Architectural Appreciation in Lean Times: The AIA Guide


Out with the new, in with the old. Here in New York, flashily-rendered, would-be awesome buildings like Jean Nouvel’s 53 West 53rd are stalling or stalled, so let’s appreciate what we already have — we might be stuck with it for a while. But fear not! The past is your friend, just ask Norval White and Elliot Willensky. You see, when it comes to New York architectural history, there is one true bible, and they wrote it. The AIA Guide To New York City. If you don’t own this already, get it. It costs $25, but will give you literally years of free fun. (No excuses! We stole ours from our philistine roommate.) What’s the fuss about, you ask? How will this book change my life forever? Find out after the jump.

First written in 1967 by White and Willensky, the book’s on its fourth edition, as of 2000. Willensky died in 1990, so White was flying solo on this one. A Herculean feat, if Hercules was a librarian: re-visiting and re-cataloging some five thousand buildings in all five boroughs. The final product tips the scales at just under three pounds. Two inches thick and over a thousand pages long, if a building has a single grain of significance under its bricks and steel, it’s in here.

But you don’t read it for its size. The book is — believe us — hilarious. The tiny blurbs on each building — some only a sentence or two long — jump between exuberant praise and vicious take-downs, poetry, history, and sometimes straight-up jokes. When they’re good they remind us of six-word memoirs. When they’re brilliant, of Félix Fénéon. Some gems:

The German-American Society Clubhouse on St. Marks: “A German marksmen’s club reveled here and shot elsewhere.”

Stern’s Dry Goods Store on W. 23rd: “It reeks of birthday cake with vanilla icing.”

The Grace building on W. 42nd: “A disgrace to the street. Bowing to that era’s zoning requirements for setbacks produced an excuse to develop the flashy swooping form that interrupted the street wall containing Bryant Park. The plaza behind is a bore.”

George Ranalli’s storefront on Lexington and 64th (a personal favorite): “A storefront of glass squares set within mini-monkey bars (as in a city playground) that crawl up an old brownstone (as ivy crawls up brick walls). Ivy is preferable.”

The Gilsey House on Broadway and W. 29th: “A General Grant Second Empire eclectic extravaganza, columned and mansarded, with the vigor that only the waning years of the 19th century could muster. Cast iron and stone . . . but in brown? O happy the day in 1992 when the façade was restored and painted cream!”

Some of the best descriptions in the book are of buildings you’ve probably never heard of — or never even seen. Sometimes even White and Willensky seem surprised, with observational asides like “Gargoyles!”

Greatness is out there, they’re saying, sometimes you just have to look beyond the pomp and circumstance of press releases and headlines. Andrew Blum, in the hot-off-the-internet presses online mag Urban Omnibus, advocates slow observation of the city. In his own way, tirelessly revisiting every building in the huge book, emphasizing the mysteries and beauty New York architecture still holds, Norval White is doing the same thing. The book’s best advice: “Look up.”