Oliver E. Allen, Tribeca Historian and Author, Dies at 94
Oliver E. Allen in Tribeca's Duane Park. Allen was a co-founding member of Friends of Duane Park, a group that undertook the renovation and then the redesign of the historic park to reflect its original layout. Oliver and Deborah Allen's Hudson Street apartment overlooked the park. Photo: Chuck Levey
Longtime Tribeca resident Oliver E. Allen, the author of two books and nearly 150 articles on the history of Tribeca, died on Saturday. He was 94.
Allen had been in frail health in recent years and passed away following “a final bout of pneumonia,” his son Fred wrote in an email.
A former writer and editor for Life magazine and later editor at Time-Life Books, Allen authored more than a dozen books, including two histories of New York City: “New York, New York” and “The Tiger,” a history of Tammany Hall. But in Tribeca, where he moved to a Hudson Street loft overlooking Duane Park with his wife Deborah in 1982, Allen was best known for his Tribeca Trib column, “Old Tribeca,” and for his volunteer contributions to the community as co-founder of Friends of Duane Park. He also was part of a small group whose work led to the designation of Tribeca’s four historic districts.
In the 1980s, Allen joined a band of local activists that dug into the history of Tribeca’s buildings and published “The Texture of Tribeca,” by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart. The volume, illustrated with photos by Allen, provided the Landmarks Preservation Commission with the research it needed to designate Tribeca’s historic districts in 1991 and 1992.
Approached in 1994 by neighbor Lynn Ellsworth to help with her idea of restoring dilapidated Duane Park, Allen and wife Deborah were her first recruits to what was to become Friends of Duane Park.
“I called him up and he invited me over,” Ellsworth recalled during a Friends fundraising event in 2010 to honor Allen. “I explained the project and Oliver got on board immediately and it started from there.”
Like Ellsworth, Trib editor Carl Glassman was introduced to Allen by longtime Tribeca resident Jean Grillo, who told him, “You must speak to Oliver Allen,” when she heard that he and his wife April Koral were launching a new neighborhood paper.
“He didn’t know us from Adam and he knew we could only pay him a very modest fee,” Glassman recalled, “yet he immediately said he would be happy to write articles about the neighborhood’s history. That was the luckiest moment in the life of the Trib.”
Allen’s first “Old Tribeca” article appeared in the Trib’s first issue in September 1994 and the column turned out to be immensely popular. Many of the pieces were anthologized in two books, “Tales of Old Tribeca” and “Tribeca: A Pictorial History.”
“Oliver’s irrepressible enthusiasm and sense of wonder about our neighborhood and its history was contagious. He conveyed it both in person and in his writing,” said Ellsworth, founder and president of the architectural preservation group, Tribeca Trust. “He was a real defender of its many beauties and insistent on accuracy.” She called Allen “that increasingly rare kind of person” who believed in the “necessity and duty” of volunteering at the most local level.
“For him it was both a civic responsibility and a source of genuine pleasure,” she said. “He inspired those around him to follow in his footsteps. In doing all that, Oliver built, on a daily basis, that most fleeting of things: a sense of community.”
Karie Parker Davidson, a Friends of Duane Park board member, recalled Allen as “funny, curious, insightful and determined to improve his knowledge in any field.”
“On a recent visit,” she recalled, “he was learning about micro-tones, a form of intermediate musical notes as he explained it, and was re-reading classics by Dickens and Dostoyevsky all while keeping up with The New York Times and The New Yorker.”
Working in the Duane Park garden until he was 92, Parker Davidson said, “he also taught youngsters how to pot plants on Earth Day, and slung a 150-foot hose hooked up to the fire hydrant to hand-water the garden in its infancy. For years he trimmed the hedges, met the rodentologists, and kept the Parks Department historians on their toes.” (The full text of Parker Davidson's remembrance is below.)
Jane Freeman, who visited Allen frequently, wrote in an email: “Despite physical confinement in the last years, his scope of intellect and humanity remained unbounded. In the John Adams biography [that he was reading in the last few weeks before he died], there’s a quote by Laurence Sterne that fits Oliver well: ‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.’” (The full text of Freeman's remembrance is below.)
Allen is survived by his children Frederick Allen, Henry Allen, Lili Allen and Jennie Dwight Allen, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Deborah, his wife of 66 years, died in 2014.
To add a comment, write to email@example.com