Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92
Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92By PAUL GOLDBERGER - New York Times, 7/30/1981Robert Moses, who played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York State than any other figure in the 20th century, died early yesterday at West Islip, L.I. Mr. Moses, whose long list of public offices only begins to hint at his impact on both the city and state of New York, was 92 years old.
A spokesman for Good Samaritan Hospital said he had been taken there Tuesday afternoon from his summer home in Gilgo Beach. The cause of death was given as heart failure.
"Those who can, build," Mr. Moses once said. "Those who can't, criticize." Robert Moses was, in every sense of the word, New York's master builder. Neither an architect, a planner, a lawyer nor even, in the strictest sense, a politician, he changed the face of the state more than anyone who was. Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more.
Before Mr. Moses, New York State had a modest amount of parkland; when he left his position as chief of the state park system, the state had 2,567,256 acres. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.
But he was more than just a builder. Although he disdained theories, he was a major theoretical influence on the shape of the American city, because the works he created in New York proved a model for the nation at large. His vision of a city of highways and towers -which in his later years came to be discredited by younger planners - influenced the planning of cities around the nation.
His guiding hand made New York, known as a city of mass transit, also the nation's first city for the automobile age. Under Mr. Moses, the metropolitan area came to have more highway miles than Los Angeles does; Moses projects anticipated such later automobile-oriented efforts as the Los Angeles freeway system.
But where Los Angeles grew up around its highways, Mr. Moses thrust many of New York's great ribbons of concrete across an older and largely settled urban landscape, altering it drastically. He further changed the landscape with rows of red-brick apartment towers for low- and middle-income residents, asphalt playgrounds and huge sports stadiums.
The Moses vision of New York was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways and beaches - not the sidewalks of New York but the American dream of the open road.
For 44 years, from 1924 until 1968, Mr. Moses constructed public works in the city and state costing - in a recent estimate adjusting currency to 1968 value -$27 billion. Mr. Moses built parks, highways, bridges, playgrounds, housing, tunnels, beaches, zoos, civic centers, exhibition halls and the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.
To do so, he held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Throughout his career he pointed with pride to his ability to "get things done." It was an ability no one questioned; nonetheless Mr. Moses was a controversial figure, especially in the later years of his public career. He was far more agile at behind-the-scenes maneuvering than he was at public politicking.
In his one try for elective office, his race for Governor on the Republican ticket in 1934, he was defeated by 800,000 votes, the largest margin in New York State history. After the debacle, his administrative power continued unabated, but he never again considered running for office.
Associate of High Officials
Mr. Moses was close to a number of city, state and Federal Government officials. But with the exception of Gov. Alfred E. Smith, to whom he owed much of his early power, he seemed, to many observers, to be less in debt to governors, mayors and even Presidents than they appeared to be to him. His era of power had begun long before the election of many of the chief executives for whom he worked, and it continued long after many of them had passed from public view.
Many officials frequently suggested that they did not know how they could get public projects built without Mr. Moses' help. He often threatened to resign when he did not get his way and, having called most mayors' and governors' bluffs, he usually did get his way - until 1962, when Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, to Mr. Moses' shock, accepted his resignation from several of his positions.
In 1968 he was relieved of his final position - head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority - but until then Mr. Moses seemed to be a perpetual figure of power in the state's public works system. He was already long past the retirement age for state officials -he had turned 65 back in 1953 - but until Governor Rockefeller balked in 1962, executives had regularly signed special extensions to permit Mr. Moses to stay on.
The Grand-Scale Approach
Mr. Moses was closely associated with a view of city planning as a sweeping, total process to be carried out on a grand scale and, as that view began to be replaced with a more modest, preservationoriented philosophy in the 1960's, his reputation began to suffer.
He indicated no wish to change with the times, but held to his views more ardently than ever in his later years, dismissing community opposition to his vast projects by saying, as he did in a 1974 statement, "I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs."
The statement came in a much-publicized 3,500-word rebuttal that Mr. Moses offered to a highly critical biography of him by Robert Caro published in 1974, "The Power Broker." The exhaustive 1,246-page work, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was written from the perspective of the newer approach to planning and redevelopment, and it contended that Mr. Moses had callously removed residents of neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal, had destroyed the traditional fabric of urban neighborhoods in favor of a landscape of red-brick towers and throughout his career had worked somewhat outside the normal democratic process.
Mr. Moses was deeply hurt by the great attention given the book, the only full-length investigative biography of him ever written. For while Mr. Caro called Mr. Moses a genius and "perhaps the single most influential seminal thinker" in 20th-century urban renewal, the book's overall tone clearly indicated the extent to which Mr. Moses' views had become different from those of the mainstream of planners and politicians by 1974. Mr. Moses was, understandably, much happier with the version of things he presented in an autobiography, published in 1969, which he called "Public Works: A Dangerous Trade."
Not a Professional Planner
Mr. Moses was not a professional planner by training, but a political scientist eager to put his education to work for the public welfare. He was a brilliant drafter of legislation, and as his career went on, he used that talent to set up over a dozen of the institutions from which he was to derive his greatest power: public authorities.
The public authority, an autonomous organization that creates public works with money raised by issuing bonds, was legally possible before Mr. Moses became active, but it was a device that had rarely been used. He drafted legislation to set up such authorities as the Jones Beach State Park Authority and the most powerful of them all, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. It was through the authorities that Mr. Moses was able to conceive of most of his projects and create them largely unchallenged by public or political pressures. The most successful projects, like his toll bridges, brought in vast revenues that the authority - which meant Mr. Moses himself - could control, free of any public or governmental interference.
Critics were later to question whether Mr. Moses' biases were a cause or an effect of the automobile age, but it is certain that he focused his public-works projects on increasing suburbanization and use of the automobile. He was largely responsible for the network of parkways on Long Island, for example, as well as for highways within the city that were conceived more for the convenience of suburban automobile owners than inner-city residents.
Like many planners in the 1930's and 1940's, Mr. Moses did not question, as later planners did, the ultimate effect the automobile would have on the city, choking old streets with traffic and leading to the demolition of many neighborhoods to make way for expressways. Mr. Moses believed simply, as he stated in his 1974 rebuttal to the Caro biography, that "we live in a motorized civilization." He saw the automobile as a force that was bound to revolutionize the landscape, and he intended to help guide that process.
Part of 'Our Crowd'
Robert Moses was born in New Haven on Dec. 18, 1888, the son of Emanuel Moses, a department-store owner, and Bella Silverman Moses. His family was part of the well-to-do circle of New York German Jews known as "our crowd," and although they were not among the wealthiest of the group, Mrs. Moses' ambitions led the family to resettle in New York in 1897.
Robert Moses grew up in a town house on East 46th Street, with the luxurious upbringing that was common to families in the Moses class. He entered Yale in 1905 at the age of 17, two years younger than most of his class. There he wrote poetry and earned the reputation of being idealistic and somewhat solitary. Tall and imposing, he was also a fine athlete and became an active member of the Yale swimming team.
After his graduation in 1909, he went to Oxford, where he became interested in the British civil service system and began a thesis urging that government jobs be awarded on a merit system, based largely on education and class distinctions. It would earn him a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1914.
Mr. Moses' idealism found an outlet in 1913 in his first career, with the Municipal Research Bureau in New York, a six-year-old organization that was a research and advisory arm for the nationwide municipal government reform movement. Mr. Moses was accepted into the bureau's training school, but he soon grew impatient and offered to become a regular staff member at no salary, since his family gave him sufficient income. The offer was accepted, but Mr. Moses was no more comfortable with his higher status.
First Outlet for Drive
The first real outlet for the determined energy and drive with which Mr. Moses would later approach the building of public works projects came in 1914, when John Purroy Mitchel, a leading reformer, was elected Mayor of New York. Mitchel looked to the Municipal Research Bureau for help in restructuring the city's Civil Service system, and the bureau put forth the name of its only staff member who was an expert in that area: Robert Moses.
Mr. Moses dived with zeal into the chaos that was the Tammany Hall job system. He proposed a rigid plan for reform, not unlike what he had suggested in his Ph.D. thesis. It was idealistic but almost Calvinistic in its unswerving rules, requiring that all jobs be analyzed on a complex scale and that all workers' performance be quantitatively measured.
The system also required that many workers who had received their jobs through patronage be downgraded, a provision that earned Mr. Moses the understandable enmity of Tammany Hall. The system was only partly put into effect, and Mayor Mitchel's defeat in 1917 meant that Mr. Moses had to look elsewhere to advance his career.
He did not have to look long. After the 1918 election, he received a telephone call from Belle Moskowitz, a 40-year-old reformer who was particularly close to the incoming Governor, Alfred E. Smith. Mrs. Moskowitz offered Mr. Moses the job of chief of staff of a new commission that was to recommend total reorganization of the state government.
Into the Orbit of Power
It was a job that was to bring Mr. Moses far more into the orbit of politicians and power than he had ever been, and it would begin his association with Governor Smith, with whom he was to remain close for the rest of Mr. Smith's life.
The commission's 419-page report urged consolidation of 187 state agencies into 16 departments, the extension of the Governor's term from two to four years and the vesting in the Governor of the power to appoint and remove all key officials. It was a model for such reform reports around the nation, but like Mr. Moses' recommendations to the city, it was not adopted.
Mr. Moses worked with other reform groups after 1921, when Mr. Smith was out of power and the two men were together in New York. But when Mr. Smith was elected again in 1922, he took Mr. Moses back to Albany, this time as part of his inner circle. It was then that Mr. Moses first became involved with subjects that would occupy him throughout his career: parks, construction and highways. Influenced by Governor Smith, he was rapidly moving away from his theoretical interest in government and toward a concern, which was later to become a virtual obsession, with getting things done, whatever the methods, whatever the costs.
Several visits to Long Island had awakened Mr. Moses to the enormous amount of unused land not far from New York City's borders, and his growing realization that the automobile would be crucial to the New York region's development led him to his interest in setting aside the land - or condemning it, if need be - for public use. In typical Moses fashion, he proposed to Governor Smith a sweeping plan that called for a $15 million bond issue to acquire and improve parkland and for the establishment of a set of regional park commissions.
Fur Coat or Underwear?
Governor Smith at first thought the plan excessive - "You want to give the people a fur coat when what they need is red flannel underwear," he told Mr. Moses. But he soon realized the political sense that parks made and not only supported the scheme, but also made Mr. Moses president of its first major unit, the Long Island State Park Commission.
Mr. Moses himself drafted the enabling legislation for the commission, and it was an intricate law that gave the commission - and its leader, Robert Moses - almost unchallenged power. The legislation was passed in 1924, and Mr. Moses was then also named chairman of the State Council of Parks.
His first great achievement was the erection of Jones Beach, for which he took an almost unused sandbar and at vast expense transformed it into an elaborate seaside Xanadu for the masses, complete with bathhouses, restaurants and a tower inspired by a Venetian bell tower. There was vast opposition to the project in the surrounding area, but Mr. Moses was not deterred.
The Jones Beach that Mr. Moses built was extravagant in its appointments, vast in its scale and conservative in its design. Before Jones Beach, bathhouses were generally shacks beside the sea; Mr. Moses decided that he wanted enormous sandstone and brick palaces. And beach resorts for the public were usually honky-tonk boardwalks; Mr. Moses decided that Jones Beach would change that pattern and contain an open beach, a theater and "wholesome" games like shuffleboard.
An Overwhelming Success
Each of the two Jones Beach bathhouses, faced with an especially expensive brick that Mr. Moses had admired on an East Side hotel, cost a million dollars. Designed in a mix of Moorish, Gothic and 1930's-modern styles, the sprawling and gracious buildings were surrounded by elaborate, fanciful systems of signs, fountains, railings and trash cans designed to imitate ship details. Rich mosaics were set into entry walls. The architecture was the loose sort of eclecticism typical of the 1920's, but its basically romantic thrust pulled the pieces of the complex together.
Jones Beach, which opened in 1930, was an overwhelming popular success, and the opponents of the project, most of whom were Long Island residents who resented the influx of traffic that the beach would bring, could do little. Mr. Moses had run into much tougher opposition with his plans for the Northern State Parkway and the Southern State Parkway.
These called for richly landscaped, curving roads whose designs would ultimately influence generations of parkway planners. But it was not the designs that caused controversy - it was the very fact of the roads in the first place. Both parkways cut through the huge country estates of wealthy New Yorkers who spent weekends and summers on the Island. They were upset not only at Mr. Moses' presumption that he could appropriate their land, but also at the possibility that the "rabble" from the city would overrun the elegant North and South Shores.
Mr. Moses himself was no populist, and critics later suggested that he was as interested in furthering his own power as in helping the working classes toward some light and air. But Governor Smith's instincts were more down-to-earth, and in one famous exchange the Governor replied to a landowner's fear of an invasion of the rabble with the words "Rabble? That's me you're talking about."
Long Court Fights
There were, however, long court fights on both the North and South Shores. And Mr. Moses, who said,"As long as you're on the side of the parks, you're on the side of the angels; you can't lose," did not lose, in spite of the fact that courts ruled that some of his appropriations had in fact been illegal. His park projects went ahead - partly because Mr. Moses had always realized that if he could somehow start a project, money and legal authority would always be found to finish it rather than leave it half-done, a monument to bureacratic incompetence.
"Once you sink that first stake," he was fond of saying, "they'll never make you pull it up." Mr. Moses' work crews kept sinking stakes - and pulling up none - through Smith's governorship, and by the end of 1928, there were 9,700 acres of state parkland on Long Island. The richly landscaped Southern State Parkway was well under way, with the Northern State soon to follow - both, like Jones Beach, an example of carefully detailed design that would make a real mark on the planning profession.
The Moses recommendations for reorganization of the state government had formed the keystone of legislation passed in 1926 to change the state's bureaucracy finally. And with his appointment as the New York Secretary of State in 1927, Robert Moses was rapidly becoming one of the state's most powerful figures.
His power diminished when Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he had never been on good terms and with whom he was later to feud bitterly, was elected Governor in 1928. Mr. Roosevelt forced Mr. Moses to relinquish his Secretary of State title. But the immense popularity of Mr. Moses' facilities, many of which, like Jones Beach, were finally open to the public by the end of the decade, gave him a degree of political resilience he would have otherwise lacked - and permitted him to hold onto his parks jobs.
Drafted Park Legislation
In 1933, still active on the state level, Mr. Moses was invited to join the new administration of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in New York City, as head of a new, unified City Parks Department and head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, a new organization charged with building the Triborough Bridge. Mr. Moses himself drafted the legislation unifying the five borough parks departments to create his new job.
He began a massive building program, taking advantage of Federal and state unemployment funds that became available in the Depression. Early in 1934 Mr. Moses advertised for architects to assist in public-works projects; by dawn the next morning, a line of unemployed architects in front of Parks Department headquarters on Fifth Avenue stretched for two blocks.
Within a few months, 1,700 projects, ranging from park bench repairs to new golf courses to a rebuilt Central Park Zoo, had been finished. The New York Times commented editorially that Mr. Moses' achievements "seem little short of miraculous."
Soon Mr. Moses' works began to spew out even faster, as he drove himself and the staffs of his disparate organizations harder. A man of extraordinary physical energy, Mr. Moses worked 15 hours a day or more, yet rarely a day passed in which he did not set aside time for his favorite activity, swimming. He habitually left an envelope full of work he had done late at night for an assistant to pick up first thing in the morning, and it usually contained more work than most men finish in an entire day.
He maintained several offices, one of which was in his limousine; so eager was he to use every minute that he often held meetings in his car, taking his guest along in whatever direction Mr. Moses happened to be going. When Mr. Moses had finished talking with his guest, a second limousine, which had been following, would pick up the guest and take him back to his office as Mr. Moses continued on to his destination in the first car.
Although he accepted a salary from only a few of his positions, Mr. Moses used expense accounts lavishly. He was the nation's first great builder of highways, but ironically he never learned to drive a car himself, and he maintained a staff of chauffeurs on 24-hour call. He had offices throughout the city and state, with personal staffs in each, and in many there were private dining rooms with chefs at the ready.
By the mid-30's, his output in the city alone had reached an extraordinary level. The Triborough Bridge, by far his biggest project up to that point, was completed in 1936, a crucial link in the Moses network of highways and regional parks. In the 1930's he built hundreds of playgrounds, 10 swimming-pool complexes, the Grand Central Parkway and the Interborough, Laurelton, Gowanus and Henry Hudson Parkways, among others. He built the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and the West Side Highway and the 79th Street Boat Basin.
Badly Beaten in Election
The only break Mr. Moses took from his hectic building activity was in 1934, when he accepted the Republican nomination for Governor. He was not a meek candidate - his speeches often included hostile attacks on his opponent, Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. But he antagonized the voters, and lost by an enormous margin.
By the time of the election, Mr. Moses had moved sharply to the right, a political stance he was to retain for the rest of his life. Indeed, he often used his politics as a means of attacking the architecture and the planning professionals with whom he disagreed; he called Frank Lloyd Wright a man who "was regarded in Russia as our greatest builder," said that planners, in general, were "socialists" and called Lewis Mumford "an outspoken revolutionary."
But Mr. Mumford, who was never a fan of Mr. Moses, nonetheless admitted that "in the 20th century the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person."
Built to His Own Tastes
If Mr. Moses' politics were conservative, so were his tastes. He was a cultivated man - he could quote liberally from Shakespeare by memory - and he often filled his speeches with quotations from the English poets. Once Mr. Moses subtly insulted President Roosevelt with a reference to an obscure remark of Dr. Johnson's about how patrons frequently tried to steal credit from the real creators of works.
But so far as the shaping of his own creations was concerned, Mr.Moses had a deep distrust of the avant-garde, and he sought traditional design in the architecture he built and in the sculpture he installed in his parks. And what was built was always decided on the basis of his personal taste; architects would often report that Mr. Moses rejected nearly finished schemes merely because their stylistic quirks did not please him.
Most of Mr. Moses' public housing was designed in the bland style of such architecture in the 40's and 50's, when monotonous, sterile towers in open space were the rule for low-income residences. The care Mr. Moses lavished on the design of Jones Beach and his early parkways tended not to show itself in the architectural plans for his public housing; as with many builders of public housing, he was concerned more with order and with numbers of apartment units than with making buildings that would relate to their occupants' ways of living.
The general model for such housing was the 1920's plan for the rebuilding of Paris by Le Corbusier, which called for a city of towers surrounded by parks and divided by highways instead of traditional streets. Mr. Moses, like so many American planners, came to the Le Corbusier approach not for reasons of esthetics but for reasons of efficiency.
An Architectural Plateau
But Mr. Moses' architectural taste did not change substantially with other kinds of projects in his later years. The New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle is a gray brick box of the sort of undistinguished design that suggests government buildings of the 50's, and neither Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium nor the New York World's Fair have ever been considered to have made major marks architecturally.
In the 40's and 50's, Mr. Moses' activities intensified. His Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority suffered one major defeat - his plan for a Battery bridge crossing was built as a tunnel because of public opposition to a bridge blocking the harbor view. But he expanded his activities into other areas. He played a crucial role in the negotiations to bring the United Nations to New York City and to convince John D. Rockefeller to obtain the organization's East River site; he was active on, and often controlled, the City Planning Commission; he came to dominate the city's Housing Authority, and he obtained for himself another new "umbrella" title: City Construction Coordinator, giving him authority over virtually every public construction project in the city of New York.
But by the 50's, while Mr. Moses' remarkable energy was far from exhausted, many of his ideas - which had not changed substantially in all the years he had been active - were no longer convincing. He lost a bitter battle in 1959 with Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, over permitting free Shakespeare performances in city parks. And community protests occurred over the route for his Cross Bronx Expressway, which required the demolition of at least 1,500 apartments in a one-mile stretch alone.
Mr. Moses did not bow to the Bronx protests; he refused to switch to an alternative route that would have taken away only a few dozen buildings. But the fight was seen by many observers as an early chink in Mr. Moses' armor.
A smaller, but more successful, protest had been mounted by wellto-do residents of West 67th Street in 1956 against a Moses scheme to replace a tree-filled play area in Central Park with a parking lot. The event was a severe blow to Mr. Moses' image: the man who began his career as a champion of parks was being attacked as a destroyer of them.
Projects Run Into Snags
At the same time two more Moses-conceived projects - a mid-Manhattan Expressway and the Lower Manhatan Expressway - began to run into snags. Ultimately they would never be built at all. Neither would another favorite Moses scheme that came up against the objections of a later generation of environmentalists, his plan for a bridge to cross the Long Island Sound between Rye, N.Y., and Oyster Bay, L.I.
Mr. Moses' reputation was also damaged by the Manhattantown urban renewal scandals of the 50's, in which private developers, to whom the city had sold tenements at a reduced rate with the understanding that their sites would be cleared and new housing erected, simply continued to operate the tenements, milking them for high rents. While Mr. Moses was never himself charged with profiteering, associates of his were implicated in the scandals. And connected to the scandal was a growing public resentment of relocation of tenants from slum clearance sites - a process that Mr. Moses was also in charge of.
The Manhattantown scandals also gave Mr. Moses his first major taste of press disapproval. Most of the city's newspapers had been staunch Moses supporters over the years, and editorial support for Moses park and highway projects had played a significant role in keeping the public, and hence the state's politicians, on Mr. Moses' side in many a controversy. But editorial writers were taken aback by the urban-renewal scandals, and the nearly universal support that Mr. Moses had been receiving was sharply curtailed.
He did nonetheless get an enormous amount of housing actually built in those years - as well as start other slum-clearance projects that would have almost total public support, such as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on the Upper West Side. But the urban renewal scandals were perhaps his most serious setbacks, and in 1959 an opportunity arose for a graceful exit: the presidency of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair was offered to him.
The fair was Mr. Moses' last major accomplishment, and it was done in typical Moses style, with lavish public relations and elaborate new buildings. The fair was not, however, a total success either esthetically or financially, and Mr. Moses' dream of converting its Flushing Meadows site into an elaborate permanent park had to be scaled down considerably.
Mr. Moses had been required to give up all of his official positions with the City of New York in 1959, when he assumed the presidency of the fair. He lost most of his state jobs in 1962, when Governor Rockefeller, to Mr. Moses' surprise, accepted his resignation, which had been offered merely in protest over a disagreement.
His last significant hold on power was lost in 1968, when the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was merged into Governor Rockefeller's new Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Mr. Moses was offered the role of "consultant" to the new agency, which permitted him to maintain his offices, secretaries and chauffeurs, but gave him no real power.
The Curtain Comes Down
And thus, quietly, the active career of one of the nation's most powerful public officials came to an end. Mr. Moses' name was virtually a household word, not only in New York but also around the nation, first as a fighter for parks and open space and later as a name that had come to symbolize the sweeping, total approach to urban renewal that he favored.
In 1915 Mr. Moses married Mary Louise Sims, a secretary at the Bureau of Municipal Research, his first place of employment. They had two daughters, Barbara Olds of Greenwich, Conn., and Jane Collins of Babylon, L.I.
After his first wife's death in 1966, Mr. Moses married Mary Grady, who had been a staff member at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The Moseses lived at 1 Gracie Terrace in Manhattan and in a small house in Gilgo Beach, L.I., which he had obtained years before when he first began to lay out the park and parkway system of Long Island.
A funeral service will be held at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bay Shore, L.I., at 11 A.M. tomorrow.