Christopher Gray: an Appreciation
Architectural historian and New York Times columnist Christopher Gray died last week. He was 66. Milstein Division librarians took a moment to reflect on Gray's work, and his impact on the written history of New York City and research of its built environment.
Myself and other librarians who provide reference and instruction in building research owe Christopher Gray a debt of gratitude. I started researching and writing house histories to help pay my way through library school. Gray's A Guide to Researching the History of a New York City Building, written in 1995, was and is the seminal research guide, and helped me immensely in my first days as a building researcher. We librarians love to share research knowledge, so found a great ally in Christopher Gray, who did just the same.
Only recently I processed a small but perfectly formed collection of building history reports created in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Chris and his colleagues at the Office for Metropolitan History, later donated to NYPL. Included in the collection are reports on the histories of the homes of Edward Gorey and Kurt Vonnegut. A small but valuable contribution to his legacy, available to inspire, here at the Library.
Some buildings in New York have more personality than some New Yorkers. The character of a building is not only expressed by the architecture, and the history of a building is more than its age and architect. In the writings of Christopher Gray, the history of a building was its character. He invented the boilerplate for New York City building research, a complex and slapdash methodology demanding both ratiocination and imagination. His writing was as snazzy as the facade of Alwyn Court on West 58th and 7th Avenue, and imbued the subjects of his weekly New York Times columns with the effervescence of the vertex at the top of the Chrysler Building.
As David W. Dunlap noted in the Times obituary, Gray first operated in the 1970s, "when a building's provenance could be learned only by poring over deeds, street atlases, directories, microfilm and old photographs." At a time when designation reports by the Landmarks Preservation Commission were only three type-written pages, well before the micro-history of the city devolved from an academic trend to the dredging of every psychic square-inch of the five boroughs by phone-app history buffs, Gray approached the built history of the city as if an exploration of the life of the mind. Librarians in the Milstein Division at NYPL field a high traffic of reference questions regarding NYC building history. Our answers would be impossible without the streetscape vision of the writings and research gospel of Christopher Gray.
For me, this was also a personal loss. He gave me my first job—that is, the first one that really meant something.
New York has its superstars, and—to someone who applied to Historic Preservation school with the express goal of writing about architecture—Christopher Gray was certainly one of them. I'd heard he was witty, snarky, sardonic, and "that guy", the one with just enough luck to land the last cool job. Lucky or no, his unfathomable knowledge and crisp style rendered his writing revelatory. I devoured every word.
In addition to his journalism, Gray's Guide to Researching the History of a New York City Building is the stuff on which many an urban historian has cut her teeth. The aforementioned job, a research gig, was thrilling and inspirational, and I am forever grateful. (I might be the librarian I am now, consequently.) May his legacy live on through new generations of researchers who uncover secrets in their homes, and bring fresh voices to the architectural conversation.
I saw him last on Park Avenue, and we exchanged pleasantries before continuing on in separate directions, and I'll always remember him like that: Mr. Gray, bright-eyed, grinning, and looking up, taking in every inch of this city.
The Milstein Division sends our condolences to his friends and loved ones.