This summer, thousands of the tourists who’ve descended on Washington, D.C.’s parched Mall will find their way into the National Gallery of Art, where they can savor an exhibit of mouth-watering still lifes by Luis Meléndez—not to mention the free air conditioning. Many will walk straight past, or through, tiny Room G-21, a former storage room tucked deep within the West Building’s sculpture gallery. Only a handful of items are on display here, but they offer something that Meléndez’s Still Life With Figs and Bread can’t: an exquisite short tour of the themes of 18th and 19th century architecture.
For the first time, the gallery is showing off a batch of new additions to its holdings of architectural books—purchases that were enabled by the chairman and CEO of one of the world’s largest A/E firms, Leo A. Daly III, and his wife, Grega. Since the couple established the Grega and Leo A. Daly III Fund for Architectural Books at the gallery four years ago, the custodians of the National Gallery’s 370,000-volume library have purchased around 60 books to enhance the gallery’s architectural books collection, supplementing its already impressive corpus of rare Renaissance and Baroque volumes with books representing architecture from the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, especially American architecture.Daly is the third-generation leader of his family’s Omaha, Neb.–based A/E firm, which has 30 offices around the world. His grandfather and father—Leo A. Daly Sr. and Leo A. Daly Jr., respectively—were both architects, and Daly traces his interest in architectural history to them: “This whole passion for classical architecture and its impact on modern architecture has gone through our family,” he says. His grandfather was steeped in the Beaux-Arts classicism of the early 1900s, Daly says, and his father collected architectural books, sparking his son’s interest in them. (The family’s private library, which he continues to add to, includes many volumes on architecture.)
The books purchased so far through the Daly fund contain aesthetic principles and technical expertise that today’s architects can learn from, regardless of their stylistic leanings, Daly believes. (The classical proportions, he points out, were developed by the Greeks but taken up by Le Corbusier.) Helping the gallery buy old books also keeps them intact—not cut up and sold piecemeal as decorative prints—and gathers them into a single place as a resource for scholars. “We feel that it’s necessary to preserve these documents, so that teachers, and researchers, and students can all share the experience of these early architects … and early methods of construction,” he says. The Dalys’ financial support for the collection (Daly declines to reveal the dollar figure) will span a decade in total, and Daly says he has long-range plans to donate items from his personal library to the gallery.Over the past few years, Daly has developed a close working relationship with Neal Turtell, the National Gallery’s executive librarian, who’s in charge of the Daly fund acquisitions. “I’m always looking, but he’s always ahead of me,” Daly says of Turtell, a 26-year gallery employee. Turtell purchases most of the books through dealers in the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. There’s no target number of volumes he and Daly are trying to reach, he says: “It depends on what I find and what they cost.” The books range in value from several hundred dollars to $10,000, depending on age, condition, scarcity, and other factors.The current exhibition, which is on display through Nov. 15, focuses on Neo-Classicism and the Gothic and Greek revivals in British, American, and French architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many of the volumes have a pragmatic, instructive bent, as evidenced by their titles. The Builder’s Companion and Workman’s General Assistant (London, 1758) is a pattern book that was used widely in early America, and is one of six different volumes in the gallery’s collection by the influential architectural writer William Pain. Likewise, Minard Lafever’s The Modern Builder’s Guide (New York, 1833), with its hyperdetailed engravings of capitals and cornices, is a book that helped fuel the Greek Revival in the eastern United States.
Despite its practicality, the exhibit is not without resplendent touches—for example, Robert Lugar’s Villa Architecture: A Collection of Views, with Plans, of Buildings Executed in England, Scotland, &c. (London, 1828) has hand-colored aquatints of grand domestic buildings in picturesque settings.“The main theme is the change in architecture [from an earlier period] … the absence of Baroque excess, for example,” Turtell says. “What was current in one era inherently contradicts what was current in another.” Of the many books on display relating to domestic architecture, Turtell observes, “I think it’s important to show that side of architecture as well, not just the grand, big public structure, but how people actually lived, and what home design was.”One May afternoon, in the secured basement stacks of the gallery’s library and study center, Turtell and circulation technician Yuri Long readied volumes for display in the gallery’s East Building, as an extension to the main West Building show.
Moving around a long table with open books placed along each side, Turtell pointed out Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, or, the Builder’s Treasury of Stair-Cases (London, 1760), whose meticulous plates of—no surprises here—staircase designs were intended for practicing architects of the day; a large folio of aquatints of 16th century buildings by architect Michele Sammicheli in Verona, Italy (Milan, 1815), still in the binding of Napoleon’s stepson, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais; and Joseph Halfpenny’s Gothic Ornaments in the Cathedral Church of York (York, England, 1775–1800), a compendium of engravings of gargoyles, window traceries, and other cathedral decorations. Although the books are beautiful objects, Turtell stresses that they “aren’t being bought because they’re pretty. They have an intrinsic purpose here. We’re trying to tell the story of architecture to the best of our ability.” “This was not a hard show to put up,” he adds. “It almost chose itself, from what had been acquired over the last four years.”