By Ed Gold
Verna Small, perhaps the most important leader in the struggle to preserve Greenwich Village’s historical integrity during a 40-year period, died on Aug. 10 at Winchester Gardens, an assisted-living and nursing home in Maplewood, N.J., where she had resided the past seven years. She was 92 years old.
Eloquent, passionate and dignified, Small played key roles in creating a landmarked historic district in the Village and an early restoration of Jefferson Market Library. She educated the community about landmark preservation and preached for “as much sky as possible by keeping structures at a low scale,” whether near the waterfront or looking south from Washington Square Park.
Small was a founder or longtime member of all the major preservation groups in the Village community.
She helped form the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port, along with likeminded activists like Ben Green and Bob Oliver. She was also a founder of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Washington Square Association, as well as longtime chairperson of Community Board 2’s Landmarks Committee.
Small’s preservation activities extended beyond the Village. In the early ’80s, she was appointed by then-Mayor Ed Koch to the city’s Historic Properties Fund, which over the years has made thousands of low-cost loans, totaling millions of dollars, for landmarks restoration throughout the city.
Her activities resulted in an array of honors, including the Elliot Willensky Award for “dedication to historical preservation”; membership in the Greenwich Village – Chelsea Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame for “her exceptional contribution to the community”; a Village Award from G.V.S.H.P. for her work in restoring the nationally landmarked Jefferson Market Library; and a trunk load of proclamations from elected officials, as well as one from C.B. 2, in recognition of her community service.
Her verbal skills were conspicuous throughout her years of community activity. She campaigned for landmarking in the northwest part of the Village and parts of Chelsea to preserve the waterfront’s “glorious western light that still reaches deep into Manhattan and connects the walker to the Hudson River, from which so many neighborhoods have been walled away.”
She insisted that “light and air” were more important than giant, vertical structures, adding that “we should let people see more of the sky.”
She also sympathized with residents who had raised families in Washington Square Village and were told their leases would not be renewed; Small said they were “uneasy in their tenure,” and deserved better.
Small was born in Washington, D.C., in 1916, an only child of a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father. She graduated from George Washington University with a B.A. in 1937 and lived for several years in Greenwich Village.
Before and during World War II she worked for the Department of Labor in both Washington and New York. During the war, she married Leonard Small, who was in the Army at the time. For several years after the war, they rented an apartment on Sixth Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts.
Shortly after settling in the Village, she got interested in preservation, thanks mainly to her association with Ruth Wittenberg, an outstanding community activist.
Small once joked, “I joined a garden club and I was impressed that Ruth Wittenberg, who knew the value of a dollar, had opened up her garden to the public, and didn’t charge for the tour.” The two women would join forces and become the most ardent supporters of the move to create the Greenwich Village Historic District.
In 1957, Small and her husband bought a five-story townhouse on W. Fourth St., between MacDougal St. and Sixth Ave. She lived there until 2001, when she moved to New Jersey.
Her husband was a clinical psychologist who passed away in 1982 at age 69. He once served as president of the New York State Psychological Association. Verna Small once credited him with teaching her a fair amount of Yiddish.
She had a writing career that was truly eclectic. She was an assistant editor at the fashion magazine Mademoiselle, writing about women’s careers. She edited and co-authored a book about Adolf Hitler’s psyche, edited a “Dictionary of Home Furnishings” and authored a pamphlet for the Greenwich Village Home Owners called “Historic Dwellings in Greenwich Village” that got a rave review in The New York Times.
Her admirers were legion. Tony Dapolito, who served 12 terms as chairperson of C.B. 2, and was not known for long speeches, summed her up as: “pleasant, dedicated, beautiful, witty, cooperative and eloquent.”
One of her closest friends, Miriam Lee, once said of her: “She was cuckoo about maps. She could pore over maps for hours. It was related to her passion for preservation and her efforts to create a Greenwich Village Landmarks District.”
Her successor as chairperson of C.B. 2’s Landmarks Committee, Jonathan Geballe, credited Small, Wittenberg and the urbanist Jane Jacobs as the trio most responsible for “carrying the flag for preservation in the Village,” noting Small’s contention that the Hudson River was “a window to New York City, and she insisted she had to protect that window.”
Several activists saw her as teacher and mentor. Rita Lee, C.B. 2’s first district manager, called Small “my friend and mentor, sharing the love of the Village.”
The current first vice chairperson of C.B. 2, Jo Hamilton, remembered Small as an inspirational force:
“She was one of the first people I met after being appointed to C.B. 2,” Hamilton said. “She was so impressive and welcoming that she made me enthusiastic about serving. She became my role model.”
Small is survived by her son, David, who now lives in the W. Fourth St. townhouse with his wife, Susan Dempsey Small. David’s earlier marriage ended with the passing of his first wife, Debbie, in 2002. David works in New York for CBS and is editor of “CBS News Sunday Morning.” Other survivors include Small’s grandson, Simon, who lives in Philadelphia, and a sister-in-law, Ethel Small, who lives in New York.
The family plans a memorial service in Greenwich Village in September, the location and date still to be determined.