Historic Preservation as a Family Affair


If ever there was a couple the proves opposites attract, it’s Adrienne Green Bresnan and Joseph Bresnan, whose efforts helped lead the way to the Preservation League of New York State’s granting its Excellence in Historic Preservation Award to the Montauk Playhouse—the 80-year-old building that recently started a new life as a community center.

Adrienne, from a Russian Jewish background, is highly articulate and speaks rapidly with emphasis on things she is enthusiastic about. Joseph comes from an Italian and Irish background, is also very articulate and informative, and warms to the subjects at hand in a contained and soft-spoken manner.

What they both share is a passion for the work they have been doing both separately and together. That passion is architectural preservation.

The two met in the fall of 1970, both New York City employees who were working on a project to restore a Central Park landmark. They fell in love “at first sight,” said Adrienne, and married in 1971.

Each has remarkable credentials and background experiences in the field of architectural preservation. Adrienne received her BA in architecture from Tulane University, where there were four women to 60 men in the field. She went on to get a master of science degree in historic preservation at Columbia University and a second master’s in architecture from Tulane.

Joseph got his masters of science in historic preservation from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts/education from Pratt Institute. He also spent two years in a graduate fine arts program at Cornell. For many years, Joseph served as executive director of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Prior to that, he was director of planning and preservation/monuments as well as deputy assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Adrienne had a long career as the director of architecture and capital planning for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1990, both Bresnans became fellows of the American Institute of Architects. Fellowship is a lifetime honor bestowed for notable contributions to the architectural profession. Both have won many other distinguished awards in their field, having identified and saved innumerable landmark public buildings and other historic structures.

In 1998, the couple left the public sector and started Bresnan Architects, P.C., their own architecture, historic preservation and public art company. Adrienne became president of the firm. It has worked on some well known projects, including the New York Public Library and its famous Lions. It recently joined forces with several new partners to form DPB, Design, Preserve, Build—a new corporation that offers comprehensive historic preservation services in the New York metro area.

Adrienne and Joseph first came up on the radar in Montauk when they hiked the Point Woods Trail with members of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society. Soon they joined the organization and last June offered to sponsor and lead an unusual educational walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Joseph had headed preservation efforts. Their knowledge of those that historic ground was thorough as well as exciting. Joseph was a font of information for the busload of eager members who took advantage of the rare opportunity. It was a memorable occasion. Joseph is making plans now with Monica Brennan, the Friends of the Library trip coordinator, to offer the same outing in June, this time sponsored by the library group.

Part-time residents of the historic Montauk Manor, the couple last fall offered an extensive exhibit at the library showing some of Joseph’s huge collection of toy soldiers. It was painstakingly displayed and caught the attention of many. The couple also has been involved with the Montauk Playhouse and its successful effort to garner the Preservation League of New York State’s Excellence in Historic Preservation Award.

“After working with derelict buildings in the city, when we first saw the Playhouse, we both said that it was a goner,” said Adrienne. When they returned in the spring, they were amazed at the quality and amount of work that had already been accomplished by the town as it turned it into a community center. Said Joseph, “These people deserve an award.” The couple learned that the town budgeted a small sum toward the restoration and the rest was funded by private donations and fund-raising.

Feeling strongly that Montauk needed this kind of facility, and that an award could be attention-getting, they met with Joan Lycke, the dedicated president of the Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation, and Maureen Rutkowski, the project director, to encourage them to apply for the award.

The historic structure, an outbuilding erected by Florida and Montauk developer Carl Fisher in the 1920s as part of his Montauk Manor hotel, was already on the National Register of Historic Places. The couple discovered that, in 2002, the same Preservation League had listed the Playhouse as one of the seven most endangered properties in the state.

“They were extremely helpful,” said Joan Lycke of Adrienne and Joseph. “They outlined what needed to be done and helped list what we needed to cover.”

Last May, 10 Montaukers went to the Princeton Club in New York to receive the award from the Preservation League for their work in saving the Montauk Playhouse. The Bresnans’ hope that the award will help further fund-raising efforts to complete the next phase of work on this singular structure, which represents a special part of the history of this hamlet.

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