One of the best things ever written about New England was the work of Ada Louise Huxtable. Huxtable, who died at 91 on Monday, was the most influential writer on architecture of her time. She was a New Yorker at heart, but she spent half of every year in Massachusetts, where she had an unpretentious one-story house in Marblehead.
Marblehead is the subject of the Huxtable quote I love best. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, she was commenting on the work of an architect who designs houses in imitation of the styles of the past. Huxtable wrote that the architect’s historic details were so accurate they amounted to a kind of perfection. “Full confession: I am no fan of perfection,” she wrote. She then used Marblehead to explain what she meant:
“I have spent a good part of my life in a small New England town with a priceless American heritage where such over-the-top perfectionism simply does not exist. There are offbeat and off-kilter compromises by carpenter-builders trying to follow the examples in English pattern books in the new towns of the New World, dealing with costs and shortages, substituting materials, inventing their own details. The 18th-century house built for the richest man in town is made of wood cut in blocks to simulate stone that was not available. This place is genuine; its buildings retain the hallmarks of its history, something that can never be imitated or reproduced, and there is not a perfect thing anywhere — for which I am eternally grateful.”
Writing about the world we build and inhabit doesn’t get any more eloquent than that. Not wanting things to be perfect and showoffish, but instead embracing the whole of life with its multiplicity and complication: That was Huxtable.
Despite a wide age gap between us, we became friends. We’d get together a few times a year, maybe for wine and cheese at her house and then dinner at a tiny Italian restaurant in Salem, the Bella Verona, where Huxtable felt comfortably at home. I visited her high-rise apartment on Park Avenue in New York, which was furnished in part with elegant modernist designs by her late husband, the industrial designer Garth Huxtable. The apartment was a very different place from the Marblehead house, and I think she thrived on the discrepancy. As recently as Sept. 30, when I last saw her, she was full of energy. She was zestfully plotting what turned out to be her final article, a broadside attack on a plan to expand and revamp the New York Public Library.
The Huxtable piece that made the most difference to New England was probably her unforgettable blast, way back in 1968, against a plan to demolish the riverfront textile mills of Manchester, N.H., and replace them with parking lots. “Lessons in Urbicide” was the title of her piece, which appeared in The New York Times. She wrote: “The story of the destruction of the Amoskeag mill complex that has formed the heart of Manchester, N.H., for over a hundred years has a terrible pertinence for the numberless cities committing blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal. . . . We are making a dull porridge of parking lots and cheap commercialism, to replace the forms and evidence of American civilization.”
“Urbicide,” “blind mutilation,” “dull porridge”: Huxtable had a delightful gift for finding nasty words to describe architectural evil. The article was an early cry for help on behalf of the monuments of America’s industrial past. The Amoskeag mills survived and acquired new uses. New England was never the same.
Salem was another town she changed. That was in 1965. “Salem had a hideous urban renewal plan,” she once told me. “They were planning roads that would take away whole blocks. So I went back to New York and sold it to the Times. . . . That resulted in the change of planners and the total change in the plan.”
Huxtable loved whatever is real, regardless of fashion or the vagaries of taste, and she hated any kind of phoniness. She was the first to point out to me that the term “authentic reproduction” is an absurd oxymoron. Marblehead was a relief for her from the hyper-competitive, fashion-conscious culture of New York. Her house was livable but ordinary, thus fitting right in to Marblehead. I think she was secretly proud that it lacked the slightest trace of architectural finery.