Thursday, February 26, 2009

Samuel Wilson's Quest

During the late 1950s, New Orleans architectural historian Samuel Wilson, Jr. participated in a coordinated effort to develop a national architectural archive system. Based on an initial proposal from Mrs. Eric Mendelsohn to develop an American architectural museum, a small group of architects convened informally to discuss such an endeavor and how it related to architectural archives. A preliminary program was developed and presented to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Executive Committee in late 1955. The AIA then organized a Joint Committee on Architectural Archives consisting of members from the AIA, the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), the College Art Association (CAA), the American Historical Association (AHA), the American Association of Architectural Bibliographers, the Association of State and Local History, the Library of Congress and the National Park Service (NPS). The committee hoped to establish a means of preserving this nation's architectural records for future study and sought funds from the Council on Library Resources (established by the Ford Foundation) to determine the best methods for collecting, storing and servicing such records in both original and surrogate formats.

Wilson's committee stated the problem:

"Although ideally the architectural history of a country should be written in the main directly from its buildings, in practice this is not feasible. Buildings are subject to destruction all the time, they are immovable and have to be examined in situ, and many details are either not easily ascertainable or else have been greatly changed.

Consequently, it is necessary to rely in large measure on the written documentation of the building -- drawings, specifications, correspondence and printed contemporary descriptions. The drawings, however, offer peculiar problems of storage, cataloging and servicing in bulk, which must be satisfactorily resolved. Of even more importance is determining what should be saved since practical considerations of cost and space obviate the possibility of saving all such records." (undated, c. 1957)

Information gleaned from "Architectural Archives Problems/Investigation Committee." Box 3, Samuel Wilson, Jr. Papers Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

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