Text from The Octagon: A Journal of The American Institute of Architects (November Number—1936). Some spelling errors have been corrected. Charles Emil Peterson (1906–2004) was a landscape architect for the National Park Service. He established the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933.
A Museum of American Architecture
(A Proposed Institution of Research and Public Education)
By Charles E. Peterson, A. I. A.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis is a project originally proposed by the citizens of that city acting through an association of which Louis LaBeaume, F. A. I. A., is Professional Advisor. A great variety of schemes have been suggested for the development of this great memorial. Among these are a Naval arsenal, a public parking garage, a maternity hospital, an airport and a railway terminal. We believe that the following proposed plan will be of great interest to the profession.
Communications concerning the Museum plan may be addressed to Superintendent John L. Nagle, National Park Service, 216 Buder Building, St. Louis.
Background of the Project
The United States of America and the City of St. Louis have agreed to erect together a great monument to President Thomas Jefferson and the pioneers who laid the foundation for the westward development of our country. The area to be embraced in the project—the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial—consists of thirty-seven city blocks covering the site of the fortified village of St. Louis, established by French traders in 1764. Lying on the west bank of the Mississippi near its junction with the Missouri, the place has enjoyed a special importance from the earliest times. At the dawn of the 19th Century it was a strategic point on the frontier of Spanish America. Shortly afterwards it passed to the United States with the Territory of Louisiana, and in the following decades became the base of operations for the winning of the West.
The United States Territorial Expansion Memorial Commission was created by Joint Resolution of the Senate and the House in 1935 to “consider and formulate” plans for the memorial. The National Park Service was designated as the executive agency to study plans and prosecute the construction, pursuant to the Historic Sites and Buildings Act.
Thirty million dollars has been approved as the ultimate cost of the project, although its exact nature has not yet been determined. There are many forms it could assume. Indications are that the public will want it to be more than the customary specimen of architectural symbolism. Such civic embellishments have an important place in every city, but their sphere of influence is limited. The establishment of one or more living institutions for the collection and dissemination of knowledge relating to the development of the Northwest would seem to be more appropriate. The establishment of a Museum of American Architecture has been proposed.
Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic student of architecture, and through his part in securing the original designs for the United States Capitol and the White House, and by his revival of the Roman style in the Virginia State Capitol and his own residence “Monticello” and others, probably exercised a greater influence on American architecture than any other single man. The Memorial must tell of the westward development of the country. What more graphic expression of political and social history can be found than the builder’s art? The meeting house of New England, the planter’s mansion of the South, the log cabin of the Western pioneer, the hacienda of the Southwest and the log fort of Alaska relate a more forceful story than any arrangement of words. The nature of the American people and the chronology of their movements are permanently recorded in their structures.
The Purpose of the Museum
The purpose of the Museum of American Architecture would be to conserve for the benefit and enjoyment of the people their heritage of architectural achievement.
There could be no better time than the present in which to begin this work. After five thousand years of building with wood, stone and brick, industrial research has provided construction materials of entirely new natures. Architectural practice in general has for fifty years lagged behind that of engineering in its preoccupation with antique styles. “Revivals” have come and gone. There have even been revivals of revivals. But at last architectural design is beginning to reflect the progress of construction methods, and so great has been the spread of influence of the new school that it seems not unlikely that the prevailing electicism [sic] of recent times will become as dated as the schooner and the horse-drawn street car. An alert agency will have to put up a stiff fight to preserve the best of the old, and the three hundred year occupancy of this land by the white race has produced many architectural monuments of importance.
It would not be the hope of this institution to retard the progress of American Architecture by encouraging wholesale imitation of antique design. That would be impossible—architecture has always been in a state of evolution and will continue to be so. Its purpose would be conservation, always the principal objective of the National Park Service. In every generation both good and bad buildings have been, and probably will be built. Only by exercising some discrimination in eliminating the bad and preserving the good can we expect a visible rise in the architectural standard of our country. A national institution for the education of the people could do much to create a popular appreciation that will bring up real estate values corresponding to architectural values. There is abundant evidence that such a movement is already fashionable—in Virginia and Connecticut, for instance—where many fine old country houses valued for their historic or architectural beauty have been restored for present day use.
American architecture of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries is now far enough behind so that we can appraise its worth in retrospect. It is a complicated subject, the result of recurrent European aesthetic influences working among American economic forces. This is not to say that American builders have not made a substantial contribution to the world’s wealth of architecture. A comparison with English Georgian buildings of the same size and period will illustrate the freshness of conception and execution that our native builders gave to old themes in Early American houses. A carefully arranged collection with the advantages of modern museum technique can bring this out.
The last few years have seen work on many projects for preserving old buildings outstanding for their architecture or their history, or both. Much has been accomplished by historical and patriotic societies and by individuals. The Federal Government, through the National Park Service, maintains as “historic” twenty-five buildings scattered from San Diego to New York. But neither this movement, nor any other will be able to preserve the greater part of our ancient structures which will go down from lack of maintenance, mechanical obsolescence or other economic causes. The least that can be done is to record them for the archives before they disappear, and to preserve such fragments as may be of particular interest. The Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture and the Historic American Buildings Survey have made a good start on the former. The proposed Museum of American Architecture would supply the latter function.
Our National Museum, because of its lack of space, and, possibly, of interest, can show very few accessions of architectural nature. A number of Museums—with the Metropolitan of New York in the lead—exhibit early American interiors. Their specimens generally include only outstanding specimens of artistic merit from residences of importance. Some have study collections of builders’ tools and craftsmanship such as the Bucks County Museum at Doylestown, Pennsylvania. A few have models of whole buildings such as the New York Museum of Modern Art with its 1932 show of contemporary architecture.
There are also in this country a number of collections of entire buildings being maintained as outdoor museums. The Edison Institute collection (Greenfield Village) at Dearborn, Michigan is not primarily architectural. The groups at Williamsburg and Yorktown in Virginia, Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Spring Mill Village in Indiana and the 17th Century group in Salem, Massachusetts—to name a few examples—are highly important, but they show only local phases of design. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities maintains twenty-eight worthy antique buildings, but these are scattered through New England. The State of Illinois has also developed an extensive series in the last few years.
There should be some means of studying the whole range of American architecture comparatively. While our libraries—notably the Library of Congress with its complete collection of books and the Historic American Buildings Survey records—offer opportunities for the research worker to dig out the facts and make his own comparisons, the layman is not going to find out what American architecture is by that method. The material to tell the story must be gathered in one place where it can be arranged in a graphic manner.
The Museum would have no favorites in styles—and there have been a good many between the first habitations of Santa Fe and Jamestown and the skyscraper dwelling of today’s metropolis—the whole story would be laid out for the visitor to select his own preferences. Facts would he emphasized in bringing out, for instance, the truth about the origin of the American log cabin and other surprisingly obscure subjects.
A Museum of American Architecture as a research unit would be a well-nigh indispensable help to the architects in the general program of the National Park Service for the physical study and preservation of government owned buildings in historical areas throughout the country. At the present time there is no general agency of this kind—either public or private. The efforts of individuals working on the subject have necessarily been sporadic and somewhat disconnected. The only definitive studies completed up until the present time are limited in subject to the works of individual architects, or to special localities. The field of American Architecture is a vast one and can be investigated thoroughly only by a permanent institution with ample resources of personnel and finance. Up to the present time it has hardly been possible for a man to plan a life’s career in such work. Those scholars who have made contributions to our knowledge of American Architecture have had to subsidize themselves by other means. It does not seem fitting that a nation which professes to be proud of its native architecture should do so little to learn about it.
The Historic Sites and Buildings Act of 1935 has made it possible for the Federal Government to make such studies and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial project offers an opportunity to provide the necessary plant and equipment.
Nature of the Exhibits
The museum would have at least six different types of exhibit—each of interest to both the scholar and the general public: (1) entire buildings, (2) parts of buildings—specimens of construction and ornament, (3) small scale models of buildings, (4) specimens of drawings by architects and builders, especially those made for important competitions, (5) photographs of buildings, (6) craftsmen actually working materials in the ancient traditions.
The use of entire antique buildings at St. Louis would be limited to local types connected with the early years of the city. The first phase of development was the French house on which considerable data is available. Examples still exist in certain parts of Illinois and Missouri. There are a number of stone mansions of the early 19th Century American type which might be acquired for the Museum. Most of them are now threatened with destruction. Like the French houses they have disappeared from the riverfront before the St. Louis building boom of the steamboat period. Certain good examples of early brick buildings should also be secured. It is possible that a limited area at the south end of the reservation could be used for such purposes. It would be contrary to the policy of the Museum to cause any buildings important as historic sites or landmarks to be moved from their original location. On the other hand, good examples of architecture which would otherwise disappear would be accepted whenever possible.
It is believed by many that the Old Cathedral, a fine Greek Revival building of 1834, should be allowed to remain on its original site granted by the Spanish government. By careful study the central architectural composition of the Memorial can probably be adjusted to include it without impairing the monumental quality of the whole. If that idea is carried out, the restoration and exhibition of the building might be a function of the Museum.
The collection of examples of architectural ornament would be one of the most important functions of the Museum. Collections from Greek and Roman and even Egyptian and Assyrian ruins have enjoyed a considerable vogue since the Classic Revivals in architecture. The “Elgin Marbles” of the British Museum are probably the most notable, but many American institutions have assembled fine collections—both of originals and of casts. Architectural ornament from this country is seldom seen in such collections, and it is a regrettable omission. We have produced work here which should be at least as interesting to Americans as that of the ancient Mediterranean countries.
The Geffrye Museum of London is an institution operated by the County Council which conserves select fragments of construction and decoration from London buildings demolished to make way for civic improvements. By careful study they have been able to arrange series of specimens of panelling, hardware, balusters, and other architectural parts from the earliest times to the present. Such arrangements illustrate strikingly the evolution of building craftsmanship as well as of architectural design.
The real value of such collections lies in the lessons to be learned from their skilled arrangement rather than in the rarity of individual specimens. There seems to be no public museum in this country today equipped to accept and display architectural material of this kind in a collection large enough to be of real value.
The collection of the structural and ornamental parts of buildings would have a splendid start using selected fragments from the more than four hundred buildings to be razed before the construction of the Memorial. Specimens illustrating a period of one hundred years can be acquired during the demolition for no more than the pains to select and store them in study rooms. Cast iron facades of great merit exist in numbers—the St. Louis riverfront may well contain the finest collection in the country. It might easily be supposed that there is plenty of such material now existing throughout the country, and that it is not valuable enough to be housed in a museum. Observers, however, report that the earlier examples are getting noticeably scarce and it seems time that comprehensive collections were being organized. Had an active museum of Colonial architecture been operating before the close of the 18th Century we would today be much richer in important early work than we are now.
A special justification for saving these things exists in the strong sentiment in St. Louis at this time for the preservation of what is architecturally good in the riverfront area. A study of the structures under discussion will show that they are mostly warehouse and loft buildings with their architectural interest confined to their street fronts. Since these facades are of limited cubage, it would be possible to arrange some of the more interesting examples within the museum building without affecting its exterior design. In this way much that is worth saving can be preserved.
Models, Drawings and Photographs
The model exhibits would form perhaps the most valuable part of the museum’s displays. These would show, in ample series of juxtaposed specimens at uniform scale, the evolution of the various types of buildings found in the United States. Conceivably these could start with the European prototypes familiar to the early colonists and show, for instance, the relationships between England and New England, France and Louisiana, Holland and New York, Spain, Mexico and California, Germany and Pennsylvania, and several others. The series could be carried down to modern times showing some American innovations which have influenced European work and then come back to us in the “International” style.
Before any model is constructed, accurate and detailed measurements would be taken from the original structure and the complete records prepared for the Historic American Buildings Survey with detailed monographs on each. Models would be precisely constructed under the direction of recognized archaeological specialists.
Jefferson himself sent an architectural model from France to present the design used for the Virginia Capitol in Richmond—said to be the first important revival of the Classical temple form in the world. It might be possible to obtain this very model (it still exists) for the Museum.
At the present time there seems to be no public agency which is making an organized effort to collect old drawings by architects and builders. The earliest of these are rather rare, but they can be represented in facsimile where there would otherwise be gaps in a complete series of specimens. The Museum might act as a repository for the drawings of national architectural competitions. Had such a facility been available sooner the Federal Government would have today the original drawings for the United States Capitol and the White House from the competition of 1792.
A good collection of photographic enlargements of architectural subjects would be a valuable supplement to the other exhibits. With photographs it would be possible to cover a vast range of material hardly possible in any other way. The Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture in the Library of Congress have a fine collection of negatives from which enlargements can be made. There would be a large number of new photographs acquired in the course of the general research program. The publication of picture books of American Architecture on a large-edition, low-retail-price basis could become a valuable factor in the field of general education.
The exhibitions of early craftsmen plying their trade would be popular points of interest for the general visitor. The making of handmade brick, the blowing of window glass, the working of iron and wood—of which the original methods are all but forgotten—could be carried on with the old tools and in the old backgrounds. The operations themselves might be let out by concession so that the products could be sold to pay for the work.
The nature of the exhibits is such that many builders’ supply concerns might be more than willing to contribute important material. For the new “Building Materials Gallery” in the Supervising Architect’s office in Washington, manufacturers and building supply houses are said to have donated $100,000 worth of material. In the case, however, of the Museum of American Architecture great care would need to be taken to exclude items of only commercial interest.
It would be quite possible to expand the activities of the Museum to include the related fields of city planning, landscape design and interior furnishing.
Administration of the Museum
The Museum would constitute a unit of the National Park Service. It would be administered by a Director who would report directly to the Director of the bureau, and thus indirectly to the Secretary of the Interior. He would be an architect with special experience in the field of historic architecture, as would most of the staff. All would pursue original lines of research for publication by the Museum.
The Director of the Museum would be guided in general policy and in the acceptance of donations by an Advisory Council appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, of persons of recognized standing in the field of historic architecture or specially related museum activities.
The activities of the Museum would be financed by Congressional appropriation and by private gift.