Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2013

News Obit

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2012.
Garth Huxtable/Courtesy Landmarks 45

I first met Ada Louise Huxtable snickering gently over the latest irony. It was around 1994 at an event at the Museum of Modern Art. She was being rounded up with Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp for an Augustinian age portrait snap of New York Times architecture critics. She was flattered but amused: in her opinion, the paper had done everything to get her off architecture criticism where her frank appraisals of developer greed were causing problems up the line. Later she told me, she wept with joy when getting the MacArthur grant in 1981 because it meant she could quit.

But we didn’t really start to communicate until much later when she wrote to compliment me on an acid review in The Architect’s Newspaper of an exhibition of Santiago Calatrava’s strangely saccharine sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her nose for pretentious posturing was sharply honed, but her reporter instincts were even more precise. She wanted to know everything that was going on everywhere–in New York. It wasn’t that she had no interest in the wider world of architecture, after all she was on the Pritzker Prize jury for years, but her inclination was to focus on what needed attention in the here and now across all boroughs. There was plenty of concentrated wealth, power plays, civic ambition, and glorious opportunity to mirror all the world.

We met for tea and gossip at her mini-penthouse on Park Avenue, an exquisitely beige aerie blending New York intellectual with Italian rationalism, which is to say books and beige marble. I tried to take mental notes on every historic moment in architecture she recalled in anecdote but soon quit as her own interests were in plumbing current events. And she was up to the minute tracking all the architecture blogs, emailing in the middle of the night with a far flung circle of friends offering the inside dope on this or that latest development.

As we worked together tag teaming stories for the Wall Street Journal, she wrote whatever story mattered most to her, and delegated those she couldn’t visit personally to me via her beloved editor, Eric Gibson, who made sure that there was the best and easiest way for her to get to anything she did want to see. As a deadline writer myself, I could only marvel at the depth and breadth of her research; she never fell back on opinion alone. She tracked down every official description, back-room back story, engineer plan and planning department waiver before she even began to think or set finger to keyboard. Criticism without informed reporting annoyed her.

The personalities and doings of architects were not all that interesting to her either, except when they wrote her wounded letters with aggressive undertones. Those provided for hilarious anecdotes. But more and more often she spoke of Garth, her husband who died in 1989, and was the true love and ballast of her life. She recalled with unfaded delight how she came home one day with a Pulitzer Prize, the first ever given for distinguished criticism, and Garth handed her the trash to take out because that was her job.

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