Architect's Knowledge ResourceDocuments
AIA Resources for Researching Mid-Century Architects
By Nancy Hadley, Assoc. AIA, CA
Documenting the original architect of a historic building can be a real challenge. It’s easy if you’re dealing with a building by Eero Saarinen or by The Architects Collaborative, but there are many architects who designed exceptional modernist buildings without receiving that level of public recognition. How do you learn more about architects about whom there are no published monographs? Where do you start if you know the firm name but not the full names of its principals?
One helpful tool is the AIA Historical Directory of American Architects, a new online resource guide to information about architects in the AIA Archives and elsewhere. Mid-twentieth-century architects are especially well represented in the AIA Archives through three sources: the American Architects Directory, the Architects Roster Questionnaires, and mid-century membership and Fellowship files. These materials are accessible online through the AIA Historical Directory.
American Architects Directory—1956, 1962, 1970
The AIA sponsored the publication of the American Architects Directory to promote its member architects to clients. All AIA members were asked to return a form for a who’s-who-style entry: name, business address, date of birth, education, training, previous firms, present firm, principal works, awards, community activities, and AIA activities. Most of them did so, along with a handful of non-member architects, and the result was a thick volume containing basic information about more than 7,000 architects in practice in 1956. The second edition, in 1962, and the third edition, in 1970, contained even more names—and included entries for firms as well, giving the names of the principals and the name of any predecessor firm. The entries are arranged alphabetically, with a geographic index at the end.
The full text of all three volumes is available online in the AIA Historical Directory of American Architects. Furthermore, all entries in American Architects Directory have been indexed to the individual and firm names in the AIA Historical Directory. When you look up a name in the AIA Historical Directory, the record for that name will show whether there’s a biographical entry in one or more of the editions of American Architects Directory, or whether there’s only an address listing (for those who did not send in their entry forms). Or, if you prefer to go directly to the American Architects Directory, the top tabs on the AIA Historical Directory pages will take you straight to each of the three editions.
Architects Roster Questionnaires—1946-1952
An earlier AIA program to connect member architects with clients was the Architects Roster, begun in 1946 and continued through 1952. The idea was that firms would fill out detailed questionnaires about their work, and the questionnaires would be kept on file at AIA headquarters, so that federal government agencies planning to construct a building could look through the files to learn more about architects active in a particular area of the country. The questionnaires were distributed through the chapters, and arranged geographically. Not all AIA chapters chose to participate. But for those parts of the country which did, the Rosters are an amazingly rich source of information. The questionnaires asked for the personal history of the firm’s principals, details about the firm such as the number of its employees, the names of engineers or other consultants regularly used by the firm, and lists of completed buildings categorized by construction cost. Photographs of selected buildings were often attached (though few of these remain with the roster questionnaires in the AIA Archives; most were either returned to the firm or discarded, when the roster program ended).
The AIA Archives has Roster questionnaires for over a thousand firms. All have been scanned (including low-resolution copies of photos if they exist) and are available online through the AIA Historical Directory. Each firm with a Roster questionnaire has a record by firm name in the AIA Historical Directory. All the individuals who have biographical information on a Roster questionnaire have a link from their own record to the record of the firm. You can also see a list of Roster firms arranged geographically by clicking the top tab labeled Architects Roster on the AIA Historical Directory pages.
AIA membership and Fellowship files
The AIA’s membership files are the most frequently requested materials in the AIA Archives, usually for historic preservation purposes. The membership file for twentieth-century architects normally contains the membership application and correspondence related to membership such as chapter transfers, late dues payments, resignation, or change to emeritus status. The application may be the only place to find the details of where the architect went to school and whose office he or she trained in before opening his or her own practice. Later correspondence may document a move to another city, reflect changes in the firm through the names on the letterhead, or give the date of retirement from practice. The AIA began using written membership applications in the 1890s. There are gaps in the records up through the early 1920s, but after that point nearly all applications and related correspondence have survived and are in the AIA Archives. Membership records are confidential during a person’s lifetime, and become available for researchers after the member is deceased. The membership files do not normally provide any information about the architect’s works, however.
For those AIA members who became Fellows, the record is much richer. Written Fellowship nominations, presenting the nominee’s achievements and contribution to the profession, began in the 1930s. Fellowship nominations have become lengthier and more detailed over time. Successful Fellowship nominations are not confidential. However, any letters of reference or in support of the nomination are kept confidential until the Fellow is deceased and at least thirty years have passed since the nomination. Letters of support have been retained in some eras but not in others.
The core purpose of the AIA Historical Directory of American Architects is to provide access to materials about architects in the AIA Archives. The AIA Historical Directory contains the names of all 50,324 architects who joined the AIA at the national level from 1857 until 1978. As requests for information about deceased members are received, their membership and Fellowship files in the AIA Archives are scanned and added to the member’s record online. The AIA Historical Directory is thus a continually growing repository of information about past architects. Researchers can use the AIA Historical Directory not only to find information already digitized, but also to see whether someone was a member and therefore whether there’s likely to be information in the AIA Archives.
Other archives and directories
The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects also includes links to architects’ drawings and papers in other architectural archives around the country, and citations or links to entries in various biographical directories (including entries or papers of non-AIA architects). If you were researching the firm of MacKie & Kamrath, for example, the AIA Historical Directory would point you toward the entries for the firm and its principals in the American Architects Directory, let you know that you could request their membership and Fellowship files from the AIA Archives, and tell you about the MacKie & Kamrath drawings at Houston Public Library and the Karl Kamrath papers at the University of Texas. Links to holdings in more archives are still being added to the AIA Historical Directory.
Links and citations to more biographical directories, whether in print or online, are also actively being added to the AIA Historical Directory along with the standard sources already indexed, such as Withey’s Biographical Directory of American Architects (Deceased). A great deal of research has been done about architects in specific regions, formerly in published books and increasingly often now on online sites. Much of this work concentrates on early architects in a region, but many research efforts have expanded to include mid-century architects and we’re beginning to see sites specifically devoted to modernist architects and buildings, such as Michigan Modern or Triangle Modernist Houses in North Carolina. The AIA Historical Directory hopes to link to as many such sites and books as possible, to make these widely scattered research projects more visible and accessible to researchers. (If you are aware of or involved with an architect’s biography project in your region, the AIA Archives would love to hear about it; contact AIA Archivist Nancy Hadley at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects is a tool to help researchers locate information about U.S. architects. The information it provides or points to will complement other research sources; you’ll find a different kind of information through the AIA Historical Directory than you do in the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals or in local history collections. It is the AIA’s hope that the AIA Historical Directory will be an important tool in supporting historic preservation efforts and in documenting the legacy of our past colleagues in the American Institute of Architects.
To get to the AIA Historical Directory of American Architects, go to http://public.aia.org/sites/hdoaa/wiki or choose About in the upper left corner of the www.aia.org website, then choose History, then click on AIA Historical Directory of American Architects.
About the author: Nancy Hadley, Assoc. AIA, CA, has been Archivist and Records Manager for the AIA since 2003. She studied architecture at Princeton (B.A. 1980) and Rice (M.Arch. 1983) before changing fields to become an archivist.