Joan Kaplan Davidson, a prominent preservationist and philanthropist known for her contributions to improving the quality of life in New York City, passed away on Friday at the age of 96. Her son, John Matthew Davidson, confirmed her death in a hospital in Hudson, N.Y., but did not specify the cause, simply stating that “her heart gave out.”
Throughout her career, Davidson held various leadership positions, including chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s and New York State parks commissioner in the 1990s. However, her most significant impact was made during her tenure as president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a foundation established by her father, Jacob M. Kaplan, in 1945.
While the J.M. Kaplan Fund may not have had the same financial resources as larger foundations like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, it often served as the initial funding source for projects aimed at preserving buildings, supporting cultural institutions, and restoring landmarks in New York City. Under Davidson’s leadership, the foundation played a crucial role in saving Carnegie Hall in the 1960s and establishing Westbeth, an artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan that served as a model for similar projects worldwide. The fund also played a pivotal role in the renovation and preservation of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence.
Davidson focused the fund’s efforts on issues related to the city’s architecture, design, and quality of life. In addition, she established programs to support the arts, civil liberties, human rights, and conservation efforts in upstate New York.
Despite the foundation’s modest endowment, Davidson preferred to provide relatively small grants strategically aimed at getting causes off the ground. She believed in being actively involved in the projects the fund supported, rather than simply providing financial assistance.
Born on May 26, 1927, in New York City, Davidson was the daughter of Jacob and Alice Kaplan. Her father, a successful businessman, made a fortune in the molasses industry and went on to establish the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Davidson’s parents’ interests in art, architecture, and civil rights greatly influenced her own pursuits.
After receiving her education at Cornell University and Bank Street College of Education, Davidson taught school and worked in advertising before marrying C. Girard Davidson in 1953. They had four children but divorced in 1967.
In 1970, Davidson oversaw the creation of Westbeth Artists Housing, a project conceived by her father, which provided affordable housing for artists. This initiative was among the first of its kind globally and has since been recognized as a historic landmark.
Davidson took over as president of the Kaplan Fund in 1977, following her father’s retirement. She maintained her father’s open-minded approach to philanthropy and supported various causes that aligned with her own values. One notable project she backed was the establishment of greenmarkets in the city, which not only provided fresh produce for urban consumers but also offered financial support for farmers. It is estimated that these greenmarkets saved approximately 20,000 agricultural acres.
In 1993, Davidson left her role at the Kaplan Fund when she was appointed New York State commissioner of parks, recreation, and historic preservation by Governor Mario M. Cuomo. Although her tenure as parks commissioner was short-lived due to a change in administration, she remained involved in conservation efforts, particularly in the Hudson Valley region.
Throughout her life, Davidson believed in championing smaller causes and making a tangible impact in a world dominated by larger foundations. She leaves behind a lasting legacy in the preservation and enhancement of New York City’s cultural and architectural heritage.
Ashley Shannon Wu contributed to this report.