The past several months U.S. 1 has been focusing on the impact of the coronavirus in our region and the deaths of two prominent figures from our region: world known mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson and internationally known artist and Grounds For Sculpture founder J. Seward Johnson.
However, there was the death of another individual important to the region and American history whose life and work should be commemorated.
Architectural historian Constance Greiff died in Princeton on February 29 at the age of 90.
A longtime Princeton resident, Greiff believed that “every building tells a story” and helped tell their tales in the books “Princeton Architecture: A Pictorial History of Town and Campus,” co-authored with Mary Gibbons; “Morven: Memory, Myth and Reality,” co-authored with Wanda Gunning; and in the revised version of “A House Called Morven: Its Role in American History” by Alfred Hoyt Bill in collaboration with Walter E. Edge, the New Jersey Governor who deeded the historic home to the State of New Jersey.
Other books written or co-authored by Greiff include “John Notman, Architect,” about the influential designer of Princeton University’s Wilson House and the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital; “Robert Smith, Architect, Builder, Patriot,” one of America’s first important architects and designer of Princeton’s Nassau Hall and the Maclean House; “Independence: The Creation of a National Park,” focusing on Independence Hall in Philadelphia; and “Lost America: From the Atlantic to the Mississippi” and “Lost America: From the Mississippi to the Pacific,” photographic surveys of architecturally and historically important buildings lost to neglect, fire, flood, or development.
Greiff was also active beyond writing and in 1975 founded Heritage Studies. Considered the first of its kind, the consulting company provided historic community and regional studies throughout the Northeast and employed a new generation of architectural historians, including architect Michael Mills, currently of Mills & Schnoering Architects, and Bob Craig, registration program supervisor in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.
She also founded Preservation New Jersey in 1979 and served as its president during its first decade. And she served on the planning boards of Princeton and Rocky Hill and was a member of the New Jersey State Review Board for Historic Preservation.
Former Heritage Studies employee and writer Richard D. Smith interviewed Greiff at her Princeton Windrows condominium in 2015 for a U.S. 1 story on Princeton University architecture and noted the following:
Constance M. Greiff came to her own expertise in architectural history by stages. Her father taught Latin and Greek at Boy’s High School in Brooklyn. He had been born in that borough, but the family lived in Queens and finally then in Manhattan, on 53rd Street between Park and Lexington avenues.
Her mother was a homemaker, and her sister was an art history major. Connie herself studied Italian Renaissance painting at Vassar College, but soon became more interested in architecture. She met her husband Robert, an engineer (and later an executive search specialist), when he attended social weekends at her college.
Connie and Bob lived in Chicago and in New York before moving to Hopewell in 1958. They relocated to Princeton in 1960 (where, in addition to the Historical Society, Connie was an active and knowledgeable member of the Planning Board). The Greiffs moved to Rocky Hill in 1981. Along the way, Connie founded Heritage Studies, which consulted on architectural restoration and historic site designation projects.
Soon after moving to Princeton, Greiff met future collaborator Mary W. Gibbons on the train to New York. Gibbons turned out to have attended Vassar a few years behind Greiff and to share an interest in Princeton’s great early-19th-century carpenter/builder Charles Steadman. (Gibbons and her husband had just purchased a Steadman house standing at 12 Morven Place.) Greiff and Gibbons created a seminal 1963 exhibition, “300 Years of Princeton Architecture,” at Borough Hall, which led to their equally landmark book “Princeton Architecture.”
“All of my American architecture is self-taught,” Greiff says. And to study the subject in those pre-Internet days, she says, “You went to the New Jersey State Museum, the Princeton University archives, and Firestone Library itself.”
“Research was a very different thing in the ’60s. It was a lot of shoe leather and a lot of note taking on index cards. I had a loose leaf notebook with various sections. It was a different world,” she says.
How different? Greiff recalls doing research in the 1960s on the Cooper Hewitt Company’s contribution to the second rebuilding of Nassau Hall. The New York Historical Society archives had copies of the firm’s letter books. But these had been made by an antiquated contact process that rendered them mirror images of the originals.
In this pre-digital era, Constance Greiff hit upon a non-digital — and perfectly effective — solution. “I found a drug store and bought a little hand mirror,” she smiles. “Then I went back and sat there and read the pages that way.”
Historian Craig noted in a statement that Greiff, who was also known for her for her acerbic wit, had “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, 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.”
The family plans a public memorial service to be scheduled and announced when the coronavirus crisis subsides.
Alberta Roszel, 95, on May 22. A longtime resident of Dutch Neck and then Toms River, she was the Princeton Hospital nurse who attended to Albert Einstein as he died.
Lee Kenneth Richardson, 69, on May 24. He was the co- founder of the Tony Award winning Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick where he directed the original production of the groundbreaking “The Colored Museum.” He was also a theater professor at Temple University and University of the Arts, both in Philadelphia.
Peter Joseph Foltiny, 66, on May 22. He was a case worker with the Mercer County Board of Social Services for 34 years.
Beverly Bilbee, 73, on May 25. She worked for the New Jersey Lottery Commission for 27 years.
Vivian B. Stidfole DiNito, 79, on May 26. She worked for the state for 25 years in departments including education, environmental protection, and health and human services and retired from the state legislative office. She was also a past president of the Mercer County Democratic Women’s Association.
Thomas Bliznawicz, 96, on May 24. He was the president of rubber workers at Pierce-Roberts Rubber Co. in Ewing and was also the shop steward at National Beer Distributors.
Anthony M. Crea Jr., 84, of May 17. He worked for the state Department of Health and Human Services for more than 40 years.
Richard J. Foy Jr., 63, on May 23. He worked for the state Department of Education for 30 years.