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Vol.25, No. 18 Mar. 31, 2000

Adolf Placzek Led Avery Library to Its Preeminence

By Angela Giral

Born in Vienna in 1913, Adolf K. Placzek was the Avery Librarian from 1960 to 1980. He died March 19 at home in Manhattan at the age of 87.

Following a family tradition, he started his studies at the University of Vienna in the field of medicine, but after several years he was able to start in 1934 the study of architectural history to which he would dedicate the rest of his life. The Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938 prevented him from completing the doctorate that he would be awarded with honors in 1998 by the same university from which he was politely, but firmly, expelled.

He left Austria in 1939, and after a brief sojourn in England he came to New York in 1940.  He served for three years in the U.S. Army, attended Columbia's School of Library Service and, upon graduation, accepted a position in the Avery Architectural Library, then under the direction of Talbot Hamlin.  He took pleasure in recalling an interview that consisted of an exchange of views on the merits of the Viennese architect Otto Wagner.

In London he had met and fallen in love with his first wife, Jan Struther, author of Mrs. Miniver, the war-time novel that was to become a popular Hollywood film starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.  They married in 1948, but their happiness was cut short by Jan Struther's untimely death from cancer in 1953. 

In 1957 he married Beverley Robinson, who was to become his inseparable companion, his translator, editor and his best critic, as he often said, and with whom he shared every aspect of his life.  They traveled frequently to Europe, especially to England, where Dolf (as family and friends knew him) maintained very close and cordial relations with Jan's children and grandchildren.  More recently they paid several visits to his native Vienna, where many honors were conferred on him and where his latest book of memoirs, Wiener Gespenster, was recently published.  Illness prevented him from being there for publication day.

In 1960 he became the Avery Librarian, and in 1970 he was appointed professor in the Graduate School of Architecture.  Under his leadership, Avery came to be recognized as one of the best architectural libraries in the world.  Many students and colleagues remember with pleasure learning from him and with him, whether in the classroom, in the library or on the run, for he was always willing to talk and share ideas. 

During the student riots of 1968, Placzek confronted the organizers of the takeover of Avery Hall, who addressed him as sir, and challenged them to force him out.  But he then changed his mind and told them he and his staff would lock up and leave the library only if they gave him their word of honor to protect it. And so they did, calling him on one occasion, and lifting him over the barricades, to check on a leaking pipe. 

He was rightfully proud of this, but he could never forget seeing student blood spilled upon the steps of Low Library by the actions of a police force that reminded him of the storm troopers of his own student days.

Placzek not only acquired great architectural books and archives, but also contributed to their greater access by editing reprints, among which Sebastiano Serlio on Domestic Architecture earned several prizes.  This was the first title to be published by the Architectural History Foundation, of whose Board he was a founding member.  He also oversaw the publication, by G. K. Hall, of the great Catalog of the Avery Memorial Architectural Library in 19 volumes, to which 16 supplementary volumes were added over the years, and of the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals in 15 volumes and many supplements.

Upon retirement from Avery Library and Columbia University he did not rest on his well-earned laurels, but undertook even more ambitious enterprises.  He edited the four volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, launched the ambitious series on Buildings of the United States in the Society of Architectural Historians, of which he had been president, and was an active member of the New York Landmarks Commission.  In celebration of the centenary of the library, Placzek co-edited Avery's Choice: Five Hundred Years of Architectural Publications, One Hundred Years of An Architectural Library, 1890-1990, with Angela Giral.