There are some surprising things about the Environmental Design Archives at CED. Things not many people may know. Most designers, students, and faculty are familiar with the highlights — collections of work by John Galen Howard, Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, William Wurster, Joseph Esherick, and Garrett Eckbo to name a few. And certainly, anyone walking through the Environmental Design Library has glimpsed the intriguing artifacts showcased in exhibits such as the current Hollywood & Vine.
A person might be surprised by some of the Archives more eclectic treasures, like a vintage silk handkerchief featuring a quaint rendering of a Japanese hotel (and hidden images of its naughty guests), an envelope with a pencil sketch of the Weston Havens House to indicate the address, or noted landscape architect Thomas Church’s briefcase and boots. But even these aren’t what set the Archives apart.
What is most remarkable about the Archives is its story. How it has grown and thrived thanks to those individuals dedicated to collecting, preserving, shepherding, and sharing the record of the designers whose work comprises one of the leading regional collections of architectural history in the country. Most notable among them is the Archives’ current Curator, Waverly Lowell.
“The profession cannot sever itself from its history,” explained Professor and Curator Emeritus Stephen Tobriner, an architectural historian. “Landscape architecture, architecture, city and region planning all have a history that is extremely rich. We work to keep alive certain precious objects because we believe in their inherent worth to ourselves and upcoming generations. We have to be dedicated to that. And it’s not easy.”
William Wurster established the original Architectural Archives in 1953 under the advisement of architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock. Its first acquisition included the personal papers and project records of Bernard Maybeck. The Archives now holds over 200 collections spanning more than a century. In addition to housing the records of California’s most important early architects, the collection represents a wide range of work, from Bay Area modernists to lesser-known designers who have made significant contributions to the built environment, as well as prominent American and English landscape architects.
The tenure of the Archives’ curators is a testament to their commitment. Architecture Professor Kenneth Cardwell managed the Archives for 19 years, from 1953 to 1972. Stephen Tobriner bested that record with over 30 years of service. At the time he took over, the Documents Collection, as it was then known, was “orphaned within the University, without staffing, without support from the library system, isolated and largely ignored in a cramped room in the CED library,” according to Tobriner. As volunteer curator with one student research assistant and a yearly stipend of under $1,000, Tobriner did everything from scrounging used equipment to learning to operate a forklift in order to transform the Archives into a valuable public resource. (It is worth reading his account in the book, Design on the Edge: A Century of Teaching Architecture, 1903-2003 by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell, published by the College of Environmental Design, 2009.)
But Tobriner faced two obstacles. With his teaching and research obligations, he had little time to run the Documents Collection, and he was hampered in applying for grants because he was not a professional archivist. Enter Waverly Lowell.
Lowell was at the time the Director of the National Archives — Pacific Sierra Region, and formerly Director of the California Cooperative Preservation for Architectural Records Survey, Curator of Manuscripts at the California Historical Society, and a co-founder of the preservationist group Friends of Terra Cotta. In 1998, Tobriner contacted Lowell to work on a Getty Foundation grant application to help fund the Document Collection. CED was awarded the 2-year grant to formalize the collection — renamed the Environmental Design Archives — and Lowell came on board in 1998 as the college’s first trained archivist. As Curator, Lowell currently directs the full archival program for architecture and landscape architecture collections including acquisitions, donor relations, archival appraisal and description, preservation, reference, publications, exhibitions, access, outreach, teaching, fundraising, grant writing, and gifts.
“I must confess, the first day I thought, what have I done?” she related. “I had a giant office at the National Archives, I had equipment, I had computers, I had staff. But we — a junior archivist, students, and myself — did an amazing amount the first two years. We archivally processed 75 collections.”
Lowell’s keen ability to identify and acquire significant collections is certainly due in part to her experience. “Waverly is very highly regarded by the Society of American Archivists and has had an exceptional career so she has a certain gravitas when she’s dealing with architects to acquire materials,” according to Professor of Architecture Emeritus Marc Treib, who served as Faculty Curator from 2004-2014. But you could argue the real key to her success is her attraction to stories.
“The best part of what I do is meeting the people,” Lowell said. “That’s what I love. I was trained as a social historian, so what interests me is not just the beautiful drawings, but who are these people? Who are the designers, who are architects? What is their story about?”
In addition to collecting stories, Lowell has ensured the collection is seen widely through exhibits, such as the Unbuilt San Francisco exhibit which she curated with urban design critic John King, and through publications, including the Berkeley Design Book series; and is easily accessed via the Archives website as well as on the Online Archive of California (OAC). In addition to Design on the Edge, her publications include Living Modern: A Biography of Greenwood Common (William Stout Publishers, 2009); Architectural Records: Managing Design & Construction Records (Society of American Archivists, 2006); and Architectural Records in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Guide to Research (Garland Science, 1988).
“The value of the Archives can’t be understated,” commented Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning Louise Mozingo. “History teaches us valuable lessons — what worked, what didn’t, how designers approached the challenges of their time. Students, faculty, and researchers need these tangible records and artifacts to remind us of the design pioneers and innovators whose ideas, stories, and work continue to inspire us.”
The only question is, how sustainable is it? Even with substantial off-campus storage, the collection continues to grow and space is running out. Also, collections are not only being digitized, but arriving as native digital files, and reference work is constant. “We’re going to need a digital archivist soon,” explains Lowell.
“We’re extremely grateful to Waverly for her amazing work and dedication,” commented CED Dean Jennifer Wolch. “She has created an internationally respected archive that has set the worldwide standard for arrangement and description of architectural and landscape architectural archives. Her legacy is a collection that stands as a tremendously valuable intellectual and design legacy”
Waverly will retire this coming June, although she will remain active in her support of the Archives. To be able to carry on the extraordinary work of the Archives, you can make a gift in honor of Waverly by contributing to the Environmental Design Archive Fund. To make a donation to the archive fund, visit the online donation page, or contact Gail Stanley at email@example.com or (510) 643-1105.