Bidding on Architectural History
After years of hunting on eBay for SOM artifacts, historian Nicholas Adams shares his favorite finds.
The author of two books on SOM, most recently Gordon Bunshaft and SOM: Building Corporate Modernism, Nicholas Adams probably knows the firm’s history better than anyone. He is also keenly aware of the gaps in the historical record. That’s why Adams has spent years hunting for artifacts related to SOM and its key players—after all, you never know what will turn up on eBay. Having donated many items from his “SOM collection” to libraries and institutions, Adams reflects on his search for architectural history in unlikely places.
I started writing about SOM almost 20 years ago. It started with a telephone call from Francesco Dal Co at Electa, the publishing house in Milan, inviting me to write a monograph on SOM. I protested: “I know nothing about SOM.” “Go talk to David Childs,” then SOM’s chairman, he said. David was my introduction to the firm.
It turned out that despite its many thousands of buildings since the firm’s founding in 1936, I was not alone in knowing little or nothing about SOM as a whole. Though there had been a major study of their noted designer Gordon Bunshaft by Carol Krinsky and a few scholarly studies of individual buildings, there were only the most skeletal overviews of the firm. The picture books that SOM issued every few years, starting in 1962, were helpful, but they only started with Lever House (1952) when the firm was already 15 years old, and they adhered to the firm’s policy of anonymity: no design partner was named and only a small fraction of SOM’s buildings (around 10 percent) were even featured there.
David cleared up many things. His attitude, which I saw mirrored by many SOM partners, was not comforting for a historian: whatever had been superseded could find its way to the dustbin. Preliminary models? Sketches and alternatives? Cancelled projects? Goodbye. SOM, at least in New York, kept only essential papers. But historians are greedy. How did the firm come to be so important? What choices did the firm make? How did the firm, an experiment in cooperative practice, actually work?
Some of SOM’s history had been caught orally. The firm had sponsored oral histories at the Chicago Art Institute and had conducted their own oral memoirs (without interviewers) with partners and associate partners. These were helpful, if sometimes imprecise. I also met a number of retired partners and staff who were very helpful. Occasionally I was able to visit with a former partner’s widow who had wise insights about life in the firm.
Materials in storage were occasionally brought up and from time to time there would be a discovery: exquisite drawings from the studio of Charles Bassett in San Francisco; a full set of proposals for a project in Chicago. Each office had its own procedures for retention that varied over time. It was uneven — but, well, historians write histories from what they have. There are no oral histories from the 15th century, after all.
It also became clear that a lot of SOM’s history was in private hands. Relatives of former partner Robert Cutler were going through his papers and heard about my work. They kindly provided materials for me to review (old photographs and clippings) before the papers went on to the architectural archives at Syracuse University.
Though my book on SOM was finished in 2007, I remained alert for other material. I put a watch out for SOM material on eBay. Most of it was of no interest, books I knew and owned; but every once in a while something more interesting would float into sight.
I bought four drawings for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, by Walter Netsch. There was a final program summary for the Connecticut General Insurance Headquarters; there were privately printed and limited distribution books of proposals for clients: oversized client books for an administrative center in Bogotá, a smaller comb-bound book for the town council at Park Forest, Illinois, a credential presentation for the city of Boulder, Colorado, and others. Two framed chronologies of staff and buildings designed to celebrate SOM’s 35th anniversary popped up.
I even picked up a photograph of Nina Wayler, Gordon Bunshaft’s wife, recording her brief career as a dancer. Only occasionally did I spend more than $100.
The most important find, in my opinion, was an unpublished history of SOM by William Brown, a former partner. This came in a mixed collection of photographs, publicity books, and private papers. What I had bought was a draft history of SOM from its earliest days until the 1970s by Brown. It had some corrections and was missing pages, but in total the original must have been over 700 pages.
Brown had been based in New York and what he had to say about the construction of Oak Ridge, the design of Lever House, the Istanbul Hilton, and others was absolutely new. And this was only part of the whole? So where was the rest? Looking for someone with the last name of “Brown” in the United States is no easy matter. But the internet is there for a reason and soon I had tracked down a son, an architect. Though he had passed on, his widow, Barbara Brown, was alive, and since she had been a singer in The Angels, the noted 1960s girl group (“My Boyfriend’s Back”), she could be found. Over the next two weeks I was breathless waiting to see if another son was able to help — he was, and he supplied the complete typescript; a copy is now in the Avery Fine Arts and Architectural Library at Columbia University in New York.
Another find was a diary belonging to Gordon Bunshaft. The seller had picked it up from a group of water-damaged books in New York City bookstore. She had no idea who Bunshaft was and only realized the diary was his because of a clipping tacked to the inside. I pounced, and we broke all kinds of eBay rules as I told her what she had and why she should sell it to me. The format of the book is not quite the same as Bunshaft’s other diaries in Avery Library. It contains material from 1935 (including his ranking of hotels), but it also included lists of the books in his library, compiled at a later date. How it escaped being given to Columbia initially, I do not know. Adding this to their collection was easy! They have Bunshaft’s papers and a special interest in New York architects.
Two recent finds were works from the hand of Louis Skidmore: a postcard-sized Christmas card and a lithograph of the temple at Luxor, signed in pencil and dated to his time at the American Academy in Rome. Both went to the Library of Congress, where Skidmore’s papers are housed.
These are highlights, but there is much more. A privately printed autobiography by Harold Olson, who had overseen construction of many of SOM’s health care facilities, was owned by former SOM chairman John Winkler who, on my suggestion, gave it to Avery Library. It is a book that tells what it was like to be an associate partner at SOM in the 1950s and 1960s — I wish I had seen it before I finished my own book on SOM.
My goal is to put objects in public institutions where they can be found by others. I am not a collector. I am a matchmaker.
I was also able to track down the nephew of Joanna Diman, an early landscape architect at SOM (responsible for the original landscaping at Lever House). He had copies of his aunt’s remarkable C.V. and a small group of photographs from her academic career that went to the archives of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which had absorbed the landscape school where she had studied. It was nice to put a face to the person of whom Natalie de Blois, an early designer at SOM said admiringly, she “could defend herself.”
Why do I do this? Well, I am a historian and historians are interested in the past. These searches are thrillers, too. Tracking down material is the easy part; knowing what it is requires expertise. Matching the object with an institution is a little harder, but it is the critical part. My goal is to put objects in public institutions where they can be found by others. That’s the point. I am not a collector. I am a matchmaker. I was delighted that so much of my own collection recently went to Avery Library at Columbia University, the premier architectural library in the United States. My hope is that the material I have assembled and helped to distribute can play a role in future histories.
Read more stories on SOM’s history:
Capturing the Late Modern
Photographer Wayne Thom and author Emily Bills discuss an under-appreciated era in architecture.
‘Bun’ Makes a Donut
How Gordon Bunshaft came up with the National Mall’s most curious architectural treat.