Tonight, the National Building Museum will honor the country's preeminent architectural historian, Vincent Scully, with a new prize named in his honor.

The Vincent Scully Prize, to be awarded at a gala dinner for 400 in the museum's Great Hall, is intended to recognize scholarly contribution in architecture, landscape design, preservation, planning or urban design. The award, to be offered annually, includes a $25,000 prize.

The choice of Scully, 79, who has educated generations of students in 51 years at Yale, and influenced countless others through 15 books, was "unanimous," according to David M. Schwarz, Washington architect and chairman of the jury. "We all agreed that Vince was a natural first recipient. He has turned more people on to thinking about what we build, and how we build, than any other person. He has been in the forefront of every trend in the built environment for the past 50 years."

"This is something to carry forward his legacy," said Susan Henshaw Jones, president of the private nonprofit museum.

"It's deeply embarrassing. I really don't think I deserve it," Scully said yesterday from his home in New Haven, Conn., where he was planning the lecture he will deliver at the museum tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. His topic is typical of the scope he is known for: the ways in which gardens and fortifications have shaped the architecture and planning of the nation-state, beginning with Versailles and ending with former student Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"I think the prize itself is to recognize that a lot has been happening in architecture over the last generation," he suggested.

By that, he meant the past 50 years of urban development, during which people and planners have struggled to accommodate the automobile. He fiercely opposes the destruction caused by interstate highways and is firmly allied with the New Urbanist movement, which favors an old-fashioned "Main Street" approach to development. Scully is credited widely with leading the debate about the resurrection of traditional neighborhoods.

"Our obsession with automobiles destroyed our cities," he said, launching into the kind of spirited lecture that has made him a near-legend. "We tore our cities apart. A city by definition is civilization. The suburbs fit in just fine, but they have to be done like towns. All Americans have loved the small town and the single-family house."

Scully has continued to teach a fall course in modern architecture since his 1991 retirement at Yale. He also teaches at the University of Miami each spring.

An inaugural committee of prominent architects is lending prestige to the award, although the Scully prize is not intended for architects. Robert A.M. Stern, current dean of architecture at Yale, will offer a tribute. So will Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who with husband Andres Duany is heading the new-town movement. Not attending but on the committee are leading modernists Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson and Richard Meier, as well as postmodernists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whom Scully championed.

The prize is likely to "make people listen to the debate about the urban fabric," predicted Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a committee member and former Scully student. "He was such a ham."

The accolades have already started flowing.

"Vince was one of the first to wake people up to neighborhoods," said J. Carter Brown, who is chairman of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and will offer a tribute on behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians.

"He is truly the greatest lecturer on the subject of architecture in our time, of any time," said Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer-winning architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine, and a former student.

"Vince's politics always have been firmly to the left," Goldberger added. "His intellectual position is a great reminder of how debased the word 'conservatism' has become. He's liberal in politics but conservative in his values, the traditional values of community."

Scully has little time for shopping malls. "They are fake towns, fraudulent towns. I hate them," he says, pondering whether e-commerce might do them in.

He predicts the demise of cars. "It's clear the car isn't going to be around forever," he said. "It's so destructive, it's so irrational. It's not going to last."

He sees the automobile's influence peaking in about a hundred years. Meanwhile, he recommends, "you can design to discipline it."

More than $750,000 has been raised to endow the prize, with a goal of $1 million by next year and $2 million within five years, Schwarz said. The Scully award becomes the museum's third prize given each year, following the Honor Award and a $1,500 Apgar prize.

CAPTION: Sign of approval: Architectural historian Vincent Scully at home in New Haven. He was a unanimous choice, said jury chairman David M. Schwarz.