What is the Dead Architects Society?

Dead Architects Society

History of the Historic Architects’ Roundtable
By James T. Wollon, Jr., AIA
Vice President/Research, Baltimore Architecture Foundation

The Historic Architects’ Roundtable, the research arm of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, began on 30 March, 1989, when Walter Schamu, FAIA, called together architects interested in architectural history and architectural historians whom he knew, to explore research possibilities.

Early in the Roundtable’s existence, it dubbed itself “The Dead Architects’ Society” after the popular movie Dead Poets’ Society, although the agendas have had no similarities.

Schamu’s original idea is still in progress, in a greatly expanded form: To research the early architects of Baltimore, particularly the 15 architects and three engineers who founded the Baltimore Chapter, AIA, in 1870-71. The Roundtable has met four to six times a year with no specific schedule, organization, dues, by-laws or membership requirements. It has had an agenda, however: research.

The Roundtable limits its research to architects based in Maryland (almost all 19th- and early 20th-century architects being in Baltimore), but does not ignore the identifications and attributions of out-of-town architects with Maryland work.

The Baltimore AIA Chapter has a large framed group of photographed portraits of members dating from early 1873, about two years after the founding. Many were known only by name and some were altogether unknown. Almost no biographical information about them was known. Only a few buildings could be attributed to them. Research soon gave life to these photographic images.

Schamu knew of Carlos Avery’s research on Baldwin and Pennington; he had invited Avery to give a slide presentation of his research, several years earlier, to many who eventually formed the Roundtable. Perhaps Avery’s most impressive success in this research was in showing how much could be learned about our founders and predecessors who were, until then, known in name only and by but a few buildings – or forgotten altogether. In researching Baldwin and Pennington, Avery noticed many other attributions. He has made these available and they have been incorporated into the various other architects’ project lists.

Participants in the Roundtable adopted specific architects among the 18 Chapter founders and, quickly, added other historic architects to the “core group” who particularly interested them; some predated the founding of the Baltimore Chapter and others postdated it.

Within a few years, the Roundtable had developed basic biographies on most of the core group, with rapidly growing lists of documented building attributions. To date, the Roundtable has compiled impressive biographical material and building lists for more than 30 professional architects of 19th-century Baltimore (but almost nothing on the three engineers counted among the founders, who apparently did not practice in Baltimore) and limited biographical material and building lists for more than 120 other 19th-century Baltimore architects and partnerships, most of whom were not full-time practitioners, as we understand the term. Some were builder-architects. Several were partners of the better-documented architects. We have identified over 130 architects and partnerships whose practices began in the first half of the 20th century.

The individual contribution of one Roundtable member, John McGrain, must be noted. He is systematically reading virtually all the Baltimore City and County newspapers, recording all information about buildings and their architects; 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers included much more information about new buildings than is found in newspapers today.

Several observations have become clear as a result of this research:

  • Before the mid-19th century, most buildings were designed by their builders, many of whom were trained in apprenticeship to design buildings. This practice continued through the 19th century.
  • In the 18th and very early 19th centuries, very few architects were based in America and most of those undertook the construction of their buildings. American architects in the 18th century have a few known buildings to their credit in their own communities. Architects gradually became more numerous in America in the 19th century, most with practices limited to their own communities and a few had national practices.
  • The architectural profession, as we know it today – designers of buildings, not designers and builders – began to develop in the 1840s and was firmly established in the 1850s. Most members of the profession were local practitioners with local practices and occasional commissions out of town; a few professional architects had national practices.
  • The architectural profession was, and would remain for nearly a century, essentially a city profession. Architect-designed buildings in the counties were not few in number (with respect to the number of buildings built in the counties) but architects in the city were called to design them.
  • With the continuing development of the architectural profession after the Civil War, Baltimore architects received many commissions in the South and few commissions in the North, no doubt the result of Baltimore’s sympathy for the South in the War, the delayed development of the profession in the South during the early years of the Reconstruction, and the continuing development of the profession in northern cities.
  • The AIA was founded in 1857 as a New York City organization and it soon became a national organization. By 1870, the profession had developed to the extent that a local chapter in Baltimore was justified, the third in the nation after New York. The organizational development is reflected in the professional activity revealed by our research.
  • Most architects were trained in apprenticeship with earlier architects. Until about 1870, few architects had college educations and only toward the end of the 19th century did a few architects receive professional educations.
  • Members of the AIA have documented project lists suggesting or fully defining full-time professional practices. The larger numbers of the more obscure architects have few documented attributions, suggesting less-than-fulltime architectural practices.
  • The Baltimore Fire of 1904 resulted in a great increase in the number of architects in Baltimore. Like the founding of the AIA 33 years earlier, we see the period of the Fire as a distinctive turn in the profession locally, toward its present position.
  • An attribution to a particular architect cannot be made on the basis of style.
  • Most 19th-century buildings with even a touch of sophistication were designed by architects and not adapted by a good builder from a published design. In the case of adaptations of published designs, the adaptation was made by the local architect and not the builder.
  • Nineteenth-century architects were male, white and gentile. The first Jewish architect opened his practice in 1901 and we have not yet identified the first woman and African-American nor Asian-American architect in Baltimore.
  • More 20th century architects were in partnerships than 19th century architects, and offices often were larger, indicating the greater complexity in practicing architecture in the 20th century. This trend continues to our own times.

Two other activities of the Historic Architects’ Roundtable are no less important than its research activities, but have not required the continuous research of the bibliographies and building lists.

The Roundtable collects architectural drawings and other documents of retired or deceased architects of recent years, or of the past when they are offered. These documents have been deposited in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, the Maryland Historical Society and the University of Baltimore.

With a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, the Baltimore Architecture Foundation sponsored an inventory of historic architectural documents in the Maryland archival repositories, individual owners and architectural firms.

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