Norval White, 1926-2009

Norval-photo

Norval White in France, 2008.

Fran Leadon

The manuscript for the fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City was completed on December 15, 2009. Two weeks later Norval White, FAIA, was suddenly gone. He died of a heart attack at his home in Roques, France, on December 26. Of the previous four editions of the guide (1968, 1978, 1988, and 2000), the first three were co-authored with the indefatigable Elliot Willensky, FAIA, who passed away in 1990. The two made quite a pair, by all accounts (White, taciturn and tall; Willensky, loquacious and mutton-chopped). I never had the pleasure of meeting Willensky (I was still in college when he died), but I have had the great honor of knowing Norval as collaborator, friend, and mentor.

Norval was a practicing architect and well-known professor (at Cooper Union and City College) in addition to his work as a writer and historian. He maintained his own practice, and for years was a design partner at Gruzen Samton (he was the lead architect on such notable projects as Essex Terrace in East New York, Brooklyn, and 1 Police Plaza on Park Row, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge). A New Yorker through and through, he was born and raised on the Upper East Side but lived in later years on Pierrepont Street, in Brooklyn Heights. He was a leader in the unsuccessful but influential fight to save the original Penn Station (he picketed alongside Willensky), and while he was a staunch preservationist, he was admirably open to new ideas (and a fan of the firms Herzog & deMeuron and SHoP in recent years).

Norval “retired” to France in 2005, but remained more up-to-date on the architectural goings-on in NYC than just about anyone I know. He daily perused the postings on Curbed and Brownstoner, and devoured The Architect’s Newspaper, compiling meticulous lists of buildings in progress. In January 2009, he flew across the Atlantic and spent a month touring the city, joining me for madcap, careering drives through the five boroughs (one pell-mell dash around Brooklyn featured Connie Rosenblum of the New York Times riding shotgun, furiously scribbling away, trying to keep up with Norval’s one-liners). During one drive through Lower Manhattan, every street corner and building seemed to prompt a memory for him (“I went to a party there, on the third floor, in 1954”), and he would grill me whenever he saw a new building under construction: who designed it, when would it be finished, what did it replace? Full of curiosity and energy, he insisted we cover everything from Battery Park to Chelsea in one day. Exhausted, I finally convinced him to break for lunch at the NoHo Star, where he continued to snap photos at our table: the staff, the food, the light fixtures. There was simply no stopping him. When I told him some months later that my students and I had finally completed all the photographs for Manhattan, his response was, “What about Brooklyn?”

Norval constantly told me to stop what I was doing and “Go out! Go out!” He didn’t like it when I was editing photos at home, or doing research on the Internet. The AIA Guide has always been first person, fly-on-the-façade research, conducted on-site by hiking through neighborhoods like old-time newspaper reporters on the beat (like Joseph Mitchell with an architecture license). Architectural research is always the most accurate, and the most fun, when it is conducted at stoop level, looking hard at the city from its sidewalks, up close. Norval didn’t want the Guide’s readers sitting at home. He wanted them to explore the city, to walk New York’s streets, and to ramble through its parks.

To read the New York Times tribute to Norval White, FAIA, see “Norval White, of AIA Guide, Dies at 83,” by David W, Dunlop, 12.30.09.