The Museum of American Architecture: A Progress Report

The text has been digitized and reformatted from an excerpt from The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. I, No. 3–4 (July–October 1941). Pages were numbered 24–26. A spelling error has also been corrected.

The Museum of American Architecture: A Progress Report

by Charles E. Peterson1

About five and a half years ago, the development of a central museum specializing in American architectural history was first discussed in the National Park Service. It appeared that such an institution might help solve a vitally important problem within the bureau, as well as offer important assistance to other persons and agencies participating in the study and preservation of the historic buildings of the country. The idea met with some favor and a trial balloon was sent up in the form of an article in the November 1936 Octagon. No general reaction was observed and few comments were received. The American Institute of Architects was ready to endorse the proposal officially, but it was adjudged by the Service too early to attempt the fixing of a policy and no decision was reached in the matter at that time.

Since 1936 certain developments in St. Louis may point the direction to such an architectural museum, and this article is intended to acquaint its readers with what has so far been done.

The National Park Service some time ago began in the West a limited program of historic and prehistoric building conservation. Such places as the Casa Grande and Tumacacorri National Monuments2 and the Mesa Verde National Park have been under its care for years. In the East, however, it was with the beginnings of planning and construction at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and the Colonial National Historical Park, that such activity became a prominent feature of the organization’s work. During the past eleven years, a long series of projects have been undertaken, beginning with the Wakefield garden and culminating (for the time being) with the rehabilitation of the Old St. Louis Courthouse. Having been designated in 1935 as the special agency to care for the historical properties of the Federal Government, the Service may in the future reasonably expect to have new architectural-antiquarian problems entrusted to it in addition to the maintenance of those buildings reconditioned already.

The planning for, and supervision of, old building restoration raises immediately the problem of a trained personnel. It requires men who understand architectural construction, who can make accurate drawings, and who have the ability to coordinate them with documentary material. Intelligence and taste alone are not enough. The man in charge of such work must have a real and special instinct for antiquarian investigation. He must be both an amateur and a professional. Under the present conditions, he must be able to educate himself. He is hard to find; there are not too many with the necessary qualifications. Under the frequently inflexible methods of acquiring personnel for government work, it is often difficult to employ him. Once employed, he does not always fit within the framework of a group organized to produce work on a businesslike schedule.

Eleven years of activity have seen quite a number of men come and go in the Branch of Plans and Design, the architectural unit of the National Park Service. While the greatest diligence has been used to secure qualified men for work on historic buildings, very few have been found on test to have special aptitude for it.

It appears that such men belong to a profession whose existence is hardly yet recognized. In this country many restorations are, even today, directed by architects unlearned in period design and craftsmanship, by historians unaware of the nature of physical objects, by archaeologists with no more background than the digging of Indian mounds, or, too commonly, by sentimental laymen enthusiastic about the architectural associations of their ancestors. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of restoration projects are badly handled and that many antiquarian values are thus forever lost. There are no standards for such work which are today generally accepted throughout the United States. Our American architectural schools have so far failed to be of much help. Perhaps it is not their duty to work on such things.

How can we acquire a real knowledge of American building design and construction, and thus be able to undertake restoration work with sympathy and understanding? How can a group of experts be developed and financed? One excellent solution seems to be a museum, staffed by able curators and consultants, to educate the public in this field. It is an answer which has produced results in other fields and offers a fair chance of finding the necessary financial support.

The St. Louis Project

With the establishment of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the St. Louis Riverfront came the necessity of salvaging a large number of architectural specimens. Standing on the forty city blocks of the Memorial area in 1936 were about five hundred buildings of varying size, age and interest. The boundaries included roughly the site of the original town of St. Louis, capital of Spanish Upper Louisiana. Creole structures of the colonial years (1764–1804) had all disappeared, but a somewhat unusual group of mid-nineteenth century buildings still remained. A study of these was undertaken by the architectural research unit.

It was eventually decided that the Manuel Lisa Warehouse (built about 1818, an important fur trading headquarters), the Old Cathedral (built 1830–1834, Roman Catholic), and the Old Courthouse (built 1839–1865) were of outstanding interest and worthy of preservation in situ. Certain others, like the headquarters of the Great Southern Overland Mail (built 1850; period of historic importance, 1858) were of considerable interest, but because of their bulk and location would be extremely awkward in appearance left on their original sites and would form obstructions to the future development of the Memorial. Others were significant only from an antiquarian standpoint; their interest confined to a facade or perhaps to some well modeled cast-iron column capitals. A few buildings of unusual interest, like the National-Scott Hotel (1818, 1832 and 1847), the Jean Baptiste Roy house (c. 1829) and the Joseph Labbadie3 house (c. 1835) lie near the borders of the area, but have not yet been acquired for preservation. Eads Bridge (1868–1874) and the Merchants’ Exchange (1873–1875) also on the edge of the area are of considerable interest, but their size and nature do not suggest inclusion in the Memorial area.

Condemnation proceedings were instituted in 1939 and possession acquired through a declaration of taking. General demolition of the buildings in the area began in October of that year and was completed in May 1941. Hundreds of items varying from small decorative pieces to whole facades were placed in storage. The Denchar Building, a large modern brick, steel and concrete building, was reserved for them and nearly filled.

It had been decided in advance that the most important architectural material fell under two classifications: (1) decorative cast iron; (2) early examples of iron and glass construction of interest in the evolution of modern architecture. Outside of these two groups there were a large number of typical nineteenth century items not yet rare except in museums. Included in the salvage are an early telephone booth, double-glazed for shouting in private, and a passenger elevator installation of 1881. The identifications of the various items selected were written into the demolition specifications and each piece was delivered at the warehouse by the contractor. Individual pieces were marked and stacked in rows and piles. Some specimens were unavoidably wrecked while being taken down; others were discovered during the course of the work. They make, altogether, an impressive mass of material.

Because of the unusual nature of this operation, the opinions of the few architectural historians known to be passing through St. Louis were solicited for the guidance of the staff. Professor Sigfried Giedion of Zurich and Harvard seemed the most pleased with the idea, and included some notes on the riverfront buildings in his new book, Space, Time and Architecture (pp. 134–138, 223).

Other visitors were impressed, none hostile. Lewis Mumford wrote a very encouraging letter concerning the structural evolution shown in these buildings. The local newspapers seemed to consider these activities news and, insofar as it has been possible to judge, created considerable interest. The “Cast Iron Age” is a term that now means something to St. Louisans. They apparently want to know more, judging by the number of groups in the city who have asked for historical-architectural lectures.

This year, Works Progress Administration funds have been set aside for museum developments on the St. Louis project. While the larger part of the budget will be spent on general historical exhibits, a certain amount is expected for the arrangement and labeling of the architectural specimens in order that they may be shown and interpreted to the public.

Questions And Comments Invited

The National Park Service would be glad to know how such a museum can be of help to the country as a whole, and, in return, how those interested in architectural history can help to create the Museum and further its ends. Correspondence on this subject addressed to the Superintendent, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service, St. Louis, is invited.


1. Charles E. Peterson majored in architecture at the University of Minnesota. Since 1929 he has worked in the National Park Service; is today senior Landscape Architect attached to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis. He has investigated and written on many phases of Early American architecture, especially in the Mississippi valley.
2. Now the Tumacácori National Historical Park. —NBAC
3. Normally spelled “Joseph Labadie”. —NBAC