AIA Guide to New York City: Fourth Edition. New York Chapter/American Institute of Architects. By Norval White and Elliot Willensky. Three Rivers, 1,056 pages, $37.50, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
No urban guidebook has brought more joy to my life than the American Institute of Architects’ AIA Guide to New York City, my indispensable companion when I lived in New York. This modern classic is the definitive street-by-street and building-by-building guide to the five boroughs, illustrated with thousands of clear postage-stamp–sized black-and-white photographs.
No matter where you are in the city, you can look up your spot, read about it, and, often as not, find something surprising or wonderful nearby. The authors focus on what is most interesting about the architecture of each building they include. But they can pack a remarkable amount of social, cultural and historical background into their pithy and opinionated descriptions. They write of 867 Madison Avenue, the site of the former Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House and current Ralph Lauren flagship store:
“Every part of this building exudes personality: bay windows, a roof line bristling with dormers and chimneys. The extraordinarily ornamented neo-French Renaissance limestone palace has captured the imagination of the commercial world since 1921, when it was first occupied by an antiques firm. It has subsequently housed interior decorators, auction houses like Christie’s of London, the Zabar family’s East Side outpost E.A.T., and now fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s flagship retail outlet. Rhinelander Waldo, socialite, hero of the Spanish-American War, and police commissioner can be observed ‘in action’ in the novel and movie Ragtime.”
Last revised during the Giuliani administration, the AIA Guide to New York City has some out-of-date material. But it hardly matters when it has so much that you can’t find anywhere else in such a compact and appealing form. The Michelin Green Guide to New York City is better for tourists and new residents who want a guide to the city’s landmarks. But if you say “wait on line” instead of “wait in line” and wouldn’t dream of referring to Sixth Avenue as “Avenue of the Americas,” this is your book.
Best line: White and Willensky are unafraid to show a little New York attitude, and their book is times as entertaining as it is authoritative. The entry for Tavern on the Green says: “The entrance to this chronically remodeled eating-drinking-dancing spot, built around Central Park’s 1870 sheepfold, is at 67th Street and Central Park West. Expensive. (At night the trees, wrapped to the roots in their minilights, suggest an invasion of bulb people.)”
Worst line: Some of us will forever miss a few of the vanished factoids of the first edition. Among them: the egg cream – a drink that used to be as much of a New York culinary staple as the Coney Island hot dog – contains neither egg nor cream.
Recommendation? A great gift for anybody who loves art, architecture, antiques or history as much as New York City.
Furthermore: There are AIA Guides of varying quality to other major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis and St. Paul. The AIA Guide to New York City is the gold standard in the field.
Links: New York Times article on the making of the AIA Guide to New York City query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407E3D61638F931A1575BC0A96F958260; Michelin Green Guide to New York City www.langenscheidt.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=3184.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.