NEW YORK — Henry Hope Reed — an architecture critic and historian whose ardent opposition to modernism was purveyed in books, walking tours of New York City, and a host of curmudgeonly barbs directed at advocates of the austere, the functional, and unornamented in public buildings and spaces — died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.
The death was confirmed by Paul Gunther, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.
Walking historical tours of New York are now staples of the city’s cultural menu, but when Mr. Reed first began leading them for the Municipal Art Society in 1956, they were novel enough to be the subject of a news article in The New York Times.
Modernism was in favor at the time, but a reporter accompanying a tour on the East Side of Manhattan, north of Union Square, described how persuasive Mr. Reed’s bias against it was: ‘‘The tour ended at Pete’s Tavern,’’ the reporter, John Sibley, wrote. ‘‘Over their drinks, the hikers reviewed the tour. The flamboyant architectural adornments of the last century had impressed them, but they bemoaned the encroachment of bleak and sterile streamlined apartment buildings.’’
Mr. Reed could have scripted the line himself. He had just finished his first book, ‘‘American Skyline,’’ written with Christopher Tunnard, a history of city planning that, contrary to contemporary thinking that emphasized traffic flow and functional design, praised urban architecture that drew on the decorative styles of previous eras.
Four years earlier, he had first announced his presence as a critical voice with an article in Perspecta, the Yale architecture magazine, denouncing modernism in especially forthright terms: ‘‘We have sacrificed the past, learning, the crafts, all the arts on the altar of ‘honest functionalism,’ ’’ he wrote. In doing so, he added, architects and planners have turned their back on ‘‘the very stuff which makes a city beautiful, the jewels in the civic designer’s diadem.’’
Mr. Reed, who once dismissed Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house Fallingwater as ‘‘a large split-level,’’ was often derided for what some deemed his extreme views. Ada Louise Huxtable, who would later become architecture critic for the Times, wrote in a review of ‘‘American Skyline’’ that the book advocated ‘‘a way of building ludicrously out of character with contemporary life.’’
But as time went on — and modernism waned as postmodernism waxed — he was hailed for his cranky opposition. It was Mr. Reed, Gunther said, who in 1965 went to Mayor John V. Lindsay and suggested that Central Park be closed to weekend traffic, which it was.
During the 1960s, Mr. Reed became known for his walking tours of Central Park, during which he emphasized its most pastoral elements and the art of the park’s 19th-century designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In 1967, with Sophia Duckworth, Mr. Reed published a seminal book, ‘‘Central Park: A History and a Guide.’’ The previous year he had been named the park’s first curator — a nonpaying post — by the city’s parks commissioner, Thomas P.F. Hoving, who would go on to become the transformative director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Reed, who objected to just about any intrusion on the park’s natural beauty, including the Wollman skating rink, clashed with his new boss, decrying Hoving’s promotion of the park for concerts and other events sponsored by private companies.
After Barbra Streisand performed there in June 1967, resulting in tons of garbage left in the Sheep Meadow, Mr. Reed declared himself ‘‘disgusted’’ with Hoving’s permitting ‘‘a commercial invasion’’ of the park. Hoving, who had just left the parks post, responded, calling Mr. Reed a ‘‘fuddy-duddy.’’
Henry Hope Reed Jr. was born in Manhattan. He studied history at Harvard and, according to a friend and protege, Francis Morrone, Mr. Reed spent a few years after that drifting, during which he wrote for newspapers in the Midwest. Later he studied decorative arts at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.
‘’I think he had his revelatory experience in Paris, which is also where he saw his first walking tours,’’ said Morrone, who teaches architecture history at New York University.
Mr. Reed’s wife, the former Constance Culbertson Feeley, died in 2007. He leaves no immediate survivors.
In 1968, Mr. Reed helped found Classical America, an advocacy organization that, among other things, identified and helped revivify out-of-print architectural texts. In 2002 it merged with another organization under the name Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.
Mr. Reed’s other books include ‘‘The Golden City’’ (1959), an anti-Modernist manifesto in which he cagily used starkly juxtaposed photographs of classical and modern buildings to demonstrate the superiority of classical design, and, more recently, three scholarly studies of great American public buildings: ‘‘The New York Public Library,’’ which he co-wrote with Morrone; ‘‘The Library of Congress,’’ co-edited with John Y. Cole; and ‘‘The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration.’’
Even his defenders agree that Mr. Reed grew more contentious and unrelenting as the years went on, though even his detractors admit that his fervid erudition served a purpose. As The Times wrote in an editorial, mediating his dispute with Hoving, ‘‘sometimes it is the one fuddy-duddy who has the principles to stick up for what is right.’’