Simeon Bankoff ’91

Photo: John KeonSimeon Bankoff ’91 is a historic preservation advocate in New York City. He serves as Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council. He lead a tour of DUMBO for alumni in October.

Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence?
Proximity to New York City was really important to me. As a native New Yorker, I wanted to experience the city as a young adult and take advantage of all the things I had glimpsed growing up but was too young to partake in, so all the colleges I looked at were within reasonable distance (three hours or less) to the city. Aside from that, I went to a large science and math high school (Stuyvesant) and I wanted some place which was more artistic and creative. I also liked the teacher-to-student ratio. I visited Sarah Lawrence by myself during an early winter snowstorm and was quite taken with the campus; it struck me as the sort of place Woody Allen would think of as a college campus—which spoke to my pretentiously alienated teenage heart.

Did you have a favorite class?
My favorite class was probably Wolfgang Spitzer’s class on romantic poetry. It was all medievalism, literary allegories, and horribly arcane material which completely fulfilled my fantasies of what college was supposed to be. Additionally, it was held in Professor Spitzer’s office in the basement of Dudley Lawrence, so all I had to do was roll downstairs from my room, which was very convenient. It was filled with all the stylings a good medievalist’s office needed; including an ancient radio tuned to WQXR, an imposing espresso machine, impressively overwrought baroque furniture, and a bust of his famous father—it felt like Sherlock Holmes’ apartment. Finally, my suitemate and two other good friends were in the class, so we could collectively freak out about papers and readings. Spitzer himself was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject, so it was an overall nearly perfect academic experience.

How did you begin your career in the historic preservation of New York City?
When I got out of school, I worked in technical theatre for a while. That experience got parlayed into helping a historic house nonprofit out with their annual benefit. I knew them through my father who had hosted several archaeological summer school programs on their properties. Once I entered that orbit, I moved from one preservation nonprofit to another, picking up skills and knowledge along the way. Years of creative writing classes at Sarah Lawrence helped immensely; there’s a surprising correlation between poetry and fundraising letters. I was interested and aware of NYC history through my parents and growing up, so I kept at it.

You’re a lifelong resident of Brooklyn. Do you have a favorite spot in the borough?
Probably Coney Island. It’s tawdry and chintzy and full of the kind of people whom I think of as real New Yorkers. It is to be avoided on weekends at all costs, especially during the summer, but there’s a quality of light and an expanse of sky which you encounter down by the ocean that I find both reviving and humbling. Going down there always gives me a fresh perspective on the bigger things—and I am morbidly fascinated by the ongoing civic uglification campaign; it’s been going strong for decades and shows no sign of slowing down.

When you aren’t saving historic sites, how else do you like to spend your time?
Reading, watching TV, resting, and recharging so that I can continue to do what I love doing. I just finished graduate school, so there’s a mountain of books which I’ve been picking up but haven’t had the time to read until now.