Norval White, 1926-2009

Norval White, 1926-2009

Architect, educator, and sharp-witted editor of the AIA Guide to New York City, Norval White died on December 26 at age 83. Here two colleagues remember the irrepressible champion of New York architecture.

Richard Dattner
Dattner Architects

If Norval White has been described as a larger-than-life personality, he was physically and acoustically even larger. My first sighting, and hearing, of Norval was at the Cooper Union in 1963—where I was joining him on the architectural faculty. Towering over the crowded reception in the Foundation Building, his stentorian voice commanded attention—and ultimately, appreciation—since he was usually the most knowledgeable person in the room. Norval was a polymath, conversant with architecture, literature, politics, French culture, and almost everything else.

Norval White was born on June 12, 1926, a New York City native who lived first in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn Heights. Educated at MIT and at Princeton under Jean Labatut, he had a deep understanding of the history of architecture and urban design. Norval taught architectural design at Cooper, and left in 1968 with colleague Bernard Spring to become founding chairman of the new City College School of Architecture. I succeeded Norval and his future AIA Guide partner Elliot Willensky in teaching their Urban History course at the Cooper Union, and later followed him to City College.

As planning progressed for the 1967 AIA Convention in New York City, Norval and Elliot took over space in Marcel Breuer’s office and began work on the 464-page first edition of the AIA Guide to New York City—the “original, self-published version feverishly prepared over a nine-month period.” The fourth edition (1,056 pages) credits the group of seven who assisted in this original effort (I had the honor of writing the section on Washington Heights and Inwood) and the many hundreds more who later contributed. In a typical Norval and Elliot touch, they wrote, “We, whose names begin with W are usually listed last, therefore list these individuals in reverse alphabetical order.”

In researching, writing, and editing these soon-to-be five editions of the Guide, Norval found the professional love of his life and his lasting legacy. Started in a time when IBM Selectric typewriters were still a novelty, the production of the early editions involved an immense effort of organization, research, and photography. Also unique for that time was the “voice” that Norval and Elliot established for their thousands of pithy, thumbnail project descriptions. I liken them to street-smart haiku by two hard-to-impress New Yorkers. Their directness was leavened by their enthusiasm for those projects they felt had made an original contribution, respected the neighborhood context, or overcame difficult conditions to improve the city.

I recall fondly when Norval was working on the second edition. He would join the CCNY Architecture faculty in the early 1970s on its excursions to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. But he always sat at a table by himself, avoiding conversation with the rest of us. Chopsticks in one hand and a stack of 4-by-5 cards by the other, he methodically annotated each with the narrative that would accompany the respective project. When the stack was finished, so was Norval’s lunch.

Norval helped found the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY) in the early 1960s to protest the imminent demolition of Penn Station and promote civic design. With Norval, Max Bond, Peter Samton, and many others, we staged picketing and marches in the ultimately fruitless effort to save that historic structure. Less well known is Norval’s work as an architect—with the firms of Levien Deliso White & Songer, and later Gruzen Samton—where his significant contribution was as project manager, with Peter Samton, for the Police Headquarters and Plaza in Lower Manhattan. In the last chapter of his architectural career he designed, with his wife Camilla Crowe, small residential projects characterized by classical simplicity and elegant detailing. A New Yorker to the end, Norval was working with Fran Leadon on the forthcoming fifth edition of the Guide from his home in France when he died.

Peter Samton
Gruzen Samton Architects

In the spring of 1962 Norval, then 35, together with Willensky and a small handful of others, founded AGBANY at his office on East 61st Street. There was a small group of us young architects (he was the senior member), which also included the late Norman Jaffe, Costas Machlouzarides, Jordan Gruzen, and Diana Kirsch. We were alarmed that Penn Station was being designated for demolition. Our ringleaders came to the conclusion that we needed to do something dramatic to get the private and public establishment to realize the extent of the crime they were about to condone.

AGBANY decided to organize a picket line in front of the monumental McKim Mead & White station building, but we were fearful that the press would ignore us. Norval proposed having Philip Johnson appear and this, along with getting other modernists such as Ulrich Franzen and Aline Saarinen, did the trick. There followed a universal uproar.

Norval tried to make the case that if we pushed to have the grimy Penn Station cleaned (they were beginning to do this in Europe at that time, especially in Paris and London) then people would better appreciate the wonderful landmark in their midst. A year and a half later, demolition went ahead and in 1965 the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed, in many ways a direct response to this tragic act of municipal vandalism. When Penn Station was demolished it revealed, for everyone to see, that the granite exterior was a beautiful pink color, confirming our suspicion that cleaning, not tearing down, would have been the way to go.

Norval and I became partners with Jordan Gruzen and several others in 1967 at Gruzen & Partners, and worked on some major civic buildings that included the new Police Headquarters downtown, as well as winning a competition to build a stables in Central Park (the design was to be fully underground, adjacent to Calvert Vaux’s old stable at the 86th Street transverse). It would have been the first municipal “green” building, 40 years before its time. But the project was never built.