30 December 2009

Norval C. White, Author of AIA Guide, Dies

Norval C. White, a co-author of the "authoritative, encyclopedic, opinionated and constantly consulted" AIA Guide to New York City, died Dec. 26, at 83. He passed far away from the city whose buildings he so wonderfully catalogued, at his home in the village of Roques, in southwest France.

I can't even say how many times I have consulted the AIA guide before making a post about the history of an old New York building. It was a priceless source in discovering the date, architect, architectural style of any significant structure in the City, with a little saucy opinion thrown in for good measure.

The guide was first published in 1968, just as the preservation movement was getting its footing in New York. White was actually a leader of the fight to save the original Penn Station a few years earlier. When he heard the beautiful edifice was to be torn down, White and several other architects founded AGBANY (Action Group for Better Architecture in New York). They picketed the station and handed out fliers in protest.

As the Times obituary writes, "the AIA Guide tapped into and fostered a growing national awareness that America had an architectural past worth preserving, a present worth studying and a future worth debating. It also offered a template for other city guides. But after four decades, it stands alone."

The book began as as a guide he prepared for the American Institute of Architects’ national convention in New York in 1967. It can out as a book the next year. For a time in the 1990s, the book was, insanely, out of print, much to the consternation of historians and New York lovers. The fifth edition is to be published in June by Oxford University Press. Elliot Willensky, the the other original co-author, died in 1990. Mr. White’s co-author on the new edition is Fran Leadon, an assistant professor of architecture at City College.

White was an architect himself and was a native New Yorker. He was born on June 12, 1926, and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, then spent much of his adult life in Brooklyn Heights. (No wonder that neighborhood gets such a thorough going over in the guide. I wish he had done the same for Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, which only get a rather cursory survey.)

The man did right by his native City. If more followed his example, we'd be in a better place.

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