January 27, 2009
by Fran Leadon AIA

Leadon’s dog-eared copy of the fourth edition of the AIA Guide to NYC, showing the many changes to the SoHo section (left). Leadon used a newspaper stand as a temporary desk while tracking down new construction sites in Tribeca (right).

Fran Leadon

Last spring Norval White, FAIA, asked me to co-author a new version of the AIA Guide to New York City. The fifth edition, the first new edition since 2000, will be published in 2010 by Oxford University Press. White, now living on a hilltop in the south of France, needed someone with time and energy to do the groundwork in New York. Every café, newsstand, cornice, mural, and stoop mentioned in the Guide would have to be re-visited, re-photographed, and reappraised, I told him I would be happy and honored to do it.

I remember first seeing the Guide when I was a graduate student at the Yale School of Architecture in the early 1990s. It was intimidating in its girth and weight, a book you couldn’t possibly read in less than five years, ridiculously ambitious in its scope. It included not only the physical facts of the built environment (the cupolas, pediments, gables, and mullions), but people and stories, too: the rivalries between long-dead architects, the unsuccessful fight for Penn Station, the hubris of Stanford White, the East Village tenement where the outlaw Butch Cassidy lived, the Upper East Side tenement where the Marx Brothers were born. What started in 1967 as a thin volume for an AIA convention, the Guide, tall and narrow, roughly brick-shaped, theoretically pocket-sized, has gradually become an epic poem.

Each edition has become both thicker and more astute in its appraisal of the city. The Guide explains things in layers. It tells the tale of just about every significant building on every block in each of the five boroughs: who designed it, when they designed it, why they designed it, in which style and with what materials, what was there before it, what is planned there in the immediate future, and what might have been ill-advisedly planned there at some point in the past, but (“happily” White would say) ended up as a future that never happened. Buildings, architects, and clients are generally treated by the Guide with the analytical respect of an archeologist as much as the razor edge of a critic. The writing, reduced to a prose more spare than Hemingway, is terse. “Prune and distill,” White tells me.

My involvement in the new edition represented an opportunity for White to re-establish a collaborative process with a co-author (founding co-author Elliot Willensky, FAIA, passed away in 1990 and the fourth edition was completed solo by White). One tradition of the Guide has been that it’s all eyewitness reporting: either White or Willensky personally visited and photographed each site. So I go out each day with a list of sites, camera in hand and good walking shoes on my feet. I check to see if the building is still there, jot down any alterations (additions, renovations, demolitions), and then upload the photos to our database. We’re completely re-writing the existing text and adding descriptions of significant new construction. One of us writes a new description, and the other re-writes it, back and forth.

In the coming year, I’ll offer a monthly preview of the new Guide in progress leading up to its publication in 2010, including excerpts from a revised SoHo section, a new Gansevoort Market section, and an expanded Brooklyn section.

Norval White, FAIA, is an architect, architectural historian and professor. He has designed buildings throughout the U.S., and in addition to the AIA Guide to New York City, is the author of The Architecture Book and New York: A Physical History. He currently resides with his wife Camilla in Roques, France.

Elliot Willensky, FAIA, (1934-1990) was an architect and architectural historian. He served as vice chairman of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, and was the official Borough Historian of Brooklyn. He also wrote a popular history, When Brooklyn Was the World, 1920-1957.

Fran Leadon, AIA, is an architect and professor at the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Design at the City College of New York. He lives in Brooklyn.


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