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July 2024
3min read

A gathering of little-known drawings from Columbia
University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library illuminates two centuries of American building

ONE OF THE WORLD’S most renowned architectural institutions is named for a virtually unknown architect who died at age thirty-eight, too young to have made more than a promising start in his own career. In 1890, the year of Henry Ogden Avery’s death, his parents founded the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University in New York City and donated two thousand books from their son’s professional library as well as the drawings from his brief career.

Today the Avery Library, with some two hundred thousand volumes and over one hundred thousand architectural drawings, continues to grow through a vigorous acquisition program of books and magazines and through gifts of drawings by prominent architects. Among its most prized holdings are a copy of the first printed book on architecture, Alberti’s De re aedificatoria , dating from 1485, and nearly every major edition of Vitruvius’s De architectura , the only book on architecture surviving from antiquity and which was first published in a modern language in 1521. But most impressive to the layman are the drawings, striking works of art that reflect the stylistic spectrum of American architecture from the serene classicism of the late eighteenth century to the futuristic vision of the 1930s.

From the nineteenth century on, much of the architect’s education has centered on drawing.

The earliest American architectural renderings at Avery date from the end of the eighteenth century. Relatively few drawings survive from the earlier period, because craftsmen and builders tended to work directly from European pattern books, which reproduced plans and elevations of all types of buildings. The American architect of the late eighteenth century, like his foreign counterpart, began creating his own drawings as his designs became increasingly complex. In the eighteenth century, before academic programs in architecture were founded in the United States, practitioners either served an apprenticeship with established architects or taught themselves. The Englishman George Hadfield, for instance, trained under James Wyatt for six years before emigrating to the United States in 1795 to superintend the building of the Capitol; another Englishman, Richard Upjohn, arrived here trained as a cabinetmaker and began his distinguished architectural career as a draftsman in a Boston firm in 1834; and Alexander Jackson Davis, the originator of the Gothic country villa, first worked as an architectural illustrator. This nonacademic training continued even into this century: Wallace K. Harrison, who designed Rockefeller Center and the United Nations, started out as a draftsman in the office of McKim, Mead, and White.

Even after the first formal school of architecture in the United States opened in 1866 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, architects still looked to Europe for academic training. The Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris became the mecca for American architectural students.

Richard Morris Hunt, the first American at the Ecole, attended from 1846 to 1854. Henry Ogden Avery himself studied there for seven years, starting in 1872, before returning to New York to join Hunt’s firm. Henry Hobson Richardson, Charles McKim, and scores of other American students soon followed. By the turn of the century the Ecole was seen as the proper culmination of an architect’s education. After World War I the practice of studying in Paris waned, and architectural students then completed their training at American universities instead.

Much of an architect’s education, here and abroad, continues to be centered on drawing. By trying out his own projects on paper, the student is able to sharpen his analytical skills by breaking down the building into its parts and to develop his descriptive skills by learning to build form through line, color, and shade.

For the working architect, drawings communicate vital structural information, details, and measurements. Dozens of elevations, sections, and mechanical and structural plans are necessary to guide those who are putting up the building. Also, the architect often produces presentation renderings—dramatic visions of how the finished building will look—to convince a client that the design is worth building. Because drawings play such an important role in securing a commission, many architects rely on professional Tenderers. But not all have: Alexander Jackson Davis, Wilson Eyre, and Frank Lloyd Wright were among the very best Tenderers of their day.

Throughout the twentieth century structural advancements and the introduction of mechanical systems in architecture have dramatically increased the number of drawings needed to complete a building. In recent years computer graphics have been widely used to manipulate this technical information. Nevertheless, architects are rediscovering the poetic power of drawing.

Thanks in part to this rebirth of interest, the collection at the Avery Library serves a large audience. Not only do students look at drawings to learn drafting techniques, but scholars study them for historical research. Historic preservationists find the drawings invaluable for restoring old structures, and museums are now eager to exhibit them to the general public. The careful preservation of architectural drawings in archives such as the Avery Library ensures the survival of these irreplaceable documents, which have come to be valued as both art and artifact.

Student Work


Public Places


Strictly Academic


House Proud


Old Style, New Style


Drawing Rooms


Worlds of Tomorrow


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