On May 29, New York City lost one of its great champions. A longtime leader in the city’s nonprofit world, Paul Gunther most recently served as the executive director of Gracie Mansion Conservancy. He brought his infectious enthusiasm, quirky humor and deep knowledge of history and civic affairs to his many roles as an advocate for architecture, historic preservation, cultural programming, and urban affairs.
After his graduation from Yale University in 1978 with a Bachelor of Art in the history of art and architecture, Paul worked for Henry Geldzahler, Mayor Ed Koch’s celebrated Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, during a heady period in the history of that agency. Paul quickly understood the meaning and purpose of the City’s role in supporting the arts and became a source of practical ideas about how to extend City support to a wider and more diverse cultural community, while at the same time guaranteeing the stability of major cultural institutions which serve as beacons for New York’s cultural leadership.
Paul also held positions at The Municipal Art Society, the New-York Historical Society (he loved that hyphen), The American Center in Paris, and was for ten years the president and CEO of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. When he became the director of development for the Municipal Art Society, he helped the organization expand its focus to include historic monuments. When he held a similar position at the New-York Historical Society—the city’s oldest cultural institution but one which was suffering severe financial challenges—he helped develop a new role which brought the Society into the discussion of how to use New York’s cultural heritage to strengthen its contemporary social and economic well-being. His distinguished leadership of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, his last position, reflected his understanding of this heritage as a way of educating future generations.
In addition to his professional exploits, Paul was a beloved friend to those who knew him well, including AN co-founders William (Bill) Menking and Diana Darling.
Darling penned the following tribute to her friend:
I met Paul Gunther many years ago during summer Saturday night dinner parties at the home in Greenport, Long Island, that Bill (Menking) and I shared. There is a cozy and quaint barn on the property with a 15-foot table that seats 20 people, so our space was usually designated as the spot for these gatherings of the architecture crowd and the summer house guests who passed through for the weekend. I did not know Paul that well in those days. In our seating arrangements, I was always relegated to the far end of the table, where I kept the less-known guests entertained and played hostess. Everyone wanted to be at the other end of the table next to Bill to hear the inside gossip taking place in the academia/architecture world. Paul and his partner Joel were more often than not at these Saturday night dinners. He usually sat in the middle of the table, where he created his own center of gravity, regaling guests with descriptions of his gorgeous garden, his latest find from running amok at the weekend yard sales, or the gossip from his part of the NYC non-profit world. Paul was a gracious guest and a great cook. You could always count on him to bring a good side dish. He was not drinking in those days so a couple of bottles of seltzer were often added to the dinner contribution.
It was not until after Bill died in April 2020 that I really got to know Paul. During the summer of 2020, I spent most of my time in Greenport. It was the first time that I was in charge of keeping our garden alive, including a new fig tree and several esplanade fruit trees that Bill had bought and planted the previous summer. The trees needed special attention and were floundering under my neglect. This is where Paul stepped in. He took it upon himself to tend the trees and keep them alive, training their growth. I suppose it was his way of keeping Bill alive and mourning the passing of his dear friend. And this is how our friendship developed. Paul would tend the trees and water the garden when I was in the city. I felt it was an incredible gesture for him to spend time taking care of the garden, and in turn taking care of me. As time went on, Paul needed a place to work away from the small space that he and Joel shared in Orient. He came up with the idea of working in the barn, where he could use my internet, do his laundry, and have a little company during the day. I thought it a fair trade for tending to the garden. During the COVID summers of 2020 and 2021 this ongoing relationship developed into a nice friendship of give and take for what we both needed.
I was looking forward to this summer when we would continue to explore new garden ideas and figure out Paul’s retirement life. He was fun and funny, generous with his many domestic skills, and a great friend to hang out with. I will miss him dearly. I am afraid the dinner parties won’t happen this summer. They may never happen again, or if they do, they won’t be the same without his presence. Paul gave me the confidence to take care of the trees and the garden and to be seated at the head of the table.
Paul was also an accomplished author. He wrote two books on architecture and interior design with his collaborator Gay Giordano, most recently Illusion in Design (Rizzoli, 2022), which explores many of the ways architects use optical effects in their projects and was released a month before his death. He contributed numerous articles on design, preservation, and land use for The Huffington Post and AN. For AN, he wrote book reviews and commentary on landmarks preservation in New York City, as well as a remembrance of the structural engineer Robert Silman. His quick wit, intellect, and critical thought will be sorely missed.