Joan Kaplan Davidson, a preservationist and philanthropist who set up projects that improved the quality of life in New York City, died Friday in Hudson, N.Y. She was 96 years old.
His son John Matthew Davidson confirmed the death, at a hospital. He did not specify a reason, saying only that “his heart gave out.”
Ms. Davidson served as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s and as New York State parks commissioner in the 1990s. But he made his longest mark from 1977 to 1993 as president of the JM Kaplan Funda foundation established by his father, Jacob M. Kaplan, in 1945.
The fund has a small endowment compared to giant foundations like Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller. But it is often the first stop for those looking for grants to save buildings, support cultural institutions or restore New York landmarks.
Under Mr. Kaplan, the foundation provided money to save Carnegie Hall in the 1960s when no one else was interested. It also created Westbeth, the artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan that became a model for the rehabilitation of industrial buildings everywhere. Under Ms. Davidson, the foundation laid the groundwork, and provided a large portion of the money, for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, which was formed to repair and maintain the mayor’s residence.
Ms. Davidson, who can often be seen picketing to save an endangered landmark building, focuses the fund on issues related to architecture, design and the city’s quality of life. He also established programs to support the arts, civil liberties and human rights, as well as natural resource conservation and rural preservation in upstate New York.
“I always thought we were different because we didn’t just write checks, we went in and got involved,” he told The New York Times in 1997 when the fund celebrated its 50th year of making grants.
Throughout his tenure, he preferred to make relatively small grants, some as little as $1,000 but generally in the tens of thousands. “We didn’t give a lot of money,” he said. “For us the point is to use money strategically, to eliminate excuses.”
Joan Kaplan was born on May 26, 1927, in New York City to Jacob and Alice (Manheim) Kaplan. His father, the son of a rabbi, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, made a fortune in South America in the molasses business and eventually bought out the owners of Welch’s Grape Juice. An iconoclastic businessman, he sold Welch’s to a cooperative of his employees in 1956 and turned his attention to his foundation.
Mr. Kaplan, who became interested in saving Carnegie Hall after violinist Isaac Stern personally appealed to him, prefers a direct, hands-on approach to philanthropy and tends to avoid five-year plans and lengthy bureaucratic reviews. . Ms. felt the same way. Davidson.
Indeed, he bequeathed his political and philanthropic interests, as well as his working style, to his parents. He followed his mother’s interests in art and architecture and his father’s involvement in civil rights to the point that New York Woman magazine once described him as “the city’s fiercest funder of progressive-liberal causes.”
He was raised in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1948 and, a year later, a postgraduate degree in education from the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. After teaching school and writing advertising copy for Macy’s, she moved to Washington, where in 1953 she married C. Girard Davidson, who had been assistant secretary of the interior in the Truman administration. They had four children and divorced in 1967.
That same year, the Kaplan Fund joined with the National Endowment for the Arts to start Westbeth Artists Housing, one of the first projects specifically intended to provide homes for artists, in the old Bell Laboratories building on the corner of West and Bethune Streets in Greenwich Village. Managed by Ms. Davidson created Westbeth for his father and was its first president.
Opened in 1970, Westbeth was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 and designated a New York City landmark in 2011.
When Mr. Kaplan retired in 1977, he turned the foundation’s management over to his daughter, who a year earlier had ended her brief tenure as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. Mr. Kaplan died in 1987.
Like her father, Ms. kept an open mind. Davidson when the true believers called. When Barry Benepe, an urban planner, approached him in 1976 with his idea for urban greenmarkets, he immediately supported the concept, seeing it as a way to provide both fresh produce for the city’s consumers and financial basis for farmers who may be forced to sell. out to the developers. Mr. Benepe later estimated that the greenmarkets saved about 20,000 hectares of agriculture.
Under Ms. Davidson, the Kaplan Fund also gave about $100,000 to publish the 38-page “Juror’s Guide to Lower Manhattan.” The guide, which lists the best walking tours in the neighborhoods near the borough’s courthouses, is provided free of charge to jurors in its county courts. “We felt there should be some reward for being a juror,” explained Ms. Davidson.
Given by Ms. Davidson was the president of the Kaplan Fund when appointed by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was her New York State commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation in 1993. The fund was gradually taken over by her children and three of their cousins, but she remained active as president emeritus.
In addition to her son John, Ms. Davidson’s three other children, Mr. Bradford Davidson, Betsy Davidson and Peter W. Davidson; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He lives in Germantown, NY
A book about Ms Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, “It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the JM Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York,” by Roberta Brandes Gratz, was published in 2020.
The tenure of Ms. Davidson as parks commissioner proved short-lived; it ended when George E. Pataki, a Republican, replaced Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, as governor. But he remained involved in conservation efforts, especially in the Hudson Valley, where he had a riverside manor house built by a descendant of Robert Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Until the end, Ms. Davidson expressed pride in positioning the Kaplan Fund at the center of New York life while other city-based foundations tend to focus most of their grantmaking elsewhere.
“Big foundations have a whole world,” he said in 1997. “We’ve always wanted to hit small, decisive things in a world of big things.”
Ashley Shannon Wu contributed reporting.