Goodbye Mrs. Huxtable, Hello History

Ada Louise Huxtable died Monday at 91. She joined the Times as a critic just as I took up full-time residency in Manhattan in the mid 60s. She was, unbeknownst to her, a seminal figure in my education as an urban citizen.

She was reasoned, elegant and wise, and she wrote many a memorable metaphor. In 1966, she saw the emerging World Trade towers as “the start of a new skyscraper or the biggest tombstones in the world.”

She was an insightful guide to the civility of style, the economics of development, and the function of architecture. Her views of the destruction of landmarks such as Penn Station were neither simple nor saccharine. She wrote with color. She said of Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building: “It is not, like so much of today’s large-scale construction, a handy commercial package, a shiny wraparound envelope, a packing case, a box of cards, a trick with mirrors. It does not look like a cigar lighter, a vending machine, a nutmeg grater. It is a building, in the true, classic sense: a complete design in which technology, function and aesthetics are conceived and executed integrally for its purpose.” In her final piece in the Wall Street Journal in December 2012 on the plans for the New York Public Library, she wrote about the stacks that hold up the Rose Reading Room as national landmarks.

A devoted modernist, Mrs. Huxtable had no truck with the champions of false restoration and the nostalgia of the New Urbanists. Of all her legacies to me, this may be the most pertinent. As walkable Main Streets based on idyllic fantasies of Colonial America regain popularity and creep closer to my current downtown, I’ll need Huxtable’s arguments in “The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion” against “authentic reproductions” at the ready.

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