Building on an Iconic Past

Fran Leadon, right, talks with City College architecture students on photo mission for the new AIA Guide to New York City.
One day late last summer, Fran Leadon and two dozen architecture students gathered outside a three-story brick townhouse in Manhattan's West Village, cameras hanging from their necks. They began snapping pictures of the exterior of the 210-year-old building with a "for sale" sign in its ground-level storefront window. The awning of the townhouse -- at 555 Hudson St. -- bore the name of its most recently departed occupant, City Cricket.

"A restaurant, I think," Leadon said. It was actually a children's clothing boutique, but Leadon could be forgiven. The building, after all, was the last of more than 6,000 he and his City College architecture students had photographed over the course of a year. The occasion called for a round of doughnuts at a nearby bakery. But the real celebration came in June, when Oxford University Press published the fruits of their labors: the fifth edition of the iconic AIA Guide to New York City -- a collaboration with the equally iconic Norval White, co-creator of the guide and founder of City College's architecture school (now the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture).

White and colleague Elliot Willensky originally published the AIA Guide for fellow architects -- 416 pages of photographs and snappy commentary for those attending the American Institute of Architects' national convention in New York in 1967. A trade version was published a year later and subsequent revised editions appeared in 1978, 1988 and 2000, by which time the guide had grown to 1,056 pages.

White produced the 2000 edition solo after Willensky's death in 1990. But when the time came for a fifth edition, an update made necessary in good part because of the many changes in the city's architecture in the years since 9/11, White needed a partner. He was past 80 and living in France. Stephanie Smith, a friend and former colleague at City College, recommended Leadon, a young assistant professor who happened to be a talented writer looking for a book project. Leadon leaped at the chance.

"When I came here, all the older, tenured faculty had been his students," Leadon says. "So to be the young, untenured assistant professor and work with Norval -- it was a dream come true."

White grew up in Manhattan, lived for decades in Brooklyn Heights and was a teacher, writer, passionate preservationist and designer of buildings himself. But with him in Europe, the new AIA project became a long-distance collaboration. The two met face-toface only three times. Leadon visited White and his wife, Camilla, at their villa in France twice; White came to New York for four weeks in January 2009. "Mostly we worked on Skype," Leadon says. Leadon gently advocated for more attention to the architecture of lesser-known neighborhoods in the outer boroughs and a return to the breezier tone of the original edition. But he resolved to balance his own sensibilities against his strong impulse to defer to his elder, who felt that the city's new condos should be included too. "The guide has always had striking examples of either really good buildings or really bad buildings," Leadon says. "To damn with faint praise was his method, and I kind of got into that." It was really White's guide, Leadon thought; indeed, he ultimately chose an author credit that is nothing if not deferential: "Norval White & Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon."

One thing White insisted was that every building in previous editions be visited before it was included in the new one -- to verify that it was still there. (Likewise, a church couldn't be listed as a church if it had become a nightclub.) To help accomplish his daunting mission, Leadon enlisted about two dozen of his students, each of whom would get a list of 20 or so buildings a week to photograph, catalog and write about. The result is a new edition of the guide that is kind of a throwback to White and Willensky's original, which had a more personal, diary-like tone than later editions. "When they were younger, you could tell it was written from the street, walking around together .... It was very fresh. I brought that back, putting in descriptions of movie theaters, places to get good cheap Italian food."

Although Leadon considered the guide the true domain of White and Willensky, he wound up taking on unexpected authority. In December, barely a week after they finished the first draft of the fifth edition, White died of a heart attack. "After that, I really had to make a lot of decisions," Leadon says. He spent the next few months refining tone and content: the delicate mix of the new, the old -- and the missing.

"I tried to balance all the new buildings since 2000 with discussions of what they replaced -- the bodegas and community gardens that were lost to make way for the modernist building boom," Leadon says.

Still, though Leadon took three-quarters of the new edition's photographs and wrote much of the guide's text, he is quick to credit White and Willensky, whose words still echo throughout the book.

"I'm fine with being credited as 'with Fran Leadon' for this edition," he says. "At first, people buying the new guide won't know who I am, but I think they'll get to know me as they read it."