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Ada Louise Huxtable: Democratizing Architectural Discourse in Greenwich Village and Beyond

Ada Louise Huxtable on Park Avenue in the 1970s. Photo by Bernard Gotfryd.

Ada Louise Huxtable (March 14, 1921 – January 7, 2013) was arguably the most formidable critical voice regarding architecture of the second half of the 20th century. Huxtable, who became the New York Times’ first full-time architecture critic in 1963, had the uncanny ability and excellent foresight to analyze architecture in a manner that highlighted the importance of the built environment in everyday life. This encouraged the general public to meaningfully engage in architectural discourse by eliminating the barriers to entry via her approachable architectural analysis. Between December 1961 and the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law in 1965, Huxtable wrote over 20 pro-preservation editorials that were essential to garnering broad public support for historic preservation regulation. While Ada Louise Huxtable’s architectural journalism covered the entirety of New York City and frequently analyzed projects nationwide, she wrote extensively about the importance of preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of Greenwich Village and the surrounding neighborhoods. Below are just a few examples of her work and words.

Preservation In New York – The Architectural Review
Aug. 16 1962

Jane Jacobs at a community meeting in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park in 1963. Photo by Fred W McDarrah.

In this piece for The Architectural Review, Huxtable laments the current state of historic preservation in New York City. She writes about the tragic loss of Rhinelander Gardens and its accompanying James Renwick homes on West 11th Street and the hopeful adaptive reuse campaign for the Jefferson Market Courthouse. She also wonderfully describes the passion of Jane Jacobs and the Committee to Save the West Village:

“The most disorderly and best-publicized battle of all was the near-riot conducted by the Committee to Save the West Village, led by the articulate and able architectural journalist, Jane Jacobs, author of the new, acutely perceptive, but highly controversial book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Mrs. Jacobs and her Committee fought the City Planning Commission to a standstill on the neigh­bourhood’s selection as a renewal area. Redevelop­ment plans and official ‘slum’ designation have both been withdrawn, after sensational proceedings that included the carrying of protesting residents kicking and screaming from City Hall hearings, and a series of sinister accusations and counter-accusations that still hang smoking in the air.”

Past Is Mirrored by Merchant’s House, Inside and Out – New York Times
Feb. 18, 1965 

Merchant’s House Museum today.

The financial woes of the Seabury Tredwell House, or the Old Merchant’s House Museum, almost necessitated the sale of both the home and its contents, which would have all but guaranteed the demolition of the building. While the Old Merchant’s House was owned by the Historic Landmark Society, a privately organized, state-chartered group, and James G. Van Derpool, Executive Director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, called for its preservation, these designations were merely honorary as the New York City Landmarks Law had not yet been passed. This article is an excellent time capsule of the impossible situation preservationists were in prior to the Landmarks Law. 

A Landmark is Saved – New York Times
Jan. 1, 1966 

Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street, now the Public Theatre.

The Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street, now the home of the Public Theatre, was the first major preservation success following the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law. 

“‘If ever a building looked cooked, this was it,’ a spokesman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission said. All of the conventional strikes were against it – age, awkwardness, unfashionable Victorian style, expense and technical problems of remodeling, and a neighborhood teetering between improvement and further deterioration. It was a familiar episode New Yorkers grown accustomed to seeing the city’s history systematically reduced to rubble. Onle the ending of the story was different.” 

Old Jeff’s Conversion – New York Times 
Nov. 28, 1967

Jefferson Market Courthouse now Jefferson Market Library

Another preservation victory, the adaptive reuse of the Jefferson Market Courthouse into a branch of the New York Public Library, was considered at the time a “triumph of will over reality.” 

“How, then, does a plan, old relic become a stunning new branch library? How does a structure of awkward Victorian grotesquery survive the ruthless rule of the city’s real estate economics? It is an architectural Horatio Alger story. Essentially, enough stubborn, sentimental, highly articulate, politically shrewd people cared for its homely virtues. Greenwich Villagers wanted their courthouse.

Where It Goes Nobody Knows – New York Times 
Feb. 2, 1969

Lower Manhattan Expressway rendering, 1967

In 1970, Ada Louise Huxtable won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for architectural criticism for the New York Times. This piece details the absurdity of the Lower Manhattan Expressway and how it damaged New York City even though it was never built.

“What concerns this department most of all is something that has been least discussed: the destruction of the fabric of the city along the expressway route. There is a prevalent thought that depressing the road eliminates blight. This is not so, or only relatively so, to the degree that getting rid of a city-dividing superstructure is an improvement. But the social and physical fabric of the city along the proposed route has been deteriorating for the past 28 years. This is the blight that comes from being fingered for an expressway route, with the uncertain future of the area its only certainty. Properties are not kept up; improvements are not made. Residential and business tenants share the insecurity that sends everything downhill. Twenty-eight years of this can do a lot of damage. Along the Lower Manhattan expressway route there once was a healthy community and its remains are still there, blighted by the expressway before it ever got built.”

Bending the Rules – New York Times
May 10, 1970 

Westbeth Artists’ Housing Interior View.

Westbeth Artists’ Housing is a triumph of adaptive reuse and shining example of the good historic preservation can do in a community. Huxtable analyses here the important modern interventions that made this project so extraordinary.

“No trumpets sounded when Westbeth triumphed over the system, but they should have…Important ground has been broken at Westbeth and valuable lessons learned. Whether or not this is the artists’ promised land, its neatly shod sponsors are showing the way.”

If you would like to read a PDF of the above-mentioned articles, please click here. To learn more about Ada Louise Huxtable’s work, check out Village Preservation’s program Ada Louise Huxtable’s New York. Village Preservation has a broad collection of archival resources detailing how women like Huxtable have shaped the historical, cultural, and architectural legacy of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, particularly within our Oral History collection, our Preservation History Archive, and our Historic Image Archive, by far the majority of photos and collections in which were donated and/or taken by women.

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