Robert L. Hughes from Asheville, North Carolina recently gave the University Archives a drum major’s mace that was among the things his father, Ralph Edwards Hughes, kept from his time at Virginia Tech (then commonly called Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I.). Ralph Hughes, an Electrical Engineering major, was from Ore Bank (now Arvonia), Virginia. Robert Hughes explained that the mace actually belonged to his father’s roommate and close, lifetime friend, Sherman Edmond Seelinger, who was a cheer leader. Both Hughes and Seelinger, an Animal Husbandry major, graduated in 1921.
The mace appears to be made of wood, with a hand-turned top and four Chicago maroon and burnt orange ribbons wrapped around the shaft making diamond-shaped pattern . It is about three feet long and was probably handmade.
The cartoon on Seelinger’s senior Bugle page indicates how important being a cheer leader was to him. Known for his pep, he took a very active part in the promotion of school spirit and in the advancement of athletics and other college activities. He was a member of the Athletic Council and Monogram Club, and he served as manager of the baseball team. According to the 1921 Bugle, “Manager Seelinger has arranged one of the best schedules ever attempted by any Tech team, and we wish to congratulate him upon his efforts.” W. L. “Monk” Younger coached the baseball team and was assistant coach for the football team.
Seelinger had a reputation for being the best dancer in the school. He served as Leader of the Cotillion Club. The opening figure on both nights of the Cotillion Club’s 1921 Easter set of dances was led by Cadet Seelinger dancing with Miss Geneva Edmundson of Radford. The dances were held at the Field House, which was decorated with a large green and yellow interwoven canopy suspended over the center of the floor, from which was strung alternating green and yellow streamers reaching out to the pillars at the sides of the hall. The All Star Six, of Altoona, Pennsylvania provided the music.
Source: Harry Downing Temple, The Bugle’s Echo, vol. 4, pp. 2506-2507.
Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builder’s” Women in Construction issue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, “Here is the architect” and promptly shook her father’s hand:
“They are congratulating me because of my daughter!” He was almost in tears.
“Well … no. They think you are the architect.”
“Why would they think that?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Let’s go home.”’
And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyan’s work within the broader architectural profession.
I have been encountering—in part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of late—an abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhaus—an institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that “long story” that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural field—of nearly any field—also encourages reflection on how past decades of women’s experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.
Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, “My reaction of ‘how stupid’ has not changed in 22 years!” To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.
From Marie-Louise Laleyan’s project files.
For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.
In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.
In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that “she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.
In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that “I do not “challenge” contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement…” and later notes “occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.”
The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience of being yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.
Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.
Beyond Laleyan’s success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, “the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on.” It’s arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.
Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyan’s work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, “What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.”
The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.
Nestled among our primary collecting areas focused on the American Civil War, the History of Food and Drink, and the History of Women in the Built Environment, there are a few collections on ornithology (the study of birds) and oölogy (the study or collecting of bird eggs). One of those collections has been blogged about here before in Hidden History at Special Collections II: The Harold B. Bailey Autograph Book with a focus on a unique autograph book hidden in a collection about birds. Unlike that previous post, this one is For the Birds!
Today, we’re flying in to take a look at the Bailey-Law Collection 1825-1971 (Ms1982-002). This collection has 32 containers of manuscript material in Special Collections and over 350 monographs (books) in both the main library collection and our rare books collection that can be found in the library catalog by searching “Bailey-Law Collection”. In addition to the holdings that remain here at Newman Library, the collection included numerous bird skins, bird eggs, and mammal skins. These were of particular interest when the collection was originally acquired by the Department of Biology in 1969. When the collection transferred to the library in 1990, they were placed in the Virginia Tech branch of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. They were later transferred to the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, VA. In 2014, some of the museum staff came here to look through the papers related to their specimens. You can check out their blog post about the visit here: A Visit to the Bailey-Law Special Collection.
Much of the collection includes personal correspondence and notes from research and field work. What really grabbed my attention when looking through the collection were the two books by Harold H. Bailey: The Birds of Virginia (1913) and The Birds of Florida(1925). Not only do we have copies of these works – we also have the author’s personal correspondence, papers, and research notes from his time writing the books. It’s all pretty swanky. The Birds of Florida is especially thrilling for a bird enthusiast because it is full of lithographs of gorgeous water-color paintings done for the book.
The first of these volumes is The Birds of Virginia. Published in 1913, it has 362 pages of information about birds that nest in Virginia. The photographs are primarily black-and-white and often depict bird nests filled with eggs. For your viewing pleasure today, we have a picture of the cover, some advertising for this book, an couple interior shots of the book, and scans of three of the plates used to print the photos in the book.
Left: Cover of The Birds of Virginia by Harold H. Bailey (1913) Upper Right: Pages 102-103 of The Birds of Virginia showing images of baby Marsh Hawks and a chapter on Family Buteonidae (Hawks, Eagles, Kites, Etc.) Lower Right: Pages 250-251 of The Birds of Virginia showing part of a chapter on the Summer Redbird and an image of Summer Tangers.
Note the insect damage on page 250-251. This is likely the result of a larval anobium punctatum or similar beetle – one of many insects colloquially referred to as a “book worm”.
Above are some ads from yesteryear. These ads are all extolling the virtues of The Birds of Virginia. Would you have been moved to purchase?
Upper Left: “The Virginia Rail” “At Home” (top) “After Leaving” (bottom). Photos by V. Burtch Lower Left: “A Red-Tailed Hawks’ Nest” Photo by C. F. Stone Right: “The Author in a Heron Rookery” Photo by W. D. Emerson
Finally, for The Birds of Virginia, three plates used in the printing process for the book. Two of nests and one of the author, H. H. Bailey.
Next up: The Birds of Florida(1925). This book was just a few years later but has a very different focus. Where the earlier book was focused on nesting behavior of the various bird species and included photos of nests and eggs; this book is more on par with The Birds of America by John James Audubon — A reprint of the double elephant folio of the Audubon book is on display in our Special Collections reading room. It has gained the nick-name “The Big Book of Birds” thanks to the library’s radio show Stacks on Stacks on WUVT — which depicted what the birds look like in beautiful watercolor. Here for your viewing pleasure are some shots of the different versions of this book we have, advertising, interior shots, and scans of some of the lithographs of the watercolors.
Here are the two copies of this book that are in our rare books collection. The one of the left is a proof and contains all of the original watercolor paintings pasted onto paperboard. The one on the right is an actual published copy.
Left: Ad for The Birds of Florida from Library Journal Middle: Ad for The Birds of Florida Right: Ad for The Birds of Florida
These are some ads for The Birds of Florida. At least one appeared in Library Journal and two are very directly targeted toward librarians. One mentions that the author knows the book came out too late and everyone had already spent their budgets. It asks that people still order the book now and pay for it later.
Left: Original watercolor from proof of The Birds of Florida Right: Lithograph from published copy of The Birds of Florida
Above are two images from The Birds of Florida depicting the Carolina Paroquet (parakeet), Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and Southern Hairy Woodpecker. The one on the left is from the proof and is the original watercolor painting done for the book. The one on the right is the lithograph that appears in the published copy of the book. I chose this image because I happen to like parrots and the Carolina Parakeet, now extinct, was the only species of parrot native to North America.
There is so much more I could write about this collection but this is already a massively long post. So, I’ll just leave you with a selection of images from The Birds of Florida. If you should wish to see these wonderful books for yourself, there are copies in the Newman Library collection and in Special Collections. To see the additional materials we have from the author, visit the Special Collections reading room anytime Monday-Friday 8 to 5 and request collection Ms1982-002.
Upper Left: The Birds of Florida, Plate 36: Swallow-Tailed Kite, Everglade Kite (Adult & Immature), White-Tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite Upper Middle: The Birds of Florida, Plate 40: Bald Eagle (1st year, 2nd year, Adult), Osprey, Harlan’s Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk Upper Right: The Birds of Florida, Plate 19: White Ibis (Adult & Immature), Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, White-Faced Glossy Ibis, Scarlet Ibis, Wood Ibis Lower Left: The Birds of Florida, Plate 47: Chimney Swift, Whip-poor-will, Chuck-Wills-Widow, Nighthawk Lower Right: The Birds of Florida: Plate 68: Magnolia Warbler (Male & Female), Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow-Throated Warbler, Black-Throated Blue Warbler (Male & Female), Myrtle Warbler
We talk a lot about items and collections in Special Collections having stories to tell. Sometimes, those stories are full of clear details, exciting new surprises, and a creator about whom we can discover quite a bit. Other times, well, you might get a more interesting mix. The kind that results in some on-going, Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing. Like this letter!
This is a relatively new accession and it isn’t even processed yet (consider this a sneak-peek!). But, it caught my attention as I was thinking back through some recent acquisitions in search of a subject, probably because it has some mystery elements to it. Written November 6, 1864 from Weldon Railroad (just south of Petersburg), Virginia, it’s simply addressed to “Friend William.” We don’t have the original envelope, so we don’t know William’s last name or where he lived at the time. However, based on the contents of the letter, we might guess that William is from Brookfield, NY. One of the other reasons this letter jumped out at me was the first page:
The writer started his letter, finished four pages, and still had more to say. In a time when paper was often scarce (and in other times and places when letters were paid for by the recipient and cost by the page), “cross-hatching” was a common occurrence. Not done writing? Go back to the first page, turn it 90 degrees, and keep going! (That should be totally easy to read, right??) Case in point, this letter actually isn’t as bad as some others. I’ve seen examples done in different colors or in pencil or ink that has faded over time. I was actually able to transcribe the majority of the text (and I’ll be going back to work on those and other missing words down the road). Weldon Railroad was located just south of Petersburg, which was a hotbed of activity during the last 6 months of the Civil War. The 189th Regiment, New York Infantry, the regiment with which the writer served, was newly formed in October 1864, and soldiers in it would spend the majority their service around Petersburg:
we left City Point
tuesday last and after forming corps
and moveing new the Weldon road
in the entrenchments near Petersburg we
have been in this camp three days and have
got some good log houses built and are
quite comfortable we are having good
times now but expect to have some
fighting to do soon
By now, you may have noticed that I keep saying “the writer.” And with good reason. At the very end of the cross-hatching, in the upper-right corner of the first/last page, the letter simply reads “write as soon as you get this Raz.” Raz. That’s what we have to go on for the author. However, most archivists love a challenge, myself included. While identifying the writer is an on-going challenge, a cursory glance at a roster of the 189th New York Infantry actually gives us a couple of prospective Raz-es: Riley (Rila) Razey and Warren Razey. Raz seems a likely nickname among friends, though there’s still plenty of research to be done.
Here are scans of all the pages:
Letter from “Raz” to “Friend William,” pages 1 & 5 (with cross-hatching)
Letter from “Raz” to “Friend William,” page 2
Letter from “Raz” to “Friend William,” page 3
Letter from “Raz” to “Friend William,” page 4
For a letter that, on the surface, looked like it would be hard to read and lacking in solid information due to its mysterious correspondents, Raz has proved me wrong. His 4+ pages cover a bit of the usual: the weather here is pleasant, you should write more, today is dull, here’s how all our mutual friends in my unit are doing. But he also has some interesting details and insights. On the second page, he writes:
the army moved last week and
tried to take the south side railroad but
through some mistake one Corps did not
move as thay were ordered and it proved a
failure. so thay called it a Reconnaisence
and came back to camp. I think we shall
try it again soon.
Railroads were always coveted property during the war, but soldiers don’t always write so frankly about mishaps. Given that this is a more recently formed regiment, it’s mix of new soldiers and those who have been fighting for a while. Raz notes: “I think we have had a good time but some of the boys think it hard. but thay will see their mistake before the year is up.” Shortly after that, he adds:
thay are having great times about Electhion
ant thay. well we have something else to think
of down here it dont interest one much
it will make but little difference who is
president the ware will go on no mater who
One wonders if Raz would have a different view of the war in one, three, or six months’ time. Perhaps if we can figure out who he is, we can figure out some of his post-war life, too. When we process the collection, we’ll try to post an update with new information! In the meantime, you’re welcome to view the letter in person or look at the images online and challenge yourself to read more of Raz’s handwriting.
Women in American Architecture, Susana Torre (ed.)
Where Are the Women Architects?, Despina Stratigakos
Forty years ago the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective took shape under the editorial hand of Susana Torre. While the work arose out of an exhibition meant to expose the undervalued contributions of women to the built environment, it evolved into a discursive response to a series of dogged and complex questions concerning the roles of women in society, the exclusions of educational and professional culture, and the ideological underpinnings of “tradition.” (Torre’s papers are held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture here at Virginia Tech and the collection contains a wealth of research material related to her work on this exhibition and book project.)
Yet after two-fifths of a century have passed, a few questions linger: Have women made appreciable gains within the profession? Did Women in American Architecture’s 1977 publication herald a sea change in the attitudes of practitioners and architectural culture writ large? The answer may effectively be found in a book published just last year called Where Are the Women Architects? by Despina Stratigakos: while significant advances have been made, yes, equity (in pay, recognition, representation, etc.) has yet to be achieved. Indeed, in an interview with The Architectural League just four years ago, Torre commented that she had hoped sexism in the field would have become an artifact of the past: “I would have hoped that by now this topic would have become entirely passe…that it would be a quaint reminder of another time.”
In certain respects, women are still battling a culture that lionizes the “exceptional one:” a culture that valorizes individualism–the “lone genius”–while erasing female collaboration and one that lauds exceptional women to justify the marginalization of other women architects (paraphrase of Torre’s words). The “lone genius” archetype is partially a product of the narrative structure of many architectural histories (I’m looking at you, monograph). Stratigakos re-examines this emphasis on “stardom” and its underlying assumption “that the best architecture is created by mavericks.” Alongside assumptions that persist in mainstream treatment of architecture, Stratigakos looks at the bare fact that young women still confront woefully high professional attrition rates and a lack of visibility in educational curricula, the analog historical record, in online content, and among online content creators.
Digitization and Representation: Strategies For Winning Over Hearts and Minds?
Part and parcel of rectifying gender imbalance involves the activist approach of “consciousness-raising,” which partially entails the documentation and recovery of a cultural past that is often unrecognized or invalidated in historical works. The IAWA, founded in 1985, was itself borne out of Milka Bliznakov’s frustration that the historical record for architecture remained so lopsided: as many women grew old or died, evidence of their work was quietly being relegated to the ash heap of history. In some ways the digital era has presented new challenges regarding historical incompleteness.
In recent years, the internet has played a profound role in shaping cultural memory and, in some cases, reproducing bias–where ample content can be found and accessed so easily, many people erroneously believe that most information resources have been made available online and, following from this assumption, (mis-)perceive an absence of online content as a positive demonstration of triviality or non-existence. As Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner noted in their digitization report “Shifting Gears,” “in a world where it is increasingly felt that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist, we need to make sure that our users are exposed to the wealth of information in special collections.” The current CLIR grant-funded project to digitize the IAWA’s holdings is underway and one of its express goals is to combat the notion that women architects didn’t exist or didn’t contribute much to the built environment. For those of us working on the project, it’s our belief that the work of changing hearts and minds can begin with something as (seemingly) simple as visibility. Check back in another forty years.
Who’s the boss? An advertisement featuring a woman architect on a job site. From the Susana Torre Architectural Collection, Ms1990-016, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.
Barbie’s 125th career: architect. Artifact available in the Despina Stratigakos Architectural Collection, Ms2001-062, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.
A Souvenir Menu Recalls Earhart’s Triumphant Return to the U. S.
The recent reports about possible new evidence in the 80-year mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance reminded me of a little item in our collections: a menu for a 1932 dinner honoring the pilot. Housed, perhaps incongruously, within our Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection (Ms1994-015), this souvenir commemorates a milestone in aviation and women’s history.
Though Amelia Earhart’s name endures, it may be difficult for us to imagine today the level of fame she attained through her derring-do. The word “icon” has perhaps been devalued through overuse in recent years, but Earhart’s solo crossing of the Atlantic made her a true icon and arguably the most famous woman of her time.
Even before Earhart undertook her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, she had gained fame through her feats: as the first woman to cross the Atlantic via airplane (1928), as the first woman to make a solo transcontinental roundtrip flight across the U. S. (1928), and as the record holder for the highest altitude attained in an autogyro (1931). Despite occasional criticisms leveled against her skills as a flyer, Earhart through her personality and her penchant for self-promotion put a face on women’s advances in fields that previously had been reserved for men.
Earhart departed Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landed in Ireland the following day, exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic. While most know that Earhart was the first woman to make such a flight, few may remember that no pilot had successfully made a solo transatlantic flight in the five years after Lindbergh.
In the following weeks, Earhart toured Europe, receiving a number of honors and being feted by various dignitaries. After several weeks of enjoying her celebrity, Earhart embarked for home. Despite her accomplishment, transatlantic flight remained a dangerous undertaking reserved for pioneering daredevils. (The transatlantic passenger service established by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1928 averaged only about 20 flights per year for the next decade. Weather and distance would prevent the commercial viability of transatlantic passenger plane flights until the late 1930s.) The singularity of Earhart’s feat is underscored by the fact that she returned to the U. S. via cruise ship.
With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Earhart had asked that her welcome home be an understated affair, but it was perhaps because of the desperate need for something to celebrate that the flyer’s request went unheeded. When the Ile de France arrived in New York on June 20, it was greeted by all the fanfare the city could muster, including a tickertape parade. Following a luncheon hosted by the Advertising Federation Convention and several rounds of interviews, the day’s activities concluded at the Waldorf-Astoria, where a full-course dinner was held in Earhart’s honor. Speakers included Charles Lawrence, president of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America; Don Brown, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft; W. Irving Glover, second assistant postmaster of the United States; and Earhart herself. The speeches were broadcast nationwide via radio.
Unfortunately, as far as I was able to determine (in an admittedly cursory search), Earhart’s words that night seem to have gone unrecorded. She reportedly recounted the experiences of her flight. Perhaps she also repeated some of the responses she had given earlier that day to critics who derided her flight as a non-event. In interviews, Earhart said that she regarded her flight as a personal mission, a justification. After she had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 as a passenger, one commentator downplayed the feat, likening her usefulness on the flight to a sack of potatoes.
In The Sound of Wings, biographer Mary S. Lovell writes of Earhart’s solo flight, “[T]hough the flight in itself offered no particular breakthrough, the mere fact that there were pilots prepared to risk all to gain records encouraged manufacturers to further technological effort. … In the public eye, too, the flight was a triumphant success at a time when newspapers carried daily reports of fatal air crashes. So her success encouraged confidence in aviation as a principle.”
Despite her protestations to the contrary, Amelia Earhart had done much more than answer her critics, and the public responded in a big way, as evidenced in a little menu in our little collection.
In addition to the Earhart menu, the Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection contains a number of interesting pieces relating to the first half century of aviation history. For a complete list, see the collection’s finding aid.
Architecture is a visual field that, much like other creative endeavors, invites both introspection and observation. It often exists conceptually in the space between technical precision and creative daring, while reflecting a thorough understanding and negotiation of actual spaces.
Before getting to finished technical drawings, or even to initial concept sketches, however, many architects are observing and recording the world around them through sketchbooks, notations, drawings, and paintings. These records are often traces of their movements through the world, representing something that struck them in a moment, and that may—or may not—influence their own architectural work later on. Studies of form and dimension, urban landscapes, interiors, buildings, and even the quick suggestion of a corner, roofline, or some transient detail all reveal something about the thoughts—and the processes of learning, inspiration, and working through problems—that inform their work.
Researchers commonly use archival materials to study people, places, and topics, to inform or interpret history, but an accidental effect of looking is often inspiration and personal connections drawn from the objects themselves. Just as we emphasize outside research as a personal process in writing, looking through a visual archive can be useful as a journey of inspiration, with no particular destination in mind.
What have I learned? Content is everywhere. Our ideas are shaped by the formal works we examine and by our surroundings when we stop to look closely—to study the world unfolding in front of us. Inspiration comes from formal works like paintings, documents, or buildings that we encounter and also from things such as the rolling hills, flat plains, rocks, plants, trees, or waves that we see in the landscapes where we live or travel. It comes from the sensations and character that embody the spaces we navigate, and often fully formed ideas come from an intersection between analysis and experience.
Looking at both the formal and more informal sketches and photographs—the notations in passing that often predate an idea—can be instrumental to understanding the depths of an architectural practice. These studies, which are sometimes fully rendered and sometimes just bits of marginalia, are the visual equivalents of fragmentary thoughts. You can see glimmers of the development of skills, or concepts, or simply a way of understanding spaces and moving through the world. You can piece together the development of a project or the beginnings of artistic practice, and you can learn something about how ideas, technical skills, and perspectives have evolved.
E. Maria Roth:
Along with architectural project materials, Roth’s papers include drawings and sketches from her high school and college years, in addition to a grammar school geography notebook that was completed in 1940 in Hitler-era Germany. These documents showcase the processes of observation, artistic discovery, skill development, and aesthetic understanding in an evolving creative practice.
Grammar School Notebook, Spring 1940. From the E. Maria Roth Architectural Collection, Ms2007-009. Cover and inner page spread from a grammar school notebook created during the Hitler era in Germany.
Sketches showing plants and landscape details, E. Maria Roth Architectural Collection, Ms2007-009
Martha J. Crawford:
An architectural interior designer by training, Martha Crawford was also an artist and writer, which is heavily reflected in the materials in her collection. Many studies of landscapes, interior rooms, and everyday objects capture the ways that she was observing and recording the world.
Watercolor and ink, Sketches from the The Martha J. Crawford Design Papers, 1961-1974, Ms1994-016
In addition to her architectural work, Dorothy Alexander has worked as a professional photographer for a number of publications. A mockup of her 1974 work, White Flower, which was published in a finished form in the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, provides a compelling look at the way Alexander was examining the urban landscape and both recording and puncturing the sense of time and place.
The document includes photographic images placed in a grid, revealing a street scene where time is frozen, moving forward in jumps and starts when a car or leg suddenly enters the scene. The contact sheet layout seems to suggest some linearity, like what you might experience through a sequence of events captured on a roll of film. On inspection, however, this linear timeline is ruptured by the interruption of flowers (a brief mental wandering) that contrast with the cold lines of the concrete and by the car entering the frame. This vehicle doesn’t move across the space fluidly, but rather enters, sits, and disappears. Further, the flowers seem to be a photograph of a drawing or painting, which is reinforced by the inclusion of the edge of the picture frame in some of the images. Reality is abstracted here, or is at least shifting and a little surreal.
More significantly, in the document held by Special Collections the gridlines, notations, and calculations are visible. It’s an object in process where the hand of the creator is still very present and it offers an insight or informal connection that is further removed in the finished piece.
The IAWA is full of the kind of documentation noted here, and offers a rich source for study. Through the support of a grant, “Women of Design: Revealing Women’s Hidden Contributions to the Built Environment” (one of the 2016 Digitizing Hidden Collections grants awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources), 30 collections will be scanned and put online to facilitate greater use. These collections will become available through the Virginia Tech Special Collections digital library as they are scanned over the next two years. As always, the physical materials are available to view in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech.