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Remembering Henry Hope Reed by Francis Morrone

Francis Morrone

Guest blog post by Francis Morrone.

Henry Hope Reed died on May 1, in his own bed, at the age of 97. His New York Times obituary appeared on May 3. In quoting me, the Times described me as Henry’s “friend and protégé,” and no description of me has ever pleased me as much. For without Henry I would probably not be doing what I do, and there was never a man I admired so much.

Most MAS tourgoers know of Henry’s importance to the New York City walking tour. In 1956, when he was only 40, Henry was working with MAS on preservation issues, many years before the passage of the Landmarks Law. In Henry’s view, MAS needed to do something to ignite the interest of the public. Op-eds and exhibits were all well and good. But Henry had less than a decade earlier lived in Paris, where he’d been a student at the École du Louvre, and where he had experienced his first walking tours—the visites-conferences, as they were called. His 1956 brainstorm was to lead New Yorkers on guided walks through the streets of New York to discuss the history and architecture of the city’s buildings, and to alert people to recent and potential losses. And, indeed, putting people face to face with the architecture of the city, making the experience of it as immediate and palpable as could be, without question propelled the preservation movement into a new gear. A hundred people signed up for Henry’s first walking tour, on April 8, beginning in Madison Square, which was a bit of a backwater back then, a place few New Yorkers knew and an unlikely place for anyone to go in search of an aesthetic experience. For the seasoned tourgoer, such a thing is unimaginable today. It’s unimaginable precisely because of Henry Hope Reed.

In October 1957, Brendan Gill, that longtime friend of MAS, wrote in the New Yorker of another of Henry’s tours, along Lafayette Street and through the East Village (as it had only just begun to be called), and said “we saw as if for the first time buildings we had looked at all our life.” At another tour, on Wall Street, Henry told his audience: “Nothing like this superb complex of buildings can be seen anywhere on earth! Only the Acropolis and the Campidoglio in Rome deserve to be compared to it.” Well, a slight exaggeration, perhaps (but only slight). The real point is that in 1956 (the Wall Street tour was MAS Tour No. 2) no one imagined that anyone would, or could, say such a thing. It had a galvanizing impact on the people who went on the tour. It had a galvanizing impact on New York City.

I have collected many stories of Henry and the things he said on walking tours. He had a definite point of view. To some he was a “fuddy duddy.” His scorn for Modernist architecture made him not a few enemies. In fact, that scorn made even MAS uneasy. It’s why, in order to balance the walking tours’ point of view, MAS enlisted the aid of a MoMA intern named Ada Louise Huxtable to put together some Modernist-friendly walking tours. (As readers of this blog well know, Ada Louise Huxtable died this past January, at the age of 91. The twin deaths of Ada Louise Huxtable and Henry Hope Reed bring down the curtain on preservation’s greatest generation.) Henry later shifted his tours to the Museum of the City of New York, but he remained involved with MAS and would even lead MAS tours again.

He believed the guide—any teacher—should have a definite point of view, and should never talk down to his or her audience. Don’t worry if they don’t get every reference, or if you’re going just a little bit too fast—their effort to keep up will in the end make the tour a richer and more memorable experience for them. Henry was, of course, about much more than tours. He wrote magisterial books, founded Classical America (later absorbed into the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art) to honor the classical heritage of the arts of the United States, secured for the New-York Historical Society the archives of McKim, Mead & White, George B. Post, and Cass Gilbert, and knew Central Park better than any other person alive. As to the last, the Parks Department named Henry in the 1960s to the position (no longer in existence) of Curator of Central Park. Henry’s work in that capacity, his legendary walking tours of the park, his pronouncements on inappropriate incursions in and uses of the park, and his advocacy of Calvert Vaux as the park’s principal author all had an enormous influence in shaping the restoration of the park undertaken by the Central Park Conservancy beginning in 1980.

Some of my own earliest efforts as a walking tour guide were for Henry, when he wrangled me into leading tours for Classical America and the Friends of the Parks. And from absolutely no one else did I learn as much about this great city, or about architecture, as I did from Henry. And like Henry I have always preferred to lead tours for New Yorkers, rather than out-of-towners. The goal is to make people feel what Henry made Brendan Gill feel: “we saw as if for the first time buildings we had looked at all our life.”

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