| Dec 30, 2009 |
Norval White, of AIA Guide, Dies at 83 (NYT)
Boh staff
By Staff


Norval C. White, a co-author of the authoritative, encyclopedic, opinionated and constantly consulted AIA Guide to New York City, died Saturday at his home in the village of Roques, in southwest France. He was 83.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Camilla Crowe White.

First published in 1968, 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.

“No other American or, for that matter, world city can boast so definitive a one-volume guide to its built environment,” Phillip Lopate wrote in The New York Times in 2000, when the fourth edition came out.

The fifth edition is to be published in June by Oxford University Press. Elliot Willensky, the 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.

The original AIA Guide contained thousands of thumbnail essays on buildings, some of them overprinted with the word “Demolished.” These were punctuated by restaurant reviews, shopping tips and sociological profiles of neighborhoods and districts, like the “belly-dancing center.” The designer Herb Lubalin tied everything together with a bold graphic format.

The guide made architecture accessible to a broad public by discussing buildings in context rather than treating them in isolation. And it did not require readers to know the difference between a volute and a voussoir.

It celebrated the vernacular background buildings that are as much a part of the city’s character as its best-known landmarks. By establishing the provenance of these structures, the guide introduced readers to a legion of second-tier architects who had done first-rate work. It also raised the profile of the American Institute of Architects and its New York chapter, which sponsored the guide.

Mr. White, an architect himself, 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. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949 and a master’s degree from Princeton in 1955. He also attended the architecture program at the Fontainebleau Schools in France.

He taught at the Cooper Union and in 1968 became the founding chairman of the City College School of Architecture and Environmental Studies (now the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture). That was where he met Camilla Crowe, who, in her late 40s, had returned to the classroom. They wed in 1992.

Mr. White’s first marriage, to Joyce Leslie Lee, ended in divorce. He is survived by their sons, William and Gordon, both of Seattle; Alastair, of Manhattan; and Thomas, of Brooklyn. He is also survived by his stepsons, Seth Nesbitt of Seattle and Christopher Nesbitt of Belize.

In the early 1960s, Mr. White was a leader of the fight to save the original Penn Station, as chairman of the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York. “Pennsylvania Station is total architecture, giving commodity, firmness and delight,” he wrote in May 1962. It is “a strong part of our urban landscape,” he added, offering “a sequence of glorious entrance spaces into our city.”

Its replacement, he correctly predicted, would be an “eight-foot-high spatial sandwich for the traveler to wend his way through into the city — past a probable morass of pretzel stands and vending machines.”

The architectural project he was most proud of was the Essex Terrace complex, built in 1970 in East New York, Brooklyn. He saw it as bringing a human scale to subsidized housing, and he liked the fact that mothers could keep an eye on their children outdoors through their kitchen windows.

Mr. White was the author of “The Architecture Book” (1976) and “New York: A Physical History” (1987). But the AIA Guide was his landmark and legacy.

In 1967, he and Mr. Willensky prepared a 416-page guide for delegates attending the American Institute of Architects’ national convention in New York. That was the basis of the first public edition of the AIA Guide, which came out a year later with 464 pages. The current edition, the fourth, has 1,056.

This spring, when he was touring New York with Mr. Leadon, The Times noted, “Mr. White acknowledges that this will almost certainly be his last edition of the guide, but he hopes that his new partner will carry on the torch.”

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