Adolf Kurt Placzek, architectural historian and librarian, was born in Vienna on March 9, 1913. He died in New York on March 19  aged 87.
AS LIBRARIAN of the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University from 1960 to 1980, Adolf Placzek transformed the library into one of the finest repositories of architectural books and drawings in the world.
When he became director, his predecessors had already amassed a remarkable collection of architectural books, many published before 1500. Not only did Placzek expand this collection, acquiring treasures ranging from Piranesi's original drawings for an addition to San Giovanni in Laterano to a superb Frank Lloyd Wright collection, he also welcomed visitors to the library from all over the world.
He saw no reason to resist the temptation to spend a morning with a visiting scholar, taking rare books out of boxes and enthusing over them in the Austrian accent which he never lost. He did not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of what he saw as the most important aspect of the Avery Library: the daily interchange of ideas between knowledgeable and dedicated art historians.
Adolf Kurt Placzek was born in Vienna. His education at the Wasa Gymnasium was primarily in the humanities. His father died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and his mother married a distinguished physician who insisted that his stepson should go to medical school, though Placzek had no desire to do so. He failed his medical exams for three years, and eventually in 1934 was allowed to pursue his passion for art history, embarking on a four-year degree course at Vienna University which was cut short just before completion.
On the day after the Nazis marched into Austria in March 1938, Placzek (whose grandfather had been the Grand Rabbi of Moravia) was summoned into the office of his director of studies and politely expelled from the university. Fifty years later he was invited back and awarded an honorary degree in the room next door.
In April 1939 he arrived in London, penniless and heartbroken. Here, through the Bloomsbury House organisation for Jewish refugees, he met his future wife Jan Struther, author of "Mrs Miniver" , who was romantically as well as altruistically interested in the plight of European Jews. They fell in love on the first day they met outside Lyon's Corner House on the Strand. She was married to Tony Maxtone Graham and the love was kept secret for six years.
Placzek sailed to New York in June 1940, joining his mother who had managed to get a visa; a month later Jan was sent to America to raise funds for British War Relief. Through her hobnobbing with the great and the good in New York, she helped Placzek to get a place at library school.
When the United States entered the war, Placzek became a private and then a sergeant in the US Army, where he spent three years doing office work punctuated only by occasional exercises in the Californian desert and the longed-for furlough.
He became a junior librarian at the Avery Library in 1946, and married Jan Struther in 1948. Their nostalgia for Europe was great; she longed for him to give up his "unworthy" library job and go to live in Italy or France or Scotland. But he stayed at the library, and gradually rose to the top.
Jan died of cancer in 1953. Placzek was heartbroken again, but in 1957 he married Beverley Robinson, who became his helpmeet, companion, adviser, translator and kindred spirit for the last 44 years of his life.
He was made an emeritus professor of Columbia University on retiring from the library in 1980. His working life was by no means at an end, however. He was editor-in-chief of the four-volume "Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Architects", overseeing the commissioning of articles varying in length from 50 words to 10,000 words (Wren).
A minor architect began to be referred to as a "50-word architect". On one occasion, one nought too many was put by mistake into one of the commissioning contracts, so that a small-time 500-word man was elevated to 5,000-word status. Lawyers advised the editors to abide by the contract, however, and the article was published at full length.
Placzek was also founding editor of an even larger book project, "The Buildings of the United States", a sort of American Pevsner. (Placzek was a great admirer of Pevsner, and became friends with him during his librarianship.) Only five of the proposed 70 volumes have been published so far; four more are due this year. (2000)
Placzek was also a commissioner on the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York, ensuring the preservation of what he called the "ABCCBA rhyme-schemes" of brownstone facades.
He was editor and among the authors of "Avery's Choice: Five Centuries of Great Architectural Books", published in 1997. The acquisition of which he was proudest was John Shute's "The First and Chief Grounds of Architecture" (1563), the first book on architecture published in England, which introduced the word "architecture" into the English language.
At heart Placzek was a poet, enjoyer of good wine, and lover of Mozart and Beethoven which he played on the grand piano in his Upper West Side apartment. He wrote verse and semi-autobiographical fiction, and received recognition for this at the very end of his life: his "Traumfahrt mit der Familie" was published in Frankfurt last year, and his "Wiener Gespenster" has just been published in Vienna.
He is survived by his wife.
Columbia University has a tribute text on record - written soon after his death in 2000.
Dolf Placzek's books, as referenced by Ysenda Maxtone Graham in her writing above, may be found for sale via the internet. Though contrasting in approach and in literary style, these two books are largely autobiographical - echoes of cities, places and people - and they draw on Dolf's own memories and experiences - of New York and of pre-war Vienna, of Kristallnacht and beyond - an evocative two books in which scenes and events are presented through the older, perceptive and studied eyes of author, refugee and survivor - the latter work especially being described by reviewer, Hans Christian Kosler, as being suffused throughout with a sense of 'deep melancholy'. "Traumfahrt mit der Familie" (Dream Journey with the Family) is published in Germany whilst "Wiener Gespenster" (Viennese Ghosts) came out in Austria.
The University of London has archives containing a number of Dolf Placzek's papers. These include many of his writings, in German, sent - either in manuscript or typescript form - to his Austrian cousin, Ernst Philipp (1916-1996) with whom he used to correspond. When Ernst Philipp died, his papers were presented to the University of London by Dr Margaret Ives. The biography of Ernst Philipp, from the University of London site, reads as follows: "Ernst Philipp was born in Vienna in 1916, and was a cousin of Adolf Placzek; he was educated at the University of Vienna (PhD, Mathematics, 1938); he, and his two brothers were sent to Dachau in Nov 1938, but released on the strength of their British Immigration visas. His mother and sister died in the holocaust. After moving to London he enlisted in the Labour Corps, and later served in the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem in 1945; he remained in the army after the War, and served in Palestine, 1946-1947; he taught mathematics at St Bees School, Cumbria until his retirement in 1981, and died in 1996, aged 79."
Items pertaining to Dolf Placzek, held at the Institute of Germanic Studies under reference GB 0367 PLA by the University of London (as part of the AIM25 initiative) are quoted as being: "Adolf Placzek: typescripts of eight plays, seven short prose works by Adolf Placzek, 1968-1994; typescripts of poems by Adolf Placzek, 1940-1982, some in memory of Jan Struther (d 1954)." Note: Jan Struther died in 1953 and not in 1954.
Writing in June 2003, Robert Maxtone Graham, his stepson, adds this note: "A much more complete collection of Dolf's writings in German has recently been donated by his widow, Bev Placzek, of New York, to the Archiv Oesterreichischer Literatur at Vienna. They comprise poems, plays, and reflective essays or "Socratic Meditations", I think Bev called them when we met in London yesterday. We also have a small collection of Dolf's poems (carbon copies) in German among the Jan Struther papers. Bev informs me that "Viennese Ghosts" has just been published (March 12th 2003) in France under the title Fantômes viennois, translation by Jean Ruffet, and published by Du Rocher/Anatolia." The full story of Dolf Placzek's life with Jan Struther may be read in Ysenda's biography, "The Real Mrs. Miniver - Jan Struther's Story", details of which may also be found on this site.