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A Visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at the Avery Library

By John and Marsha Shyer, Owners, Brandes House

Photo by Scot Zimmerman

It was a gorgeous late fall day. Leaves still clung to the trees, shaking as the wind swept through the urban but cloistered beauty of Columbia University’s Upper West Side campus.

My husband John and I breathed in the snap of autumn cool as we walked quickly toward the Butler Library, where we were to pick up our credentials, which would allow us to enter the inner sanctum of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. This would be our chance to delve into the files related to our home, Brandes House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1952 in what was then Bellevue, Washington (now Sammamish).

As excited as we were, we had no idea what lay ahead of us. By the end of this, our first and only day of reviewing the archive, we would find documents that had apparently gone unseen and uncatalogued since they were placed in the file when work was completed on our home in 1953.

Setting up the appointment had been surprisingly easy, given that we had talked about the possibility of doing it ever since we had bought the house four years earlier. Once we heard Carol Ann Fabian, the Director of the Avery Library, speak at last year’s Homeowners Dinner during the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Conference in New York, we decided to give it a try.

John sent an email to wrightarchives-info@columbia.edu asking for information about our house. Within 24 hours we received a response from Nicole Richard, Drawings and Archives Assistant at the library. She immediately provided us with a pdf inventory of all the documentation for Brandes House at the Avery Library along with (to our surprise) a pdf of corresponding study images. Correspondence could only be viewed on microfiche in the library, so we made an appointment for a few days later. We were allotted a four-hour time frame on an afternoon to look at the information. While that sounded like ample time, in fact, we needed every minute!

When the day came, we reported first to the Library Information Office, which is right inside the entrance of Columbia’s Butler Library (room 201). Visitors are required to show a government-issued ID to get a pass. It was a short walk to the Avery Library. The Drawings and Archives Department is in the basement. Nicole met us and began acquainting us with the files. I asked if other Wright homeowners had been by. She said several had come during and after the Conservancy’s September 2017 conference. She said that the librarians were always happy to open the archives to homeowners, and in fact we felt warmly welcomed.

So much work had been done for us ahead of time that the hardest part was learning how to work the microfiche machine. The area had been pre-organized for our use, with a folder of materials and boxes of microfiche. First we got acquainted with the microfiche machine, index and files. Nicole also showed us how to copy the files onto our thumb drive. Although we were fairly sure that these microfiche were in fact a direct copy of the information that we had already received when we purchased our house, the cumbersome process, set up before computers, required checking the index, finding the correct microfiche card, loading the card and getting it to show the proper page, and then deciding whether or not to copy it. When there are so many pages involved, the process is a bit challenging. Ultimately, in order to avoid a return trip, we copied all of the pages to our thumb drive.

For this portion, we encountered only one problem: For one item on the index, the card was there, but it was clearly not the correct one. How did we know? Because even though the fiche card number appeared to match, we were viewing the second page of a two-page letter, but there was no first page! We presented the problem to Nicole. A couple of days later, we got her answer:

“I’m following up on the mystery with the correspondence. As discovered yesterday, there are two letters with the same fiche ID of B167D02. While we weren’t able to find a match using the fiche, I returned to the physical material and was able to find a letter that matches what is entered in the database. Attached you will find a two-page letter regarding the specifications for the house to Ray Brandes from Eugene Masselink dated June 26, 1953. I think you’ll find it interesting.”

We then turned to the most exciting part of the material that Nicole had gathered for us. The large architectural drawings, resting in a folder on a table in the middle of the room. We were allowed to look at and carefully handle these documents. I was stunned, and awed. The first one was the rendering of our home that was so familiar to us, with all of the pencil marks and shading, but more beautiful than any copy we had seen.  Finally we moved on. Other familiar pages appeared.

After the 11 pages described in the index, there was a big (for us, enormous) surprise.

There, stuck in the back, were three additional pages. We were already a bit overwhelmed with information, and now we were looking at a presentation sketch of Brandes House with a different roof treatment—something we, and possibly no one outside of Taliesin West had ever seen before. Unlike the other pages, which had Frank Lloyd Wright’s typical seal of initials with the date worked in, this page had no initials on the lower right corner. It had not been approved.

On another page we found a planting plan for the area around the house, with the names of the types of plants and grasses to put in designated areas around the house. The third page was full of handwritten notes and sketches about prevailing conditions at that specific time at the building site. The view line, winds, topographical contours, power, water and phone access lines, etc.

We asked Nicole if she knew anything about the new documents we had found. She came over and looked. She pointed out that while the other pages in the file had catalog numbers on them, these had none, indicating that they were uncatalogued and therefore unknown to the library. I asked her if this was a common thing. Does it often happen that visitors, homeowners and researchers who use the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives find uncatalogued pages?

Nicole responded:

“Usually when there are uncatalogued pages in the files there is an indication on the file that it contains extra pages. It is very unusual to have uncatalogued pages in an unmarked file.”

We were very interested in these pages, so we decided to have them scanned, an option that the Avery Library offers. When files have not previously been scanned, the Library charges a fee of $35 a page (to defray their costs) to scan the files. The files are then also available to the Library and for research use. While everything else at the Library was quick, this process took several months.

Ultimately, our trip to Avery was far more productive and fascinating than we had imagined.

 

For More Information About Your Frank Lloyd Wright Home

 

Before You Go To Avery Library

  • Contact: wrightarchives-info@columbia.edu
  • Be sure to schedule your visit in advance
  • Discuss with the librarian in advance the scope of your interest and what files you want to see when you are there
  • Bring a new thumb drive
  • Eat ahead of time as no food or drink is allowed inside
  • Collect your reader’s pass in the Library Information Office, just inside the main entrance at Butler Library (room 201). You’ll need to show a government-issued ID.
  • The Drawings and Archives Department is on the basement level of Avery Library. You can find it by taking the stairs down behind the attendant at Avery’s front desk. Turn left at the Reserves desk and follow the purple floor through the Fine Arts stacks towards the Wallach Study Center, and past the double doors and display cabinets.

Click for more information about the Avery Library’s Frank Lloyd Wright Archives

Posted on July 12, 2018

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