Brooklyn preservationist Ann Gaffney dies at 79; home was a center for art and conversation
Brooklyn Heights mourns Ann Walker Gaffney, an artist and historic preservationist who was instrumental in turning this neighborhood into a vibrant community over the past half-century.
Gaffney died peacefully on Wednesday, August 2, following an illness. She was 79.
Born in Washington, D.C., she adopted Brooklyn and always considered herself a New Yorker. she surrounded herself with art and artists. She attended Vassar but then left for art school at the Parsons School of Design.
After moving to Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, she did layout and graphics for the Phoenix newspaper during the 1970s.
Her Brooklyn Bridge logos and her annual calendars were beloved and eagerly anticipated each year. She was on the board of and a consignor for the Women’s Exchange of Brooklyn, where her calendars were in high demand. At the time of her death, her most-recently designed calendar was in proof. Her family said it will be distributed at her memorial service in September.
Gaffney was also active in the Brooklyn Heights Garden Club, served on the Brooklyn Heights Association’s board of governors, and, in her work as a preservationist, was a trustee of Green-Wood Cemetery.
Gaffney’s Hicks Street home was the epicenter of joy and celebration of family and of the arts.
Daughter Elizabeth recalled, “Mom taught me a love of New York City — and all things visual. We would go on rubbing exhibitions in Brooklyn when we were children: sewer covers, logo signs, gravestones, and whatever we could find.”
Moreover, Gaffney hosted chamber concerts in her living room. Danish mezzo-soprano Johanne Thisted Højlund repeatedly visited and gave several recitals at the Gaffney home, often staying for weeks at a time. In June, Ms. Højlund sang a Danish folk song to Gaffney.
“Mom perfectly combined being a proper lady and an extremely irreverent bohemian,” said Elizabeth.
“Ann loved to talk about art, and to make the neighborhood and community come alive,” recalled Sam Sifton, a longtime family friend and food editor for The New York Times.
Gaffney was part of “an early generation of Heights pioneers. Ann and Richard were absolutely in the thick of that. She certainly helped in her way to build an incredibly vital neighborhood — very different from the one she moved into when she arrived,” said Sifton.
“I grew up on Willow Street, just behind the Gaffney house,” Sifton added. “A goodly portion of my youth and indeed my early adulthood was spent in her presence.”
Another Brooklyn Heights guy named Manny Howard and I rented the top floor post-graduation. It’s pretty cool to be able to return to your hometown, and live in the home of a family friend, and learn how to pay rent and be a grownup, and also have a place where you can get a family dinner on the sly. Ann was very good at providing that opportunity for us. I spent a lot of time around Ann’s dinner table.”
Gaffney was a community activist whose approach was to advocate for improvement. When she once got hit by a livery truck whose driver had failed to look before turning, Gaffney chose not to litigate, instead assuring the driver that she would be fine. And then she lobbied successfully for a traffic signal to be installed at the intersection of Pierrepont and Hicks street, which is a major pedestrian route.
In the years after her husband, Richard’s death, Mrs. Gaffney’s love of architecture and historic preservation nurtured a romance with fellow Grace Church parishioner, Bronson Binger. An architect by profession, Binger was highly-respected for his restoration of Union Square and Central Park, the latter during the late 1970s-mid 1980s. They were companions until Binger’s death in December, 2013. The Historic Districts Council in 2011 honored Gaffney and Binger with its Mickey Murphy Award, named for a community activist.
“Mom especially loved it when the New York water taxis decided to name one of their vessels after Mickey, who was a big fan of the New York waterfront as well as all things old New York,” said Elizabeth Gaffney.
Gaffney is predeceased by her husband Richard Waring Gaffney and partner of seven years Bronson Binger. Family members surviving her include daughter Elizabeth Gaffney, son Walker Gaffney, grandchildren Rynier, Oona, Oliver, Lucy and Willa, sister Elizabeth Edgeworth and brother Mallory Walker.
Her memorial service will take place at Grace Church-Brooklyn Heights (254 Hicks St.) on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.