A sharp wit, a beaming smile, a family-oriented woman and a well-respected and influential advocate of historic preservation – that’s how friends and colleagues remember longtime Princeton resident Constance Greiff.
Mrs. Greiff died on March 1 of congestive heart failure, said her sons, Peter Grieff and James Greiff. She was 90 years old.
“Connie had a personal passion for historic preservation,” said Richard D. Smith, who worked with Mrs. Greiff at Heritage Studies, the historic preservation consultancy that she founded in 1975.
Taking her personal passion for historic buildings and turning it into a profession, Mrs. Greiff was a writer, an editor and a consultant who specialized in historic preservation.
Mrs. Greiff once said that “every building tells a story, though sometimes you have to dig to find it. I like the digging and I like the telling.”
Mrs. Greiff, who wrote several books, was the founder of Preservation New Jersey and served as its president from 1978 to 1989. The nonprofit group is devoted to preserving the state’s diverse heritage.
Preservation New Jersey annually lists the “Ten Most Endangered Places” in the state that are threatened by demolition or neglect – ranging from the Stony Brook Bridge on Route 206 in Princeton, to the William Gulick House on Route 206 at Province Line Road in Lawrence Township, and Trenton Central High School.
The Stony Brook Bridge was rehabilitated, and the William Gulick House sits abandoned and deteriorating. Trenton Central High School was demolished and a new high school has been built in its place.
Mrs. Greiff was a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Board of Advisors, which led her to create Preservation New Jersey, said Bob Craig, a former colleague. He is the registration program supervisor in the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Mrs. Greiff studied art history at Vassar College and continued her graduate studies at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. She moved to Princeton with her late husband, Robert Greiff.
Intrigued by the large number of historically significant but mostly unexplored homes, churches and buildings in Princeton, Mrs. Greiff teamed up with Mary Weitzel Gibbons and photographer Elizabeth G.C. Menzies to write “Princeton Architecture: A Pictorial History of Town and Campus” in 1967.
When Mrs. Greiff learned that Princeton University was going to expand Firestone Library underground in 1969, she and Mrs. Gibbons convinced the university to allow volunteers to excavate the site. It had been the site of the Houdibras Tavern in the 18th century, when Princeton was a main stop on the stagecoach road between New York City and Philadelphia.
The shards of pottery and china, tableware and other items that were uncovered by the archaeological dig were catalogued and displayed across the street at the Bainbridge House, which was the Historical Society of Princeton’s headquarters. Mrs. Greiff was a former president of the Historical Society of Princeton.
“The Houdibras Tavern typifies her foresight. To work in historic preservation, you have to have great foresight to look ahead to preserve the past,” said Smith, a former colleague.
Mrs. Greiff also was an editor at Pyne Press, which specialized in the re-issue of vintage architectural books. While she was at the Pyne Press, she also wrote several books about the hundreds of buildings of historic or architectural importance that had been lost over the years across the United States.
“She looked at a building not only as a work of art, but as a piece of history. Society and the community’s heritage need to be preserved for that reason,” said Smith, who did some research and writing for her at Heritage Studies, the historic preservation consultancy.
“Connie would walk through a building, look at the details and make verbal notes on a tape recorder – a verbal photo. She had extremely high standards and very high expectations, but she was eminently fair,” Smith said.
Craig, who works in the New Jersey Historic Preservation office, worked with Mrs. Greiff for 12 years at Pyne Press. He agreed with Smith that she had high standards. She was serious about good writers, and was a great editor, he said.
“She insisted on the quality of work that came out of you. We would throw lines into the draft of a report to see if they would survive her red (editing) pencil. They did not,” Craig said.
“Back in the day, she was fond of yellow pads. She wrote her draft in pencil. It was an open question when personal computers were introduced (in the office) whether she would give up her yellow pads,” Craig recalled.
But after a few weeks, “the yellow pads were gone” and she began to compose on the computer, he said. She would compose several paragraphs in her mind and then put them into written form, he said.
“I tried and tried and tried to do the same thing. I was a slower writer, and she was skating along. She always credited her years with The Princeton Packet (for being able to write),” Craig said.
Mrs. Greiff wrote a column called “Shop Talk” for The Princeton Packet for several years, beginning in the late 1960’s, and contributed to the newsroom as an editor and writer.
In 1975, Mrs. Greiff founded Heritage Studies. The consultancy conducted surveys and studies for towns, counties and states in the northeastern United States. It was the first of its kind in historic preservation circles.
Through Heritage Studies, Mrs. Greiff helped to launch the careers of many young architectural historians in the budding field of historic preservation – including Princeton architect Michael Mills, currently of Mills & Schnoering Architects LLC.
“I was inspired by her book, ‘Princeton Architecture,’ to do my senior thesis at Princeton University on the Cannon Club,” Mills said. He studied the Cannon Club, one of the private student eating and social clubs on Prospect Avenue, which was being converted into offices.
Mrs. Greiff also helped him to find his first job with an architect in Philadelphia, he said. She later hired him to work with her at Heritage Studies, he said. It led him to find work with Short & Ford, which was a historic preservation architectural firm that shared office space with Heritage Studies.
“She gave me my career. She was a giant in historic preservation in New Jersey. I was lucky to be one of the people that she mentored and for that, I am grateful and proud,” Mills said.
“Princeton and New Jersey are much better because Connie was around,” Smith added.