Margot Gayle was a champion of cast-iron architecture. From the 1960s until her death in 2008, Gayle worked as a grassroots organizer, journalist, lecturer, writer, and neighborhood tour guide, all in the effort to raise awareness of preservation issues. She organized several prominent campaigns to save cast-iron structures, including buildings, statues, clocks, lampposts, and bridges. Most of her efforts were focused on New York City, where she lived, and many of its cast-iron structures survive today thanks to her activism.
Margot Gayle (nee McCoy) was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 14, 1908. The daughter of an automobile executive, Gayle moved frequently as a child. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in bacteriology from Emory University. She married William T. Gayle, an accountant, and moved with him and their two young daughters to New York City in the 1940s. Though her career as a preservationist began in her middle age, Gayle was politically active from a young age. While still in Atlanta in the 1930s, Gayle joined the League of Women Voters to work for repeal of the Georgia's poll tax. In 1957, she ran unsuccessfully for the New York City Council. She remained active in Democratic Party politics throughout her life. In her first decades in New York, Gayle worked as a writer for CBS radio, as a columnist for the Daily News, and as a public relations specialist for the New York City Planning Commission, where she gained contacts and political experience that would enable her later work as a preservation activist.
Gayle's first preservation project was the Jefferson Market Courthouse, a structure that was slated for destruction until she helped organize a successful effort to convert it into a library in the early 1960s. The group Gayle formed for this purpose allied with other organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, establishing a precedent for collaboration with like-minded individuals and groups. Gayle founded the Victorian Society in America in 1966, after attending a summer seminar led by Nikolaus Pevsner, the founder of the British-based Victorian Society.
In 1970, Gayle founded the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture (FCIA), a group devoted to the preservation of cast-iron architecture in the United States. She spearheaded the effort to save SoHo's cast iron structures, resulting in the creation of the Soho Cast Iron Historic District in 1973. The decision of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate SoHo a historic district was a direct product of FCIA activism. Through the FCIA, Gayle organized walking tours in cast-iron-rich New York neighborhoods, hosted an annual lecture on cast iron, distributed pamphlets and other educational material to its members, and offered awards to individuals and organizations in recognition of their devotion to the cause of cast-iron preservation.
Gayle's other prominent preservation activities--most of them in New York City-- include the efforts to save the Alice Austen House, the Old Sun Clock, St. Bartholomew's Church, and the Bogardus fire tower in Harlem. She participated in preservation activities across the United States, including the effort to preserve the city hall in Richmond, Virginia. She maintained close ties with the international preservation community and lent her support to preservation campaigns abroad, including the unsuccessful bid to save the cast-iron pavilions of the famous Les Halles market in Paris.
In addition to her activism, Gayle contributed to scholarship on the history of cast-iron architecture. Gayle's 1974 Cast-Iron Architecture in New York, which describes many of New York's iconic cast-iron structures, is considered by many architectural historians to be a seminal work. She broadened her geographical scope with Cast-Iron Architecture in America: the Significance of James Bogardus, published fourteen years later. She also published several articles and book reviews. In recognition of her contributions to historic preservation, she received numerous awards from a variety of organizations, including an Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.