NOV 4, 2019 8:00 AM
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The history of architecture education at the University of Illinois – and of architectural styles and cultural values over a 100-year period – sits behind a low doorway into a flood-prone basement room in the Architecture Building.
Hundreds of student design projects from 1890 to 1985 are stored there, hidden and mostly inaccessible.
Architecture professor Marci Uihlein is working with University Archives and the University Library’s Preservation Services to catalog 1,600 drawings representing 775 student projects, do any necessary preservation work and move them to the Archives’ collections. The project received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“This is part of our heritage,” Uihlein said. “Part of this is establishing a culture of archiving and saving things that represent our own history and understanding that we’re building a story with all of this work.”
The Illinois School of Architecture is the second-oldest architecture school in the country, and it conferred degrees to the first male and first female architecture graduates in the country. Nathan Clifford Ricker, the first person to earn an architecture degree in the U.S. in 1873, was the head of the architecture department for 37 years and the dean of the College of Engineering for 27 years. He designed several campus buildings, including Altgeld Hall. Ricker revised and developed the architecture curriculum throughout his career, including the study of the first skyscrapers being built in Chicago.
The student projects were selected by professors as exemplars of design work. Among the students whose work is stored in the basement room are James White and Ralph Johnson. White was a campus architect from 1907-32 who co-designed Altgeld Hall with Ricker. He also designed Busey Hall, Smith Memorial Music Hall and many other buildings on campus. Johnson designed Temple Hoyne Buell Hall, where the School of Architecture is located.
“We’ve been unintentionally curating a collection for a very long time,” Uihlein said.
University Archives already has student architectural drawings from the 1870s and 1880s in its collection, including work by Ricker. Uihlein expects increased interest in early architecture education around the 150th anniversary of Ricker’s graduation.
The drawings are also valuable today, as current students can examine how previous students communicated their ideas and design. This is an important part of architectural education, Uihlein said.
The historical drawings demonstrate the tools and techniques used at the time they were made, the history of design and the cultural values apparent in the architecture of various time periods. Projects display the Beaux Arts style of the 1890s and the postwar industrial style of the late 1940s. They include designs of an evacuation camp in the 1940s, community colleges and nuclear power plants in the 1960s and an “Equalizing the Sexes Pod” in the 1980s.
“This body of work represents the change in teaching and change in materials and change in cultural values over 100 years. You can see what was deemed important for an architectural project,” Uihlein said.
“I like seeing the type of work by generation. Work from the 1920s looks very different than work from the 1930s, and it looks very different from the 1940s and 1950s. You can look at them by time period and see what’s going on and what’s being created,” she said.
The drawings are not catalogued in a way that allows faculty members or researchers to find everything. Part of the work of the project is to create metadata and catalog all the projects online so they can be transferred to University Archives.