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Adolf Placzek

Adolf Placzek

Also known as Adolf K. Placzek or Dolf Placzek

Adolf Placzek was a member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1984 to 1993, where he presided over a number of important designations, such as the African Burial Ground Historic District and the Ladies’ Mile Historic District.

People: James Marston Fitch, Talbot F. Hamlin, Charles Peterson
Organizations: Architectural History Foundation, Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Society of Architectural Historians
Above: Adolf Placzek; Courtesy of the University of Vienna

Adolf Placzek was born in Vienna, Austria in 1913. At the behest of his stepfather, he spent his first two years at the University of Vienna studying medicine, which he hated and at which he failed miserably. He then transferred to art history, concentrating on architectural history, in which he emerged as an outstanding student.1 In 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Austria, Placzek fled from Vienna, staying first in England and then moving to the United States. There, after a year of menial jobs, and thanks to the recommendation of a friend, the Columbia University School of Library Science accepted him. To help pay for his studies, he started work at Avery Library as an assistant bibliographer, and received encouragement from the then Avery Librarian, Talbot Hamlin. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and served at a desk job for three years. In 1946, Placzek returned to Columbia to work at Avery Library.2 In 1948 he was promoted to Assistant Avery Librarian.

In 1960, Placzek was appointed Avery Librarian, a post he held for twenty years, until his retirement in 1980. During that time, he also taught at Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program, founded in the 1960s by Charles Peterson and James Marston Fitch. Throughout his tenure, Placzek greatly strengthened Avery’s collection through his acquisition of many additional rare and valuable books and archives, and contributed significantly to architectural scholarship through his own publications. Under his leadership, Avery Library became known as one of the greatest architectural libraries in the world. As a professor, he was “a resource par excellence of ideas for architects and preservationists.”3

For over ten years, Placzek served as a director of the Society of Architectural Historians, including a term as president. He was an active member of the Architectural History Foundation in New York City. He also served as editor-in-chief of the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects.

After his retirement from Columbia, Placzek joined the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, where he served as commissioner for nine years. He also served as general editor of Avery’s Choice, thus bringing to fruition a project first conceived by Talbot Hamlin in the 1930s.4 Throughout his career, he received many honors in his field, and his opinion on matters pertaining to architectural history continued to be sought until his death. Adolf Placzek passed away in New York City on March 19, 2000, just after his 87th birthday.

Adolf Placzek was a member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1984 to 1993. He presided over a number of important designations, such as the African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District and the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. Placzek was passionate about historic buildings and opposed a plan by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation to build a restaurant against the rear façade of the New York Public Library. As commissioner, he helped ensure the preservation of what he called the "ABCCBA rhyme-schemes" of brownstone facades.5

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission offers the Placzek Fellowship for students of architectural history and historic preservation every summer. In 2000, Avery Library established the “Adolf K. Placzek Memorial Fund for Classic Architecture Books” which accepts donations in Placzek’s memory.

  • Archival Collection (in process)
    Drawings & Archives Department
    Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue
    (212) 854-4110

    Oral History with Rose Stein, “The Reminiscences of Adolf K Placzek,” (1985)
    Columbia Center for Oral History Archives
    Columbia University
    6th Floor East Butler Library
    535 West 114th Street
    New York, NY 10027
  • Tel: (212) 854-5590
  • Email: oralhist@library.columbia.edu

 Beverley R. Placzek, Letter to New York Preservation Archive Project, 25 September 2011.
 Angela Giral, “Adolf Placzek Led Avery Library to its Preeminence,” Columbia University Record, Vol. 25 No. 18. 31 March 2000.
 Edwin McDowell, “Adolf K. Placzek, 87 is Dead; Avery Library Director,” The New York Times, 21 March 2000.
 A.K. Placzek and Angela Giral, eds., Avery’s Choice: Five Centuries of Great Architectural Books; One Hundred Years of an Architectural Library, 1890-1990 (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1997).
 Ysenda Maxtone Graham, “A. K. (Dolf) Placzek 1913-2000,” Times, March 2000.