Remembering Constance Greiff

Originally published in The Montgomery News on March 3, 2020.

(Photo courtesy of the Community News Service)

Constance Greiff — a pioneer of the historic preservation movement in the U.S. and a longtime Rocky Hill resident — died Sunday, March 1, in Princeton. Her sons James and Peter said the cause of death was congestive heart failure. She was 90 years old. 

Greiff (pronounced to rhyme with “life”), turned an amateur passion for historic buildings into a profession, authoring books, founding and presiding over Preservation New Jersey, a non-profit devoted to preserving the state’s diverse heritage, consulting, and advising the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Every building tells a story, though sometimes you have to dig to find it,” Greiff said. “I like the digging and I like the telling.”

She found her vocation in the early 1960s, within a few years of moving to Princeton, which was rich in historically significant but largely unexplored homes, churches, and buildings. Teaming up with a Vassar co-alumna, Mary (Weitzel) Gibbons, and photographer Elizabeth G. C. Menzies, Greiff co-authored “Princeton Architecture: A Pictorial History of Town and Campus,” published in 1967 by the Princeton University Press. The book had unusually high sales for a university press edition and for a time graced a good number of coffee tables in Princeton. The book was later reissued in paperback.

That book led to her involvement in the nascent New Jersey preservation movement and the Princeton Historical Society, where she served twice as president and led the restoration of the society’s Nassau Street home, Bainbridge House.

In 1969, upon learning that Princeton University was going to build a large, mostly subterranean annex to Firestone Library, she and Mary Gibbons convinced the university to allow a brigade of students and volunteers to excavate the site, where the Houdibras Tavern had stood in the 18th century. For six weeks in the spring of that year, the team extracted shards of pottery and china, tableware and other household items, which later were catalogued and displayed in Bainbridge House.

Starting in 1968, Greiff wrote the column “Shop Talk” in the Princeton Packet and contributed to the newsroom as an editor and writer.

Greiff was appointed advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1973 and became an editor at the Pyne Press, a small imprint based on Nassau Street that specialized in the re-issue of vintage architectural books. While at Pyne Press, she authored “Lost America: From the Atlantic to the Mississippi” and “Lost America: From the Mississippi to the Pacific,” photographic tours of hundreds of buildings of architectural or historic value that had been lost to neglect, fire, flood or modern development. Through these books, Greiff’s work became known to a national audience.

“’Lost America’ is more than a run-through of a morgue of dead buildings, for it can sharpen our sight, alert us what to look for, make us conscious of the buildings around us,” The New York Times’ Thomas Lash wrote in a review. “It can help us stop making the same mistakes our ancestors did.”

In a separate New York Times review, Rita Reif wrote, “’Lost America’ is the most persuasive, intelligent argument yet presented for preservation of this country’s historic buildings….This long overdue indictment of all apathetic or greedy Americans responsible for the destruction of architectural treasures, is written with full knowledge that preservation does not mean an end to change and progress.”

Other books Greiff authored were “John Notman, Architect” (Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1979) “Independence: The Creation of a National Park” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), “Early Victorian” and “Art Nouveau” (both Abbeville Press, 1995), “Robert Smith, Architect, Builder, Patriot” (Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2000), which she co-authored with Charles E. Peterson and Maria Thompson “Morven: Memory, Myth and Reality” (Historic Morven, Inc., 2004) which she co-authored with Wanda Gunning.

In 1975, Greiff founded Heritage Studies, a consultancy that performed surveys and studies for towns, counties, and states in the Northeast, the first of its kind in the preservation world. Heritage Studies employed many young architectural historians, helping launch careers in what was still a new field. Architectural historian Bob Craig, supervisor of the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office, who worked at Heritage Studies during a 12-year period in the 1970s and 1980s, recalled that working for Greiff was “like getting a second graduate school education.”

In 1978, she founded Preservation New Jersey, of which she was president until 1989. She also served on the planning boards of Princeton and Rocky Hill and was a member of the New Jersey State Review Board for Historic Preservation.

Constance May Mann was born in New York on Oct. 4, 1929, the second of two daughters of Jacob and Evelyn (Weiss) Mann. Her father taught Latin in the New York public schools. Raised in Queens and Manhattan, she recalled being assigned to be a messenger in Manhattan during the blackouts of World War II. She said her duties were to sit by a phone in a basement office of her apartment building, but the phone never rang.

Greiff graduated from Vassar College, where she studied Art History and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Following graduate studies at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, she returned to teach briefly at Vassar.

While studying at Vassar, she met Robert Greiff, an engineering student at Columbia University. They were married in 1952 and had two sons, James and Peter, who survive her, as do James’ wife, Bia, his children, Rachel and Samuel, and Peter’s daughter, Lara. Robert Greiff died in 2018. Greiff’s older sister, Joan, died in January 2020.

Known for her sharp intellect and sometimes acerbic wit, Constance Greiff was a formidable force in the New Jersey preservation world for nearly three decades.

Greiff “lifted up the practice of historic preservation in the northeastern United States through her writing, her advocacy, her consulting, and as an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” said Mr. Craig of the New Jersey historic preservation office. “She brought the high standards of academic architectural history to the entire built environment and wrote about historic properties with an ease and clarity that made her message appeal to a very wide audience.”


Republished with permission from The Montgomery News.