James Marston Fitch developed the academic field of historic preservation through his prolific career as a writer, architectural scholar, activist, and educator. Fitch was born in Washington, D.C., in 1909. He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and attended the University of Alabama and Tulane in New Orleans. During the Depression he worked as a researcher at the Tennessee Planning Commission and as a low-cost housing analyst at the Federal Housing Authority. In 1936 he moved to New York City and began his career as an editor at Architectural Record, where he worked until joining the Air Force as a meteorologist in 1941. Following World War II, Fitch became an early proponent of the importance of the environment in architectural design while continuing his career in publishing at Architectural Forum (1945-1949) and House Beautiful (1949-1953). At House Beautiful he oversaw the Climate Control Research Project, which investigated environmental criteria for residential architecture.
From 1954 to 1977, Fitch served as a professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning at Columbia University. At Columbia, Fitch founded the graduate program in restoration and preservation, which later became the masters program for historic preservation. He maintained close correspondence with many graduates of the program who went on to direct programs throughout the world to promote the preservation and study of historic architecture.
Upon his retirement from Columbia, Fitch became the director of preservation at the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle in New York City, contributing to the restoration of Ellis Island, Grand Central Station, and South Street Seaport. He was also appointed the preservator of Central Park and established methods for the park to accommodate modern uses. As an activist, he was the colleague and friend of Jane Jacobs and Margot Gayle in their efforts to identify and preserve historic districts throughout New York.
Fitch was a founding member and active participant in several national and international preservation organizations, including the Association for Preservation Technology (APT) and Victorian Society in America. He was a fellow of United State Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and organized many symposia on architecture for various organizations. He established the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation to promote historic preservation. Among his published works are a biography of Walter Gropius (1960), American Building: The forces that shape it (1948), Architecture and the Esthetics of Plenty (1961), American Building: The environmental forces that shaped it (1972), and Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (1982). Among his numerous awards are five honorary degrees, including one from the Tulane School of Architecture in 1997. Fitch died in New York City in 2000.