Even in an age when we walk the streets believing in our ability to pull up all sorts of information on our smartphones, we can pause to appreciate the comprehensiveness, erudition, and wit of the AIA Guide to New York City. The encyclopedic guide celebrates its 50th birthday this year, as it was conceived to be a handbook for architects arriving in the city in 1967 for the American Institute of Architects annual meeting.
The now-legendary reference book was conceived by two architects, Norval White and Elliot Willensky, who had become preservation activists in the fight to save the old Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s. Young and ambitious, White and Willensky figured they could update and expand upon a 72-page guide prepared by Huson Jackson for the visiting architects back in 1952. That meant setting up in an office at the southwest corner of 57th Street and Third Avenue and working, as White would recall, “feverishly” with a few collaborators to produce, within nine months, an oblong-shaped paperback of 464 pages describing some 2,600 buildings.
The pocket guide put out by the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter came with “A Message from Mayor John V. Lindsay” that concluded, “I hope the delegates to the AIA Convention will enjoy and use the guidebook, and I’m sure that others will—it’s a good one.” It thus may not have been a surprise that the book found a market when it was issued commercially a year and a half later as a $6.95 hardback, announced by the New York Times as, “Architects Publish Strollers’ Guide to City.”
The Times, in particular, would document the growth and evolution of the work as its second edition came out in 1978, and a third in 1988. The fourth was issued in 2000, as a memorial of sorts to Elliot Willensky, who, after serving in a number of civic positions—including Brooklyn Borough Historian—died at age 56 in 1990. Finally, we would read how Norval White would labor on for the 2010 fifth edition with his new, younger collaborator, architecture professor Francis Leadon.
The AIA Guide to New York City was always opinionated, although some caustic assessments have been softened, hence the sloping W.R. Grace Building facing Bryant Park, first described as “an insult to the street” and “an opportunity for some flashy architectural ego,” is, in the latest edition, merely an “anarchist in the streetscape.” The barbs continued for some of the newer buildings and are well documented by these examples on the Curbed New York website.
Over these decades the publishers would change, and fans of the guide would note the presence or absence of favorite features. Those of us staid reference librarians see it as a thoroughly authoritative work on buildings, including glossary and index and icons representing architectural styles, but many others recall that the earliest editions were sprinkled with opinions on stores and restaurants—complete with their seven-digit phone numbers (no area code necessary in those days). A Chinatown coffee shop could be captioned “No telephone. No booze. No reservation. The food is excellent and cheap.” An aptly named “Necrology,” lamenting losses in the changing built landscape, was added in 1978, and that, in turn, was mourned when it was dropped—or, more accurately, incorporated into the main text—in later editions. Some may forget that the earliest manifestations of the guide included full-page ads from its sponsors.
The many revisions apparently included corrections: A year after the first trade edition came out, Elliot Willensky stopped by The New-York Historical Society to view an exhibit of photographs. His gracious note included the confession, “As one of the authors of the AIA Guide to New York City I know how difficult it is to research the facts about NY’s history and be right every time. We have sheaves of corrections from our reading public. And just as we have received our corrections, here is my humble list for you to consider re your show.” It was followed by a page and half of accurate detail on what needed to be fixed on the exhibit labels.
Norval White died in December 2009 just as the manuscript for the 2010 fifth edition was being delivered. Barely twelve months earlier, he had, as his new collaborator recalled, gone on “madcap, careening drives through the five boroughs” insisting that architecture should be assessed on the streets and not merely by photographs. Norval White appreciated modernism but bemoaned the gloss and lack of vision in the late 20th century, “I don’t like the kind of heroics we have now,” he admitted in 1999 to architectural historian and Times contributor Christopher Gray, such as, “anything by Trump.” White maintained that there were still parts of the city unconquered by big box stores, and that by using the guide to explore less-traveled enclaves, one could find “places where egg creams can still be swigged without irony and a slice is still a slice.”
Now Norval White is gone along with his longtime collaborator Elliot Willensky, and so too is Christopher Gray. Their work and appreciation for our built environment certainly lives on.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections