Scenic Hero: Kathryn Welch Howe

Developing Cities with Scenery and Substance

If not for Kathryn Welch Howe, New York’s glorious and iconic Grand Central Terminal might be a thing of the past. Worn down by decades of overuse and underinvestment, the storied transportation hub had fallen into extreme disrepair by the 1980s.

Offered the chance to propose a plan for the future of the storied terminal, Kathryn drew upon her experience in architecture, historic preservation, and adaptive reuse to chart the course for its revitalization. Noting the many Fortune 500 companies located within walking distance of the station, she proposed an upgraded railway and subway center complemented by restored public spaces and a high-end dining and shopping destination—a far cry from the tired retail offerings and crumbling interiors located there at the time. Her pitch was successful, and the rest is history.

Kathryn’s work to breathe new life into the terminal is but one of her contributions to preserve and celebrate American cities and their treasured landmarks. For her ongoing commitment to protecting places and encouraging responsible urban development, and for her ongoing service to Scenic America and its board of directors, Kathryn is truly a Scenic Hero.

Although much of Kathryn’s career took shape in major cities on the East and West Coasts, she grew up in the South and Midwest in Dayton, OH, Louisville, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, before attending Vassar College.

While at Vassar, she enrolled in a new course focused on the history of American urbanization.

“It was that experience when you get in a class and you just can’t stop wanting to learn more,” she recalls.

Kathryn’s growing interest in urban planning and preservation brought her to Boston, a city that was then emerging as leader in historic preservation, urban renewal, and adaptive use development. She landed a job with a real estate development firm and tackled re-use projects for notable spaces like the Old City Halls in Boston and Baltimore, the Old Post Office Building in Washington, DC, and the Cleveland Arcade. Furthering the preservation movement throughout Massachusetts, she helped set up a revolving fund to support adaptive reuse projects, giving community organizations the tools and funding to buy, finance, or otherwise acquire historic buildings threatened with destruction.

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Boston Old City Hall, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As her work evolved and the economy shifted, Kathryn stepped away from real estate development to take on a new role with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). She was tapped to serve as the preservation planner in the NTHP’s newly opened New England office and ultimately served as the head of its Northeast operation. In this role, she cultivated relationships between the public and private sector to ensure that preservationists had a voice in major projects like the redevelopment of the Old Port Exchange in Portland, Maine, in efforts to reconnect Boston to the sea, on main streets in towns like Pittsfield, and in downtowns and neighborhoods in Providence, New Bedford, Hartford and other cities and towns throughout the region.

“We called it modern preservation, but it was really about having cities and towns function as the center of the community,” she explained. “I think the American city, up until the 1930s and 40s, was one of our country’s greatest accomplishments. The good old bones and civic spirit of our cities are resilient and capable of adaptation, but they have to be treated carefully.”

Elevated within the National Trust to Vice President of Regional Programs, Kathryn worked from Washington to strengthen the Trust’s 7 regional offices and to support the many active state and local preservation groups throughout the country. 

After establishing a firmer footing for the NTHP, Kathryn got married and moved to New York, where she formed her own company focused on adaptive reuse development. In this role, she took on the massive Grand Central Terminal project.

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Grand Central Terminal, Wikimedia Commons

“It was one of the greatest preservation and real estate opportunities I had ever seen, but none of the retail and restaurants in the space appealed to the market around it,” she explained. “The revenue it produced largely came from one billboard, which undermined the terminal’s potential as a transportation center, retail center, and civic space.”

Kathryn mapped out a plan for the building’s future, which called for restoring the main concourse and opening it to the lower level, an extensive cleaning and upkeep plan, complete remerchandising and notably, the removal of the billboard. Working with adjacent churches, the homeless population that had used the terminal for shelter, was sensitively relocated to supportive housing. The New York State Legislature endorsed the plan and the redevelopment project moved forward, exceeding its expected return on investment.

After wrapping up her work on the terminal, Kathryn moved to Los Angeles. She swiftly got involved in the city’s preservation community by joining the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy and became president just as it was entering into a dispute with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles over church officials’ plans to tear down the historic Cathedral of St. Vibiana—a case ultimately settled by the California Supreme Court. When the ruling came down in favor of the building’s preservation and re-use, Kathryn was hired to sort out the cathedral’s reuse potentials. “Vibiana” is now one of the top event spaces in Los Angeles.

Vibiana today, courtesy of Vibiana | Redbird

She was later recruited by the Getty Conservation Institute to spearhead an initiative to develop a historic resource survey encompassing the entire 500-square mile city. Thanks to this effort, Los Angeles now has a more comprehensive and centralized approach to historic resource management with professional staff and a complete survey in place—and importantly, the city uses the survey in its planning and preservation work.

With her extensive background in preservation, planning, and community character, it’s no surprise that Kathryn found many kindred spirits in Scenic America. She was asked to make a presentation for members of the organization—an engagement which set the stage for her future involvement.

“People thought ‘she’s one of us,’ and their instincts were right,” she said, “It was kind of like I had known all of these people all of my life.” She was invited to join Scenic America’s board and eagerly accepted, becoming one of the organization’s leading voices on urban planning, community character, and social responsibility. She has been quick to align Scenic America’s strategic goals with the environmental movement, adding the organization’s voice to the fight for park access and green space.

“I believe that all people deserve to live in cities that are biologically sound, socially just, and spiritually rewarding,” she said.

Beyond her involvement with Scenic America, Kathryn serves on the California Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land and remains active in issues directly impacting her own historic neighborhood near UCLA.

 “We have to let people know that they need to work and fight for their cities. If residents don’t look after their cities, they are going to go away,” she noted. “In order to fight for your city, you have to understand planning, design, management, and finance. Few cities have the political and financial strength to say what they want their city to be.”

She advocates for standards and tools to create cities that are inclusive, clean, safe, and beautiful, and true centers of community, with plenty of parks and green space.

“Placemaking is not just a functional exercise. You need to think about what is spiritually rewarding, how people are going to work, play, and live in a space,” she added. “It’s a little more complicated than just reusing a building. You have to think holistically. Some communities can’t. The more that do, the more that will.”