from the New York building community convened for a breakfast on the Barnard campus. It was a chance to discuss the state of building maintenance in the city – and a chance to donate to the Grace Gold Scholarship Fund, which was begun by Grace’s sister Lori Gold, a 1978 graduate of Barnard and now a consultant for nonprofits. Scholarships are awarded to students in fields related to the building professions, including architecture, engineering, and urban planning.
“Grace could have done anything,” Lori Gold reminisced in an interview before Thursday’s breakfast. “She was a talented writer and singer and guitarist, she was fluent in Spanish. Instead, she got hit on the head with bricks and mortar and her friends watched her die.”
Lori Gold has spent years working to make sure that her sister didn’t die for nothing. She lobbied to get Local Law 11 renamed “the Grace Gold Law” – but was informed that the city does not name laws after individuals. 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 scholarship fund. After Thursday’s breakfast and ensuing panel discussion, Lori told the gathering that the breakfast had raised $100,000. Then came a surprise announcement.
“I’ve just learned,” Lori said, “that every dollar we raised will be matched by Barnard College.” The room exploded in applause.
Dan Allen, principal at CTA Architects, served as moderator of the event’s panel discussion, which included city councilman Ben Kallos and the architects Sharon Lobo, president of Indus Architects, and Michael Peterman, principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. Allen came equipped with a paper written in 1985 by Gregory K. Dreicer, who was studying toward a master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Columbia University. In his paper, Dreicer chronicled New York Times reports of building facade failures dating back half a century. Here are a few sample headlines:
Masonry Block Falls Into Broadway Traffic (1935); Killed by Falling Cornice (1942); Woman Killed by Stone (1944); Cornice Falls in Village (1947); Stone Falls 12 Stories on Madison and 45th (1974). And on the day after Grace Gold died, the headline read Falling Masonry Fatally Injures Barnard Student.
It all points to the fact that Grace Gold’s death was a tragedy that had been waiting to happen for many years. And through the efforts of Lori Gold and others, that tragedy has led to positive change. It spurred the city government to take long-overdue action on building safety. It has fostered the education of aspiring architects and engineers. And it has made New York City a safer and more beautiful place.
After Thursday’s breakfast crowd had departed, Lori Gold said, “It was quite a success. Since everything’s a building block – onward.”
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