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In Memory: Norval White, 1926-2009

January 21, 2010

By C. J. Hughes

Norval White
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Norval White

Architect Norval White, a pioneer of New York City’s preservation movement who parlayed that passion for buildings into a widely read and frequently reprinted book, died on December 26 of a heart attack at his home in Roques, France. He was 83.

Educated at M.I.T., Princeton, and the Fontainbleau Schools, White, a native New Yorker, fought unsuccessfully to save the original Pennsylvania Station, a Beaux-Arts creation from McKim, Mead & White that was razed in 1963.

White had more luck, however, with the AIA Guide to New York City, a witty and scholarly block-by-block directory of landmarks, avant-garde mid-rises, and any structure with a good back story across the five boroughs.

The first edition of the 464-page guide, which White co-wrote with the architect Elliot Willensky, came out in 1968. Willensky died in 1990.

The guide’s fifth edition, due this summer from Oxford University Press, was completed 11 days before White’s death, according to architect Fran Leadon, AIA, its co-author, who expressed regret that White would never get to see a published version of the 1,056-page book he called “elegant.”

Though White could be reserved in his one-on-one interactions with Leadon, “I was amazed by his ability to hold court in a room full of people, how charming and funny and suave he could be,” says Leadon, who began the project with White two years ago. “I was looking forward to seeing that side of him at parties for his book.”

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Though his writing celebrated others’ achievements, White himself contributed notably to New York’s cityscape, too, including his 1973 design with Gruzen & Partners of the police headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where “an orange/brown brick cube of office space hovers over special police facilities below,” according to the guide’s fourth edition.

Another personal favorite was the Essex Terrace complex in East New York, Brooklyn, a cluster of apartments around a plaza in a lower-income neighborhood whose gates, the current guide jokes, “allow residents to admit or restrict the neighborhood at their discretion.”

White, who will be memorialized in the new guide and at a celebration at the AIA Center for Architecture in New York City timed to the guide’s release, is survived by his wife, Camilla Crowe White. He is also survived by sons William, Gordon, Alastair and Thomas, from his marriage to his first wife, Joyce Leslie Lee, as well as his stepsons, Seth and Christopher Nesbitt.

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