We go to great lengths to preserve historical structures, but less so the documents behind their design and construction. Many primary-source materials, such as architectural trade catalogs, house plan books, and technical guides, have been lost to time, often tossed by their original owners and replaced with ever-newer volumes. Luckily for history and architecture enthusiasts, an online archive brings what’s left of these resources into the public domain.
Founded in 2006 by the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) and hosted by the Internet Archive, the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) went online in 2011. Since then, it has collected digital scans of more than 7,000 documents dating from the late-19th century through the 1960s, and it serves more than 10,000 online visitors each week.
Mike Jackson, FAIA, formerly the deputy state historic preservation officer at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, led the archive’s development. Based in Springfield, Ill., Jackson started the collection with a few personal materials in 2006. Such period documents can be helpful to contemporary architects and designers working on historical structures, he says, whether for evaluation, environmental safety, or understanding past design practices.
“We started this [archive] for the preservation community," he says, although the audience has since grown from architects and builders to include historians and researchers. “It encourages more people to understand their older buildings—what they’re made out of and how they’ve changed and evolved.”
Nearly half of the current collection comes from the Canadian Centre for Architecture—and of that contribution, one-quarter dates from the 19th century. The second-largest collection that's been digitized came from the Southeastern Architectural Archive at Tulane University. The APT is currently in talks with two major universities whose contributions could double the size of the BTHL's digital collection. It's also looking for funding to help scan future large-volume donations.
In the meantime, Jackson and the APT are trying to fill their collection's thematic gaps, such as a lack of documentation on historical masonry construction.
“I still subscribe to the theory that the greenest building is the one that already exists," Jackson says. "So you better understand how to reuse what you’ve got. Preservation serves the larger sustainability mission."
We dug through the collection to pick out a few of our favorite reference materials:
This booklet was published in 1923 by the AIA's Structural Services Committee, which was then a liaison between architects and manufacturers for sharing product information. It advises building-product manufacturers on what it deems the proper way to sell their goods to an architect. It explains: “When the architect steps from the sanctuary of design into the market place to select those things which seem to him best suited to his structural needs, he is at once assailed by a babble of some 4,000 voices, each and all claiming the right to recognition. Many, and generally the vast majority, of products offered, interest him not at all.”
”Lead is no longer the only paint,” says a young house painter to his father in this nine-page, 19th-century advertorial for a zinc-based white coating.
Lumber hasn’t always been sold in standard dimensions. Wood-products manufacturer Weyerhaeuser was among the first suppliers to offer such sizing: “Every man who ever spent his hard-earned money in building a home has wished for this kind of lumber,” writes the company in this ad book. Look how happy these guys are grading lumber.
World War II, manufacturers fueled consumers' laser-like focus
on the domestic space with advertisements targeting female buyers. These
documents and other period advertisements portray a narrow view of midcentury home-ownership. Namely, white, suburban, and defined by traditional gender roles.
“There are things about a kitchen that no mere male can know ... Men … bless them! ... Who should know better than women what a kitchen should be?” Indeed, bless all men everywhere. See Curtis Companies' 1952 kitchen design catalog.
This booklet from the St. Charles Manufacturing Co. asks: “Why shouldn’t a woman enjoy working in her kitchen just as men enjoy working in an office or shop?” After all, why talk shop when you can talk kitchen?
A handful of catalogs from General Electric and the Edison Electric Light Company show the evolution of residential and commercial lighting and its potential to change the way architects build.
“To those who have given intelligent consideration to the subject, it is a well known fact that every hour of a man’s life spent in a room lighted by gas tends to shorten that life and abridge his powers of work, and when such a fact becomes generally accepted, as it certainly will be in the near future, the adoption of the electric light will be as universal as other arrangements essential to the preservation of health,” reads this booklet from 1887. (Interminable sentences like this one may have been the real killer.)
We, too, find it fun to live electrically.
This brochure from 1938 explains how "night illumination" was poised to bring "the effect of color, pattern, and movement" to cities after dark.
The archive also includes a selection of house-plan catalogs. Among them, the kit homes of the early- to mid-20th century that for a time delivered the labor-saving promises of mail-order construction.
Above, a 1936 catalog from Sears, Roebuck & Co., and below, a similar brochure from 1924 with designs by Montgomery Ward.