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The A. I. A. Guide to New York City

Fourth Edition

By Norval White & Elliot Willensky

Three Rivers Press, 2000, pp. 1095, $35

Society of St. Paul Seminary, Staten Island

Society of St. Paul Seminary (Roman Catholic), 2187 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, designed by Silverman & Cika, 1969

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 its steeple.

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 small pictures.

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 ephemeral stylish."

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 tin can."

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. Excellent."

PS 92, Queens

P.S. 92 in Corona, Queens, by Gruzen Samton, 1993

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 metal school."

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 volume.

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.

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