Joan Kaplan Davidson: Philanthropist and Preservationist Who Transformed New York City
Early Life and Career
Birth and Education
Joan Kaplan Davidson, daughter of Jacob and Alice Kaplan, was born on May 26, 1927, in New York City. Raised in Croton-on-Hudson, she developed an interest in art and architecture, following her mother’s footsteps.
Joan Davidson became the president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund in 1977, a foundation established by her father in 1945. With a focus on architecture, design, and quality of life in New York City, she used the fund to support initiatives that improved the city’s cultural institutions and historic landmarks.
Impact and Achievements
Under Joan Davidson’s leadership, the Kaplan Fund played a vital role in saving Carnegie Hall and developing Westbeth, an artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan. The foundation also contributed to the preservation of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence, by providing funding and establishing the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.
A Lasting Legacy
Commitment to Small-Scale Grants
Joan Davidson believed in strategically using funds to support causes that needed a boost. Instead of providing large amounts of money, she preferred to make relatively small grants, ranging from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars.
Family and Personal Life
Joan Davidson married C. Girard Davidson in 1953 and had four children. They divorced in 1967. Throughout her life, she remained actively involved in philanthropy and conservation efforts.
Continuing the Work
Later Years and Conservation Efforts
After stepping down as president of the Kaplan Fund, Joan Davidson served as the New York State Commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. She continued to contribute to conservation efforts, particularly in the Hudson Valley.
Joan Davidson’s dedication to small-scale projects and her active involvement in philanthropy left a lasting impact on New York City. She positioned the Kaplan Fund as a central player in supporting meaningful initiatives, distinguishing it from larger foundations focused elsewhere.
Remembering Joan Davidson
Roberta Brandes Gratz’s book, “It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York,” published in 2020, delves into Ms. Davidson’s inspiring life and her contributions to the city.
Ashley Shannon Wu contributed reporting.