By Carter B. Horsley
Cataloging the architecture
of New York City is not an easy task and no one has done a more
impressive job than Norval White & Elliott Willensky, who
first published their guide in 1967.
Mr. Willensky died in 1990,
two years after the publication of the guide’s third edition,
which was published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (The MacMillan
Company published the earlier editions in 1968 and 1978.) This
edition has changed its jacket color from orange and white to
brown and gold but retains its incredibly sturdy tall paperback
format. The new $35 edition has 1,095 pages while the $21.95 third
edition had "only" 1,023 pages.
Much else has changed, not
surprisingly. Mr. White visited and revisited more than 5,000
buildings and took many of the more than 3,000 new photographs.
This edition has more than 130 new maps and generally follows
the same organization, although some art director has tamped with
the typography of layout probably to keep its bulk roughly the
same, but in the process has made it slightly less readable. The
inclusion of more pictures is fine, but there are quite small
and will not win many awards for architectural photography, whereas
the fewer pictures in the third edition were bigger and often
better. In the third edition, for example, Trinity Church was
shown in full against One Wall Street but in the fourth edition
the much smaller picture is cropped to just the torso of the front
of the church, without its fence, without its graveyard and without
Clearly, the editor and/or
art director of this edition is incompetent, or just plain stupid.
Not only is the type smaller and harder to read for some, but
the pages are indented and the wide margins do not always contain
This indispensable guide has
two great strengths: the raw data of when a building was erected
and/or significantly altered and who was its architect or architects,
and the authors’ often witty, pithy, wistful and very brief
commentaries on individual buildings. Almost every entry has the
"raw data," although a few buildings remain anonymous,
a reflection of the surprising and frustrating difficulties of
this kind of research. Anyone who has traipsed down to the city’s
Department of Buildings and obtained a building’s "file"
has probably discovered that pertinent data has been misplaced
or is missing and many developers have put more emphasis on their
name than those of the architects in their marketing.
Missing from this edition is
the "necrology" section of past editions, unfortunately,
and despite its impressive bulk this is still not encyclopedic
and many buildings are not included, but since there are almost
900,000 in the five boroughs that is quite understandable. Indeed,
only 531 pages, just over half the book, are devoted to properties
in Manhattan, a reflection of the authors’ dedication to
documenting the entire city and not just the core. The book’s
index is 123 pages long and is a wonderful, quick way to see which
buildings in the city were designed by particular architects.
The book also has an excellent 12-page glossary of such architectural
terms as "archivolt," "antefix," "crocket,"
"entasis," "merlon," "modillion,"
"muntin," "nosing," and "voussoir."
One major change from previous
edition is the deletion of many entries about restaurants and
stores, a feature that is offered in many other guides and one
that takes too much valuable space away from the book’s real
value, its architectural notations.
The book is organized into
"walking tours" and the new maps do not contain the
meandering arrows of past editions, that made the "tours"
easier to comprehend.
The previous edition also included
historical statistics on the city’s population by borough,
a list of the city’s bridges and tunnels and a section on
the city’s geography, all missing from the new edition.
In the third edition, the very
unusual and striking Rabbi Joseph Lookstein Ramaz School at 60
East 78th Street, designed by Conklin & Rossant and erected
in 1980 is described as a "witty visual play of fact and
fiction," but its pewter gray aluminum facade was said to
be "not a friend to 78th’s masonry." In the new
edition, White apparently had second thoughts about it and wrote
that "Sleekly stylish on its arrival in 1980, dated at the
Millennium," adding "Let’s pursue style, not the
In the years between the most
recent editions, not only have many new buildings been erected
but many others have been converted. The impressive low-rise structure
at 55 Wall Street has undergone more changes than most. Originally,
the Merchants’ Exchange of 1836-1841, it became the U. S.
Custom House from 1863 to 1899 and then was remodeled and doubled
in height between 1907 and 1910 by McKim, Mead & White to
become a facility for the First National City Bank. It is now
the Regent Wall Street Hotel and Mr. White wrote that "to
call it a grand hotel would belittle it," adding that "its
central space (dining and catering), the former main banking hall,
is a facility unequaled in America." Mr. White does not mention
that Kenneth Walker designed a very bold and large tellers' wall
of quite a vibrant color that ran diagonally across the great
hall for the bank in the 1970’s.
Mr. White is not always pleased
with what he finds on his strolls.
The Staten Island Ferry Terminal
at the southern tip of Manhattan, designed by Roberts & Schaefer,
and built in 1954, "continues to rank as the world's most
banal portal to joy (a public rest room en route to Mecca),"
Mr. White argues. "Kafka," he continued, "would
have had the shivers, although regular users seem inured to its
bile-colored shortcomings. A blight on the celebration of arrival
and departure at a great city, soon , one hopes, to be remedied
by Schwartz Architects with Ron Evitts and Tams."
Helmut Jahn's 1988 office tower
at 425 Lexington Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, is, for
Mr. White, "A flamboyant and top-heavy skyline building,
that seems like an ugly dwarf next to the venerable reality of
the adjacent Chrysler Building. The entranceway suggests a stage
set from a terrifying 1930s movie, perhaps the portal to the lair
of the Emperor Ming (Flash Gordon's nemesis)."
Of the stainless steel-clad
office tower that was originally the Socony Mobil Building at
150 West 42nd Street, Mr. White observed that it was "a clever
bore to start off with, it is now merely the ultimate architectural
Mr. White can be charmed.
Of Richard Dattner's 1988 Public
School 234 at Greenwich, Warren and Chambers Streets, he noted
that it is "A fanciful mix of eclectic and architectural
elements drawn in the architect's imagination from the daydreams
of kids who study here: watchtowers, sentry boxes, walled courtyards,
arches from historic Williamsburg, and Buck Rogers classroom wings.
Another new school that Mr.
White liked is P.S. 92 at 99-01 34th Avenue, shown above, between
99th and 100th Streets in Corona, Queens, designed by Gruzen Samton
in 1993: "Broken and bay-windowed forms, crowned with vaulted
spaces, bring down the scale of this polycrhomatic brick and copper-colored
Of the Corning Glass Building
at 717 Fifth Avenue designed by Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe,
Mr. White notes that its "Mirror-smooth walls of green glass
rise out of a plaza planter (once a pool), a dated modern corporate
symbol," adding that a redesign of the sidestreet entrance
by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates in 1994 was "a vigorous
new entry [that] has brought distinction to its street-level architecture."
Of the LVMH Tower at 19 East
57th Street, designed by Christian de Portzamparc and completed
in 1999, Mr. White found that its "folded" planes "create
a sleek but aggressive glass curtain wall punctuating dour 57th
Street," adding that "its high style may soon be last
year's." "French Champagne does those things,"
he mused. Of its next door, slightly older neighbor, the Chanel
Building at 15 East 57th Street designed by Platt Byard Dovell,
Mr. White maintained that its sobriety compared to de Portzamparc's
exuberance was like "Perfume versus champagne."
Mr. White's likes and dislikes
are a bit unpredictable and some of his reviews are rather surprising
such as his comments about The Alexandria apartment building at
201 West 72nd Street designed by Frank Williams & Associates
and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1990: "Ramses
II's mummy may return to blow up this insult to ancient Egypt.
It took two distinguished firms to consummate this travesty."
The building is one of the best new apartment buildings of the
last generation in Manhattan. Mr. White did find that the Park
Belvedere at 101 West 79th Street and designed by Frank Williams
& Associates in 1985 "shows off some vigorous cubism
at its crown."
Even more surprising is his
praise for Ulrich Franzen's South and East buildings for Hunter
College of the City University of New York on Lexington Avenue
at 68th Street: "Resplendent, beautifully detailed Modern
blocks, they are welcome additions to the cityscape. The enclosed
glassy overpasses on the 3rd and 8th floors over Lexington Avenue,
and the lower connection over 68th Street to old Hunter High,
are unique and provide syncopation to the city's endless street
vistas." Some other observers, however, might argue that
the skywalks obstruct a major avenue vista, thus setting a perturbing
precedent, and the buildings are relatively "cheap"
and not particularly interesting.
Very little in the city has
escaped Mr. White's scrutiny. His eye is that of a connoisseur
but his writing is wry, populist and incisive. Everyone will quibble
with a few descriptions, but they will also discover a fantastic
array of marvelous and interesting buildings that they probably
never knew about or noticed.
Sometimes Mr. White's comments
leave one eager for much more information about some of the fascinating
structures he includes, such as Society of St. Paul Seminary (Roman
Catholic) at 2187 Victory Boulevard, northwest corner, Ingram
Avenue, Staten Island, designed in Silverman & Cika, 1969.
Mr.White notes that this is "Staten Island's most bizarre
building, a combination of architecture and monumentally scaled
sculpture. Its large size and prominent location make it visible
from great distances," Mr. White wrote. The small picture
of the building, shown at the top of this article, makes it hard
to understand the building, although clearly it is most interesting.
Don't throw away your copy
of the "Third Edition," but there is no way you can
rationalize not getting this thick, little, vitriolic and vivifying
One looks forward to the "Fifth
Edition," one that perhaps will focus only on Manhattan and
have bigger and better pictures. Mr. White's coverage of the city's
four other boroughs is remarkable and wonderful and will open
many chauvinistic Manhattanite eyes and one hopes that the "Fifth
Edition" will, in fact, be a two-volume set, one for Manhattan
and one for the other boroughs.
All lovers of architecture
will be forever in debt to both Mr. Willensky and Mr. White, delightful,
delicious diviners of urban grace, rectitude, foibles and fantasies.