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Joan Kaplan Davidson, Beloved New York Philanthropist, Passes Away at 96

Joan Kaplan Davidson, a preservationist and philanthropist who initiated projects that improved the quality of life in New York City, died on Friday in Hudson, N.Y. at the age of 96.

Her son John Matthew Davidson confirmed her death in a hospital, without specifying a cause, only stating that “her heart gave out.”

Ms. Davidson held significant roles as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s and as New York State parks commissioner in the 1990s. However, she made her most notable contributions from 1977 to 1993 as president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a foundation established by her father, Jacob M. Kaplan, in 1945.

Although the foundation had a smaller endowment compared to larger ones like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, it was often the primary source of grants for saving buildings, supporting cultural institutions, and restoring landmarks in New York.

Under Mr. Kaplan’s leadership, the foundation provided the necessary funds to save Carnegie Hall in the 1960s when no one else seemed interested. It also played a key role in creating Westbeth, an artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan that became a model for rehabilitating industrial buildings worldwide. Under Ms. Davidson’s presidency, the foundation laid the groundwork and provided much of the funding for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, which was formed to renovate and preserve the mayor’s residence.

Ms. Davidson, known for picketing to save endangered landmark buildings, focused the fund’s resources on issues related to the city’s architecture, design, and quality of life. She also established programs to support the arts, civil liberties, human rights, as well as the conservation of natural resources and rural preservation in upstate New York.

When speaking about the fund’s mission, she stated, “We stepped in and got involved… 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 son of a rabbi, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and made a fortune in the molasses business in South America. He later acquired Welch’s Grape Juice by buying out its owners. After selling Welch’s to a cooperative of his employees in 1956, he focused on his foundation.

Like her father, Ms. Davidson embraced a hands-on approach to philanthropy and supported causes related to art, architecture, and civil rights. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1948 and a postgraduate degree in education from Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan in 1949. After teaching and working in advertising, she married C. Girard Davidson, a former assistant secretary of the interior, in 1953. They had four children and divorced in 1967.

Notably, in 1970, Ms. Davidson managed the creation of Westbeth Artists Housing, which provided homes for artists and was housed in the old Bell Laboratories building in Greenwich Village. It was designated a New York City landmark in 2011 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Joan Kaplan Davidson took over as president of the Kaplan Fund in 1977 after her father’s retirement. She remained active as president emeritus even after being appointed New York State commissioner of parks, recreation, and historic preservation in 1993. Her children and three cousins gradually assumed control of the foundation. She continued her involvement in conservation efforts, particularly in the Hudson Valley.

Ms. Davidson’s lasting impact was in promoting smaller-scale projects in a world dominated by larger foundations focused on broader initiatives. She proudly positioned the Kaplan Fund at the heart of New York City’s philanthropy landscape.

Ashley Shannon Wu contributed reporting.

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