NEW YORK — Christiane Crasemann Collins, a historian of urban planning who helped make a moment in history herself by defying a bulldozer bent on converting a West Harlem park site into a Columbia University gymnasium, died Friday at her home in West Falmouth, Mass. She was 92.
The cause was a stroke, her son Nicolas said.
In 1968, Mrs. Collins figured prominently in a turf war that evolved into a humble but symbolic civil rights struggle: a campaign by a coalition of black community groups and mostly white students and faculty to keep neighboring Columbia from impinging on two of Morningside Park’s mostly craggy 30 acres.
Mrs. Collins and her husband, George, a Columbia art history professor, were among those in the academic community who opposed the planned gym, to be built on parkland that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and that the city had agreed to lease to the university as long before as 1955.
“It’s outrageous what they’re doing to this park,” she told The New York Times.
Mrs. Collins and her husband had long been involved in defending the neighborhood against encroachment by Columbia’s expanding campus and what local residents regarded as the university’s hauteur.
Protesters objected to the gymnasium plan as racially discriminatory, in part because it would have deprived minority residents of needed outdoor recreational space.
On Feb. 20, 1968, the day after excavation at the park finally began, 12 demonstrators were arrested as some blocked an idled bulldozer and others defended a towering elm tree that was about to be felled.
Mrs. Collins positioned herself in the maw of the earthmover with her German shepherd, Kim, but she was not among those arrested. She had left the scene just before police moved against the protesters.
While Mrs. Collins was well known locally as an unofficial Morningside Park historian, community advocate, and contributor to the weekly newspaper The Westsider, she was widely recognized beyond the neighborhood as an authority on 20th-century city planning and architecture, focusing on Central Europe and the Americas.
She and her husband, a scholar of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, wrote a primer on the work and urban theories of 19th-century Austrian architect Camillo Sitte (“Camillo Sitte and the Birth of Modern City Planning,” 1965).
She was the sole author of “Werner Hegemann and the Search for Universal Urbanism” (2005), a study of the city planner and architecture critic who fled Nazi Germany for New York City in the 1930s.
As a critic, Mrs. Collins championed excellence in design but cautioned that context was equally consequential.
“The hope that good work will show off the better for being different from its surroundings, which are to act as a foil, is an illusion,” she wrote in an essay. “Against chaos and anarchy in architecture, emphasis must be placed upon the ideal of civic art and the civilized city.”
Christiane Crasemann was born on Feb. 14, 1926, in Hamburg, Germany, to the former Hildegard Vorwerk and Paul Joachim Crasemann.
When Christiane was only a few days old, she and her parents moved to Vina del Mar on the Pacific coast of Chile, where her mercantile family had long owned an import-export business.
She pursued her higher education in the United States. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1949, followed by master’s degrees in art history and library science from Columbia, where she met George Collins. He died in 1993.
In addition to their son Nicolas, she leaves another son, Luke; George Collins’s son, David Walker Collins, from an earlier marriage; four grandchildren; and two brothers, Bernd and Malte Crasemann.
Mrs. Collins, who became an American citizen in 1972, was director of the Adam and Sophie Gimbel Design Library at Parsons School of Design in New York from 1973 to 1983; a senior Fulbright scholar at the University of Graz in Austria; and a visiting professor at Cornell University.
In the 1960s, the Collins’s apartment overlooked Morningside Park, an overgrown haven for muggers and purse snatchers at the time.
But the park was also part of the fabric of the neighborhood adjacent to the university, a mostly low-income minority community that encompassed parts of Morningside Heights, and, 100 feet below, West Harlem.
The park had become a natural barrier between the campus and the community in a racial dispute that became known as “Gym Crow.” Columbia’s expansion into the park had been opposed by Harlem’s elected officials and also by Thomas Hoving director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former city parks commissioner.
Protesters said the university’s agreement to allow local residents to use the proposed athletic facility during limited hours and to enter by a back door was segregationist in spirit, if not intent. The architects said the rear door was designed to accommodate the park’s sloping terrain.
The park protest, coupled with unrest over the Vietnam War and Columbia’s ties to a government-affiliated think tank, galvanized volatile sit-ins, which ended when police stormed the campus and arrested hundreds of protesters.
Nearly a year later, Columbia’s trustees formally abandoned the proposed gym. The crater left by the gym excavation was converted into a pond. In 1974, the university built an athletic facility in another part of the campus.
In a self-published memoir, “A Storm Foretold: Columbia University and Morningside Heights, 1968” (2015), Mrs. Collins provided her own coda to the controversy, writing, “A new generation of people from a range of backgrounds and neighborhoods is enjoying the result of a multiethnic, determined grass-roots movement whose conviction and vision triumphed against unbelievable odds.”