Dreams Built and Broken: On Ada Louise Huxtable
Ever since 1963, the year she became the first architecture critic for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable had been warning of the tragedy in store when the old Pennsylvania Station would be razed to make way for Madison Square Garden. The tragedy came three years later when the wrecking balls started battering the fifty-six-year-old building, which was designed by McKim, Mead & White and had been a worthy West Side pendant to Grand Central Terminal, now celebrating its centenary. The station’s vaulted, skylit concourse, travertine interiors and by then soot-stained murals of the Pennsylvania territory were reduced to rubble and dust. As Huxtable wrote in her obituary for the building, published on July 14 of that year, Penn Station “succumbed to progress this week…after a lingering decline. The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares.”
Before the destruction of Penn Station, New York City had no municipal body that could overrule an owner’s desire for redevelopment on the grounds of quality. Huxtable saw in the fall of the eagles both the ascendancy of “real estate values”—cities groomed by private financial interests rather than shaped by coordinated public planning—and the end of investment in grand public spaces. Penn Station’s replacement would be “not Roman Imperial, but Investment Modern.”
Huxtable’s essay was titled “A Vision of Rome Dies,” and it is difficult to read it today without an arched brow. It still communicates the sting of a fifty-year-old slight to the city Huxtable loved and whose cityscape she had sworn herself to protect. In a 2009 episode of Mad Men, executives at Madison Square Garden, which would soon be built above the new Penn Station like a giant air filter atop a concrete bunker, meet with the show’s ad men about how best to neutralize the preservationists. One begins to read a few lines from Huxtable’s 1963 Times review of the proposal to build the Garden on the site of the old station (“How to Kill a City”), and the exec cuts him off. “Ada Louise Huxtable is as green as that folder,” he says. “People know she’s an angry woman with a big mouth.”
Big mouth? Yes, if volume is measured in circulation. By making the case for architecture criticism as an essential beat for a metropolitan newspaper, by turning buildings into news and serving on the Times’s editorial board, Huxtable enjoyed a career that epitomized the argument she would repeatedly make in print: architecture is “the art we cannot afford to ignore.” Her irreverent tone, her lean, pointed prose and her willingness to follow the story wherever it led her—to politics and money, to urban history and feats of engineering—made her a critic admired by colleagues who agreed about little else. She approached buildings as a journalist, adapting her style and method to the occasion, and without ever losing sight of her core constituency: the public, who would use the urban fabric, tattered or rehabilitated, long after she was gone.
Angry? No. Huxtable lost the battle over Penn Station, but her side won the larger war. In 1965, New York City passed the Landmarks Law, which created the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a municipal body that could rule on which properties, privately owned or not, were worthy of saving from demolition as part of the public good. While championing the work of modern architects, Huxtable simultaneously expressed the contemporary rationale for preservation, arguing against what she called “Williamsburging”—as in Colonial Virginia, that is, not Brooklyn (at least not back then). For a building to be worth preserving, it had to have a continuing relationship to the life of the city, to be able to stand on its own two feet. Penn Station met that standard; buildings constructed later, like 2 Columbus Circle, would not. Huxtable could be nostalgic but she was never sentimental, and she was capable of being surprised by design.
New York was always her touchstone, but she regularly assessed the built environments of other cities, describing their particular urbanisms, where they were going wrong (in the 1970s, they all seemed to be going wrong) and how their downtowns might be revitalized. Mixed in with reviews of buildings by famous names are visits to other cities (“Ugly Cities and How They Grow,” on Syracuse, New York; and “Space City Odyssey: If you don’t live in Houston, your city may be obsolete”). She defended the brutalist Boston City Hall for all of its forty-five years. She made her mark on Los Angeles too, serving first on the Architect Selection Committee and the Design Advisory Committee for the Getty Center (1983–1990), then for the Getty Villa (1993–2006), and championing Frank Gehry. (The Getty acquired her archives before her death and was the beneficiary of her estate.) Analysis, rather than the promotion of starchitects, was her aim, and a prodigious amount of research underlies her early, punchy pronouncements as well as her late, magisterial style.
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