Ada Louise Huxtable in 1976.
Ada Louise Huxtable in 1976.

I met Ada Louise Huxtable only a handful of times, all of them toward the end of her life, and in each case she was encircled by a protective cordon of acolytes whose presence held supplicants at bay. She didn’t need their help, really. Though diminutive in stature, her signature bouffant was still buoyant, though now steely gray, and she radiated the benign but severe authority of a monarch. If her contemporary, Jane Jacobs, was a Village bohemian, an approachable guardian of the stoop, Huxtable reigned New York like a queen, a Park Avenue standard of patrician propriety.

My conversations with her, in person, on the phone, and via email, pertained to her long and checkered relationship with Philip Johnson, subject of my own work. In the postwar years, he plucked her from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts to serve as his assistant at the Museum of Modern Art. Newly married and still in school, she worked just three days a week, but was there for the landmark Ludwig Mies van der Rohe exhibition, for Marcel Breuer’s House in the Garden, and during the making of Johnson’s own Glass House, in New Canaan, Conn. “A wonderful learning experience,” was how she described that time to me. The museum in those postwar years was a kind of epicenter of architectural culture, a regular stop for distinguished practitioners and thinkers. She left when she received a Fulbright to study in Italy, but returned as a “research correspondent” when illness prompted a premature return from her studies abroad. As that title suggests, her interests were more journalistic than curatorial, and Johnson supported her in that path. Aline Saarinen, who preceded Huxtable at The New York Times, was a friend, and it was only natural to him that her successor would be as well.

As Huxtable’s writing career blossomed, Johnson did his best to manage her. Rather cynically, he selected her husband, an industrial designer, to design table furnishings for the Four Seasons—she is credited as a collaborator—with the specific intention of insulating his work at the Seagram Building and elsewhere from her criticism. (The service bowls, which had small feet placed close together, were so unstable they were rarely used.) For a while, the ploy seemed to pay off. Huxtable regularly credited the Seagram Building as the finest work of postwar Modernism in New York. (Of course, it is.) Her review of Lincoln Center was mixed, but she let Johnson off without a mention. She was effusive in her praise of his Dumbarton Oaks museum in Washington, D.C. ("a jewel"), and of his Pennzoil Place in Houston (a “towering achievement”). Most critics would share those assessments, too.

If Johnson thought he had her in his pocket, he was mistaken. The break came with the AT&T (now Sony) Building. Her review of that most polarizing of buildings was restrained, balanced nearly (but not quite) to the point of ambivalence, and absent the ice-pick Huxtable wit and concision that sewed fear among architects, developers, and public officials. “It is impossible to write about this building with mixed feelings,” she wrote, but clearly she gave it a good try. She described her old mentor as brilliant, sophisticated, and curious, a man of impeccable taste and intellectual energy. But the softening only made the hammer blows hurt all the more. The building was “a monumental demonstration of quixotic aesthetic intelligence rather than of art.” It was “pastiche” and he was a “dilettante.” 

That criticism, coming from a source he championed and respected, was profoundly injuring—all the more because it hit at his deepest and most vulnerable insecurity: that he had no real gift for architecture. He never forgave her. He never quite understood the strength of her integrity.

Drawing this history out of Huxtable was unfortunately difficult. When I called she was busy, and my emails, with endless questions about details long past, were usually a distraction from what was in front of her at that moment: the book she was writing, the column that was due. I understood that she preferred to devote her limited time to her own work, and not mine. I wheedled what I could. 

There is some satisfaction that her final column was a defense of the New York Public Library’s main research building, one of her own favorite buildings, and one of mine as well. Among the most gratifying compliments I have received was a backchannel nod of approval from Huxtable for a protest piece I had written about the library’s refusal to publicly display its renovation plans. Her frustration with the library’s intransigence and delaying is all the more understandable now that she is gone. I can’t imagine she would be too pleased with the transformation of the place by Norman Foster, an architect whose work she considered depressingly ubiquitous and “utterly predictable.”

At least we have her words, which will be of lasting value, despite her own warnings to the contrary. “A critic writing for the daily press does not deal in immortality,” she wrote. “Today’s words are for wrapping tomorrow’s fish.” In her case, she couldn’t be more wrong.