THE LIBRARIAN and art historian Adolf Placzek was influential in developing understanding and appreciation of American architecture, even though he went to the United States only as a wartime emigre from Austria - and then married an Englishwoman, Jan Struther, the author of Mrs Miniver, as his first wife.
Placzek's professional life was centred on the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University, New York, where he was employed from 1948, and of which he was director, from 1960 to 1980. He helped to make this magnificent collection internationally known as the best architectural library in the world. In retirement, he furthered the causes of architectural preservation.
Adolf Placzek was born in Vienna in 1913, into a middle-class family with distinguished Orthodox Jewish roots in Moravia. He attended the Wasa Gymnasium in the 9th district and received a rigorous classical education. His father died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and his stepfather, Dr Franz Eisler, a pioneer radiologist, made him begin a medical training. It was his step- uncle, the art historian Max Eisler, however, whose career provided an inspiration, and Placzek was permitted to study at the Kunsthistorisches Institut from 1934 to 1938.
He was within months of achieving his doctorate when the Anschluss occurred, and he was told to leave the school. He was briefly arrested in Vienna, and left early in 1939 on a transit visa for England, living in an attic near Victoria Station. During this period, an organisation for refugees allocated him to the writer Jan Struther (Mrs Tony Maxtone Graham), for English lessons. Placzek moved on in 1940 to join his mother in New York, where Struther had also gone, in order to use the success of her 1939 book Mrs Miniver to persuade the Americans to join the war effort. (William Wyler's 1942 film of the book for MGM won six Oscars, taking not only the Best Film award but Best Actress, for Greer Garson in the title role.)
In New York, Placzek was encouraged to attend the library school at Columbia and received a scholarship for the purpose. In 1942, he crossed the campus and began work at the Avery, as an indexer under the director Talbot Hamlin. He was then drafted into the army, where he served, in his own words, "on the typewriter front" as an administrator, until 1946.
In 1948, Placzek and Jan Struther were married. She was older than him, and had a previous husband and family in England. Sadly, they only had five years together before her death from cancer, brought on, Placzek believed, by the stress of her wartime campaigning. "She had the most profound effect on my life, thinking, speaking, self-confidence, everything else," he recalled in an interview in 1985. In 1957, Placzek married Beverley Robinson, who gave him equal support.
Placzek combined his job as librarian with other activities, including teaching on the pioneering preservation course in the Faculty of Architecture at Columbia, set up by James Marston Fitch. …