Role Model

I don’t remember the date or the award Ada Louise Huxtable received on that soft spring evening. I do recall that we were gathered in the wood-paneled living room of a brownstone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, where I said to the person about to introduce the legendary architecture critic of the New York Times: “I want to be Ada Louise Huxtable.” This was wishful thinking on my part. Nobody could be Ada Louise Huxtable: not in her long and productive lifetime, nor after her death.

At the time I was a young design editor in search of a role model. Naturally, I became an avid reader of her columns. Powerfully argued, fearlessly precise, and surprisingly humorous, her writings had the kind of intelligent humanity that began to appeal to me when I reached the age of reason. So I eagerly absorbed her passionate yet cool-headed arguments for excellence, her ability to connect architecture to the urban form and the politics that shaped both, and her admiration for the most excellent modern buildings (even as she condemned the mediocre facsimiles that grew to dominate our cities). Contrary to the modernist dogma hovering over the land during her tenure at the Times in the 1960s and 1970s, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic had the courage to break ranks and admire historic buildings. She understood the necessity of preserving the best designs of bygone times.

It seemed right, then, that we were gathered that day at the Salmagundi Club. One of the oldest art organizations in the United States, it was founded in 1871 as a place to teach, exhibit, and auction art. With its membership roster reading like the story of excellence in nineteenth-century New York City—Louis Comfort Tiffany and Childe Hassam among them—and its landmark status, the old house itself was celebrating the woman who was a catalyst behind the city’s preservation laws. As she waited patiently for the awkward ceremonies to start, the elegant, trim, small woman with big hair did not look like the most powerful voice in architecture. Her soft speech and seemingly shy demeanor seemed to be in contradiction with her public image. But she was much more than she appeared at that moment. Her skillful critiques of our built world have been making me think for decades. And now that she’s gone, I still keep her books near. I met Ada Louise Huxtable that day only to be introduced as the young woman who wanted to be her. I still do.

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