Recalling the Origins of AIA’s NY Guide

Leadon, left, with the iconic Norval White
Arguably the two most significant moments in Norval White's storied career occurred just months apart, in 1968. That was the debut year of the AIA Guide to New York City, still a singular volume four decades later. It was also the year White became the founding chairman of City College's School of Architecture and Environmental Studies, now the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture.

"One of the great figures of New York architecture," The New York Times called White a year ago, in a story about the coming fifth edition of the AIA Guide. White died eight months later, at 83, not in the city with which he was so closely associated but in southern France, in a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees called Roques.

White and his wife, Camilla, retired there several years ago, living in a stone villa on a hilltop surrounded by gardens. But he found a way to be a New Yorker to the end, working tirelessly with City College's Fran Leadon on the new edition of the guide, the first since 9/11. They finished the first draft just a few days before White suffered a fatal heart attack.

White grew up on the Upper East Side, lived for decades in Brooklyn Heights and was everything New York architecture - teacher, writer and a designer of buildings himself, most significantly, in his view, a public housing complex called Essex Terrace that was built in the East New York section of Brooklyn in 1970.

By then, White was a leading light in the city's architectural world. He taught at the Cooper Union before starting CCNY's architecture school (where he met his second wife, Camilla Crowe, who had returned to school in her late 40s.)

White was also known as a passionate preservationist. In the early 1960s, he organized the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York to spearhead a valiant if ultimately unsuccessful effort to save the original Penn Station. According to The New York Times, he wrote that the city would be losing a piece of "total architecture," replacing it with 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."

He was right, of course, and in the years to come, generations of New Yorkers - students and fans of architecture alike - would be influenced by his views of the city far beyond midtown Manhattan.