Architecture in the Basement

Janet Parks, curator of the Avery Drawings and Archives at Columbia University Libraries, in the Archives teaching room. | Photo by Mariana Mogilevich

Uptown and underground is the home of a dense community of New York architects, their colleagues, clients, and friends, their skyscrapers and townhouses. They are the denizens of the boxes and the file folders of the Avery Drawings and Archives, one of the richest collections of American architectural drawings and records. For the last 36 years, Janet Parks, curator of the Avery Drawings and Archives, has been mayor of this town, located in the lower level of Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. She is a maintainer of order, keeper of secrets, and the engine of its expansion. Since the library’s founding in 1890, with the books and architectural drawings of New York City architect Henry Ogden Avery, and early member of the Architectural League, the collection of drawings and manuscripts has grown tremendously. “It’s easily around two million items,” Parks estimates. “Probably 95 percent of which I have collected. If you do the math, it’s mostly my fault.”

Where does it all come from? The library’s reputation means that Parks doesn’t have to look too far, as relatives and researchers offer up collections. “Stuff comes in,” Parks says, and she and her staff have rescued drawings from barns, 95-degree basements, and other unlikely repositories of the city’s architectural history. One of Parks’ first acquisitions as curator was the drawings of New York theater designer Thomas Lamb, who built hundreds of theaters in the city in the 1910s and ‘20s. Lamb’s successor kept the archive in the dressing room of a 42nd Street theater: over 20,000 drawings of theaters from all over the world, New York to Cairo and Bombay. Parks and assistants had to carry each metal drawing tube down the stairs of the theater, while gunshots rang out around them, part of the movie playing in the background.

The trove of drawings, which took a good 18 months to sort through, contained the physical traces of a long-gone city — and not just how it looked. Parks remembers opening a tightly sealed tube of drawings: “This wafting smell of cologne and pipe tobacco came out. It had been trapped inside. We all stood around it and we were back in the 1920s.”

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Thomas Lamb (1871–1942): Section drawing for the Ohio Theater, Columbus, Ohio. 1926. Ink on drafting cloth.

The archive’s holdings conjure New York’s rich and long-standing architectural culture, going beyond canonical works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — though they are represented, too — to include the work of stencil makers, model makers, and the photographers who specialized in documenting those architectural models. As the collection has grown, so have the connections across the collections, which reconstruct buildings, relationships, and practices in the city’s history and beyond. “It’s about architectural culture as well as actual buildings. Sometimes there are little bits and pieces. But in my mind, they all live together.” New York has been a center of architectural culture, a point of departure, a crossroads, and a refuge for émigrés. So Parks can locate relationships between partners, clients, friends, and rivals in the microcosm of the city, but she has also followed the residents of the archives as they built commissions across the country and the world, or went to fight in Europe in the second world war.

Over time, the collection has both expanded outward and built on existing objects that reinforce each other and give each other more depth. “I don’t think there is any aspect of architecture and its profession that is outside of the realm of our research.” That includes collecting the “things that aren’t quite old enough” or aren’t of interest to architects or researchers yet. Recently, Parks was offered a set of letters written by Albert Speer. Intending to reestablish his architectural practice after his release from Spandau Prison, he cajoled a former prison guard into sending him copies of House Beautiful to keep up with the times.

From early on, the archive’s imperative has been to collect not just pretty, special, and favored things, but to develop a complete cross section of the world of architecture. In a 1939 essay, Avery director Talbot Hamlin argued that the materials in collection should not be limited by “styles, pet styles, tastes, or prejudices, even when they are apparently ugly.” “We are not buying or collecting because this is something that we like,” Parks says, “We are supposed to cover the scope of things.” Hamlin wanted working drawings and detailed drawings, to develop a comprehensive record of architectural process, one which would “have a permanence that actually buildings do not always achieve.” Parks remarks, “That is so true in any place, but in New York especially.”

Avery’s collections started as a teaching tool for Columbia architecture students, with prints of Egyptian monuments they would not be able to see first-hand. Today, architects, historic preservationists, homeowners, and museum curators, all rely on the archives to reveal the secrets of individual architects, buildings, and building practices. Then there are the personal connections: “Someone will write in, saying, ‘My husband loves architecture and this is his favorite building. I want to give him a print of it for his birthday.’ Personal-use copies. We do quite a bit of that.” Especially with “the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff, then you really get into the fan club.”

Other uses are more dramatic. Some visitors come for the drawings of the house from which the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, designed by the prominent New York firm of Delano & Aldrich. Others research locations for movies. “Many years ago,” Parks recounts, “we got a letter from somebody asking for photocopies of the floor plans of great houses.” He was an inmate. “‘I know what this looks like,’ he wrote, ‘But I’m in for a crime I did not commit.’ And we debated. Well, he’s not going to break in using these things. So we sent him a couple of photocopies.”

Sometimes, people come in just to read. “We’ve had high school kids. You never know when some of these people might grow up to be an architect. If they are that interested, and they are 15 or 16 and want to come in and look at a building, with their parents, why not?”

“People think libraries are very quiet and that librarians have nothing to do.” But that’s hardly the case at Avery, as Parks tells it. “It’s like a tsunami of interest. There’s always somebody coming in and saying, ‘What’s this?’ or, ‘I’ve been thinking about X.’ You’re involved in multiple conversations. It’s never boring. But it’s hard to keep up with it. There’s never a slow day.”

On the eve of her retirement, and on the one morning a week that the archives are closed to researchers, Parks sat down with Urban Omnibus to share some of her favorite artifacts and their stories — a tour of her domain, and of two centuries of architecture in New York City. –M.M.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892): US Custom House, section, 1833. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Richard Upjohn (1802-1878):  Trinity Church, 1839-1846. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Talbot Hamlin gave the drawings and archives a big boost when he was the Avery librarian in the 1930s. His father was an architect and taught at Columbia. Talbot also studied at Columbia and practiced. He then started asking his colleagues for drawings, going to great lengths to collect 19th century architects through people that he knew. The Alexander Jackson Davis Collection was acquired from Davis’s daughter. Richard Upjohn had a son and a grandson who were architects, and the fourth generation, Everett Upjohn, taught at Columbia. He had his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father’s drawings. That’s typical of multi-generational families of architects. You’ve got to have somebody who keeps the materials until they are ready to give them away.  

These drawings show you what people collected in those days. They were looking at architectural drawings, in part, as fine art drawings, as well as the construction drawings of these buildings.  

This incredible longitudinal section of Davis’s US Custom House Project from the early 1830s, is one of the great drawings in the collection. Davis was known as a renderer, but here he is combining his designing and rendering very early in his career. I think this is part of his actual competition entry. He probably added his commentary afterwards, after he won. He didn’t end up as the construction architect, and the building (today, we know it as Federal Hall) wasn’t finished like that.

Right up Wall Street is Richard Upjohn’s 1840 Trinity Church. It gives you an idea of what New York looked like at the time — hardly any buildings, certainly not large ones. You can just see the buildings past the trees of Trinity Church. This is not the first church that was on the site, but the third. This drawing probably came more towards the end of the project. I don’t think that he needed to show this more picturesque view. The working drawings are bare-bones and to-the-point. They don’t have that publication flourish. 

When you look at a lot of drawings, over time you start to recognize just when somebody might have used them. The working drawings for Trinity Church are pretty beat up. They are on heavier paper, rather than this fine watercolor paper. These might have hung in the architects’ offices as advertisements over the years. They are in good shape for being almost 200 years old.

They are beautiful drawings. Upjohn and Davis were two of the finest people at work in those days but there were many others — Martin Thompson and Calvin Pollard, to name only two. But drawings of many of those architects did not survive in the same quantities as Davis and Upjohn. It was a very different architectural world then. The talent and creativity were as great as they ever have been. It was just a very different means of expression.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Parks pages through a letter from Stanford White to William Rutherford Mead. | Photo by Mariana Mogilevich

Stanford White: Half section of Madison Square Garden and letter to William Rutherford Mead, 1899. 

I’m always happy that people have saved things. I had just gotten the Stanford White correspondence, the personal correspondence that the family had in a barn on Long Island. I came across this drawing inside this envelope: a half section drawing of their Madison Square Garden, at Madison Square, the one where he eventually was murdered by Harry Thaw. White is writing to William Rutherford Mead while on a trip to Paris. Stanford White has, hands down, the worst handwriting. He writes, “Dear Dummy…” — Mead’s nickname in the office was dummy because he was very quiet. But he was really the linchpin between White and McKim. White’s comments center on two major issues: getting enough light into the arena through skylights (the Hippodrome theater roof is all glass, he points out), and pointing out the lack of a basement (a “fatal mistake”). The letter also mentions several houses the firm is working on. They worked long distance by sending materials in the mail; the letter is dated August 13th and White says he would be back in New York in October.

There is this sense that you’re looking at stuff that probably nobody has really looked at closely because architects focus on the building, the process, and this is just extra. But it’s all part of their creativity and the internal conversations through which McKim, Mead, and White developed their work.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Parks unrolls the mammoth plan for the skyscraper. | Photo by Mariana Mogilevich

Ely Jacques Kahn, architects: 1410 Broadway at 39th Street, 1925-1931. Ink on drafting cloth.

This is the same site at 39th Street and Broadway, separated by 43 years. The theater is by Francis Kimball, a major architect of that period many of whose buildings were torn down as the city was rebuilt on a larger scale after World War I. In Kimball’s case, his drawings did not survive as an archive, so individual projects like this one are quite rare. The site develops from the theater to Ely Jacques Kahn’s skyscraper project. That’s one of the parts of the collection that I focused on. You can see the development of the city as it changes decade by decade. It’s possible, as you are collecting things, to have these overlaying collections.

In comparing the drawings, you see the point in the development of the city where the professional practice of architecture changes to accommodate these bigger offices and bigger buildings. They are both drawn on translucent drafting cloth so they can be blue printed. But in the Kimball drawing there’s no title block, there’s no trim line. It’s much less organized. In the Kahn drawing there is a title block recording the name of the firm, the building project, dates, the initials of the draftsmen who drew the drawings, the drawing number in the set. There is a trim line to show the printer the area of the drawing. When you’re looking at drawings across the board, collection after collection, place by place, you get an overview of how the practice evolves.  

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Frederick Krieg (1852-1932): Design ceramic floor tiles. Watercolor on paper.

In addition to architectural drawings for buildings, we have several collections of the building arts that go with it. Frederick Krieg was born in Germany in 1852 and came to the US as infant. He began his career painting ornamental window shades and eventually decided to become a designer for a mosaic company. You know those little tiny mosaics in the patterns in the floor in the lobbies of apartment houses? Krieg produced many designs for this type of work. These are the fancier ones, they are hand-painted, large ceramic tiles. Krieg’s most notable work can be seen in the mosaics of the Surrogate’s Court Building by City Hall. With all of these kinds of decorative elements, it’s rare that you have collections left. 

Frederick Krieg had twelve children. His youngest was an architect, working as an estimator. So, here again is somebody who stayed in the general profession and recognized the value of these objects. He kept his father’s work. His father was born in the mid-19th century, the son died in the 1980s — the span of the reachable past is pretty long, sometimes.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Giorgio Cavaglieri (1911-2007): Photo survey of Soho for Robert Moses and the Lower Manhattan Expressway Project, ca. 1968. Black and white photographs mounted in large album.

This portfolio is in the collection of architect Shadrach Woods, who was working with Robert Moses on the Lower Manhattan Expressway. They did a survey of SoHo, because that’s where the expressway was going to go. They hired Giorgio Cavaglieri, to prepare this cast-iron building study. It helped convince people that they really shouldn’t tear this area down. Of course, Margot Gayle and her crowd were really in the forefront to get this area designated as a historic district.

When I met with Cavaglieri, before we got his material, he had talked about it. Peter Blake mentioned the survey in an article in New York Magazine. But it ended up in Woods’s archive on the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Something you might have thought was lost can show up in other people’s collections.

Janet Parks is curator of the Drawings and Archives department at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library of Columbia University. She will retire in June 2017. During her career, the department made more than 650 acquisitions, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive (co-owned with the Museum of Modern Art), bringing the collection to more than two million items. She has curated exhibitions on Max Abramovitz, Ely Jacques Kahn, the Woodlawn Cemetery, and the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company. She has lectured and published on architectural drawings in the Avery collections, most recently an essay on Frank Lloyd Wright drawings for the catalog of the 2017 exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Mariana Mogilevich is the Editor in Chief of Urban Omnibus.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


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Jane Loeffler May 21, 2017

Brava, Janet! Congratulations on a brilliant career of detection, collection, and care for the treasures that make architectural history such a realm of discovery.

Aaron Goodman July 21, 2017

Hey Janet, I remember helping out there working way back in 1996, uncovering drawings and fixing them was a fun project always, and I remember looking at the guastavino archives, the modern images, and photos, and working with Dan Kany down there! Hope all is well and your continuing the important work you do!!