Robert Moses, 92, the master builder who changed the face of New York through the public works he directed, died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at the Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, N.Y.
Mr. Moses, who was stricken at his home at Gilgo Beach on Long Island Monday afternoon, has been described as one of the great builders of history. He transformed wastelands into parks, created new land on the edge of the ocean, built hundreds of miles of highways, power plants, public housing developments, bridges and cultural centers. The impact of his work affects all of New York and the way its citizens live.
He successfully challenged the rich and powerful, forcing them to give up land for parks.The highways and bridges he built made it possible for city dwellers to enjoy those parks. The same bridges and highways made it possible for suburbanites to drive into the city. It has been estimated that he oversaw the construction of projects costing $27 billion in 1968 dollars.
Beyond that, he exerted enormous influence on the federal government and its planning of national highway networks, urban renewal projects and similar undertakings. Thus, his work had an impact far beyond the city and state where he held virtually unchallenged power as a public official for almost a half century.
"In the 20th century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person," wrote Lewis Mumford, one of Mr. Moses' sternest critics.
Even a partial list of what Mr. Moses accomplished is formidable. He developed 75 state parks, including Jones Beach on Long Island, built 11 bridges, including the Verrazano-Narrows bridge linking Staten Island and Brooklyn, and 481 miles of highway linking New York City with surrounding areas and improving movement from one part of the city to another. He built the Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum, Shea Stadium and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, which at one time had the largest generating capacity in the Western world. During the 12 years in which Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York, Mr. Moses increased the amount of city parkland from 14,000 to 22,000 acres. He increased the number of playgrounds from 119 to 492.
Mrs. Moses wielded such power that not even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former governor of New York, could bring him to heel. In 1934, when he was still organizing the New Deal, Roosevelt sought to block $44 million needed to complete New York City's Triborough Bridge. Politicians and the press rallied to Mr. Moses and the funds were forthcoming.
Years later, the late senator Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) called Mr. Moses "one of the most competent and irritating men in the history of the United States. An amazingly efficient man, he is the most egotistical, the most intolerant, the most hot-tempered public servant I have ever known."
Mr. Moses first came to power in 1924 when he was named chairman of the New York State Council of Parks. In 1934, he became head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. At one time, he held 14 public offices. But it was his position at the Triborough authority that formed the basis of his subsequent career.
Because of the many posts he held, Mr. Moses wrote many of the laws governing the construction of New York highways. He was able to give the authorities he headed wide powers to take land by condemnation. He was in the dual position of being able to propose projects and then approve his own proposals.
His success fed on itself. He was ruthless in the face of opposition. Commissions convened to judge his projects sometimes found that they already were under construction or even had been completed. He called opponents "jackals" and "vultures." Confident of his position, he often threatened to resign.
For years, that tactic worked. But in 1963, when he was president of the New York World's Fair Corporation, a financial failure, he had a dispute with governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and threatened to quit all of his posts. The governor accepted. This still left Mr. Moses in control of the Triborough authority until 1968, when Rockefeller had it taken over by a state agency.
The loss of the Triborough authority was the effective end of Mr. Moses' career. According to Robert A. Caro, author of "The Power Broker," a critical assessment of Mr. Moses' career that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, the significance of the Triborough was this: although it was a public corporation, the law protected it from public scrutiny. And because of its toll-collecting authority, it had enormous funds at its disposal.
It is Caro's contention that Mr. Moses was a master politician who used the Triborough to persuade the political and financial interests to let him have his way. "He . . . used the power of money to undermine the democratic processes in the largest city in the world, to plan and build its parks, bridges, highways and housing projects on the basis of his whim alone," Caro wrote.
Mr. Moses maintained that he never had made a "deal" on a construction project in his life.
Indeed, his personal honesty was never seriously questioned. He received salaries for only two of his jobs -- $25,000 a year as head of the New York City Parks Commission and $10,000 a year as chairman of the State Power Authority. When he was head of the World's Fair Corporation, he was paid $100,000 a year. What interested him more than money was power.
"All that you need," he once said in summing up his life, "is strong nerves, backbone, ability to argue your case in the spoken and written word, a love for combat, the hide of a rhinoceros and a willingness to work like a dog for an occasional rain-washed bone."
After 1968, Mr. Moses was a consultant for the Triborough authority at a salary of $35,000. He also had such perquisites as two secretaries and chauffeur-driven limousines. He continued to lobby for a favorite project -- a bridge across Long Island Sound.
Robert Moses was born into a well-to-do family in New Haven, Conn., on Dec. 18, 1888. He graduated from Yale University with honors, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he got a master's degree, and then earned a doctorate at Columbia University.
He became interested in public affairs as a young man. His first venture in government was as a crusader who sought to put New York's public employes on the merit system rather than the spoils system. He was opposed by one of the most effective political organizations in the nation's history -- Tammany Hall. His first successes came under the sponsorship of governor Alfred E. Smith, who named him head of the State Council of Parks.
In his only try for elective office, Mr. Moses, a Republican, was badly defeated for governor by Herbert Lehmann.
Mr. Moses' first wife, the former Mary Louise Sims, whom he married in 1915, died in 1966.
Survivors include his wife, the former Mary A. Grady, whom he married in 1966, and two children, Barbara Olds and Jane Moses Collins.