Joan Kaplan Davidson, a preservationist and philanthropist who set projects in motion that upgraded the quality of life in New York City, died on Friday in Hudson, N.Y. She was 96.
Her son John Matthew Davidson confirmed the death, in a hospital. He did not specify a cause, saying simply that “her heart gave out.”
Ms. Davidson served as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s and as New York State parks commissioner in the 1990s. But she made her most lasting mark from 1977 to 1993 as president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a foundation established by her father, Jacob M. Kaplan, in 1945.
The fund has a modest endowment compared with giant foundations like Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller. But it has often been the first stop for those seeking grants to save buildings, support cultural institutions or restore landmarks in New York.
Under Mr. Kaplan, the foundation provided the money to save Carnegie Hall in the 1960s when no one else seemed interested. It also created Westbeth, the artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan that became the model for the rehabilitation of industrial buildings everywhere. Under Ms. Davidson, the foundation laid the groundwork, and provided much of the money, for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, formed to renovate and preserve the mayor’s residence.
Ms. Davidson, who could often be seen picketing to save an endangered landmark building, focused the fund on issues related to the city’s architecture, design and quality of life. She also established programs to support the arts, civil liberties and human rights, as well as the conservation of natural resources and rural preservation in upstate New York.
“I always thought we were different because we did not just write checks, we stepped in and got involved,” she told The New York Times in 1997 when the fund celebrated its 50th year of providing grants.
Throughout her tenure, she preferred making relatively small grants, some as little as $1,000 but generally in the tens of thousands. “We didn’t give huge amounts of money,” she said. “To us the point was to use money strategically, to get causes off the ground.”
Joan Kaplan was born on May 26, 1927, in New York City to Jacob and Alice (Manheim) Kaplan. Her father, a rabbi’s son, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, made a fortune in South America in the molasses business and later bought out the owners of Welch’s Grape Juice. An iconoclastic businessman, he sold Welch’s to a cooperative of his employees in 1956 and focused his attention on his foundation.
Mr. Kaplan, who became interested in saving Carnegie Hall after the violinist Isaac Stern appealed to him personally, preferred a direct, hands-on approach to philanthropy and tended to shun five-year plans and lengthy bureaucratic reviews. Ms. Davidson felt the same way.
Indeed, she credited her political and philanthropic interests, as well as her working style, to her parents. She followed her mother’s interests in art and architecture and her father’s involvement in civil rights to the point that she was once described by New York Woman magazine as “the fiercest funder of the city’s progressive-liberal causes.”
She was raised in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1948 and, a year later, a postgraduate degree in education from Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. After teaching school and writing advertising copy for Macy’s, she moved to Washington, where in 1953 she married C. Girard Davidson, who had been an assistant secretary of the interior in the Truman administration. They had four children and divorced in 1967.
That same year the Kaplan Fund joined with the National Endowment for the Arts to start Westbeth Artists Housing, one of the first projects intended specifically to provide homes for artists, in the old Bell Laboratories building at the corner of West and Bethune Streets in Greenwich Village. Ms. Davidson managed the creation of Westbeth for her father and was its first president.
Opened in 1970, Westbeth was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 and designated a New York City landmark in 2011.
When Mr. Kaplan retired in 1977, he turned the management of the foundation over to his daughter, who a year earlier had ended her brief tenure as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts. Mr. Kaplan died in 1987.
Like her father, Ms. Davidson kept an open mind when true believers came to call. When Barry Benepe, an urban planner, approached her in 1976 with his idea for greenmarkets in the city, she immediately supported the concept, seeing it as a way to provide both fresh produce for city consumers and financial underpinning for farmers who might otherwise have been forced to sell out to developers. Mr. Benepe later estimated that the greenmarkets had saved some 20,000 agricultural acres.
Under Ms. Davidson, the Kaplan Fund also provided some $100,000 to publish the 38-page “Juror’s Guide to Lower Manhattan.” The guide, listing the best walking tours in the neighborhoods near the borough’s courthouses, was supplied without cost to jurors in its county courts. “We felt there should be a little bit of a reward for being a juror,” Ms. Davidson explained.
Ms. Davidson gave up the presidency of the Kaplan Fund when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo appointed her New York State commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation in 1993. The fund was taken over gradually by her children and three of their cousins, but she remained active as president emeritus.
In addition to her son John, Ms. Davidson is survived by three other children, G. Bradford Davidson, Alice Elizabeth Pickering and Peter W. Davidson; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. She lived in Germantown, N.Y.
A book about Ms Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, “It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York,” by Roberta Brandes Gratz, was published in 2020.
Ms. Davidson’s tenure as parks commissioner proved short-lived; it ended when George E. Pataki, a Republican, replaced Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, as governor. But she remained involved in conservation efforts, particularly in the Hudson Valley, where she had a manor house on the banks of the river built by a descendant of Robert Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
To the end, Ms. Davidson expressed pride in positioning the Kaplan Fund at the center of New York life while other foundations based in the city tended to focus most of their grant making elsewhere.
“The great foundations have the whole world,” she said in 1997. “We have always just wanted to strike a blow for small, decisive things in a world of mega.”
Ashley Shannon Wu contributed reporting.