An Online Archive Preserves Modernist History
Discover thousands of archived modernist magazines on this lovingly compiled digital database.
By Ben Ikenson
In the summer of 2017, architect Cavin Costello was commissioned to work on an addition to a 1961 home originally designed by brothers Charles and Arthur Schreiber, giants of the Phoenix midcentury modern movement. Costello knew he wanted to honor the integrity of the original design, so he did what any shrewd student does: He went to the archives. Specifically, he pored through old copies of design magazines from 1959 to 1961 “to understand the lens through which the architects, homeowners and journalists of the time were conceiving, living in and writing about their homes,” he says. “This type of research limits the natural biases from which we view these projects today, and the information we found helped us approach our project in a unique and respectful way.”
The materials Costello referenced were freely available—as they are to anyone—on the online library of USModernist.org. It is the largest open digital collection of major 20th-century American architecture magazines. The registry features roughly 6,000 complete issues spanning dozens of titles, from such well-known periodicals as American Architect, Arts & Architecture, and Sears, Roebuck and Co., to industry-specific trade magazines and journals of the American Institute of Architects. In all, there are some two-and-a-half million downloadable pages—roughly 750 gigabytes of content—dating as far back as the late 1800s.
The valuable resource is the brainchild of “accidental archivist” George Smart, a semiretired executive coach from Raleigh, North Carolina, and an ardent fan of modernist architecture.
“My wife calls it an 11-year seizure,” he says of his preoccupation with building the online treasure trove. More than a decade ago, Smart was up late one night Googling modernist homes in anticipation of having one built for his family. He was disappointed to find that so few examples were documented online, and he knew there were many more stellar examples that deserved to be showcased. In fact, Smart’s own father, an architect, used to take him to see many such remarkable homes when he was a kid. Later that year, with no formal expertise or training in architecture, architectural history or web design, Smart was compelled to develop a small website focused on local modernist homes. But his territory swiftly expanded as the website went from local to statewide to national. In 2009, the project became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to document, preserve and promote modernist residential architecture.
In 2013, a realtor from a neighboring town offered to donate a truckload of vintage magazines, sealing Smart’s fate as the curator of the rapidly-growing digital archive of architecture publications. With the help of volunteers, Smart started scanning the documents using old sheet-feed scanners bought on eBay. A few years later, a sympathetic vendor took on those arduous tasks, and the archive continued to expand, providing a one-stop resource for the public.
“Libraries are great, but most people seeking early magazine articles aren’t going to take the time to go to them,” says Smart. “Many universities—and even the Smithsonian Institution—have donated periodicals to us, as no one seems to be using them.”
Architect and modernist fan Stephen Thompson concurs. “A lot of us keep old magazines in storage or in boxes in our garages where they just collect dust or end up decaying,” he says. “Theoretically, we should be referencing these issues more regularly. Referring back to how certain buildings were made originally can really help inform decisions in the present, especially when it comes to adaptive reconsiderations, such as new technologies and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. A digital archive makes so much sense.”
Thompson compares the significance of USModernist.org’s library to the architectural legacy in places such as Athens, Greece, where “there are tons of ruins with huge colonnades that stand on their own—in the middle of the city, in parks, wherever they happen to be,” he says. “I love that these relics of a bygone era are respected and have a place in today’s world. And I think the USModernist library is one way of keeping our own architectural history accessible for current and future generations.”
As is the nature of any passion, “the work is never done,” says Smart, who enjoys sharing his ever-expanding resource with others. In addition to the library, USModernist.org offers a “masters gallery” that showcases residential output of the world’s most famous modernist and postmodernist architects. Images of nearly every project built—as well as descriptions of those left unbuilt—by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and so many more are featured. Over the years, the website has garnered a dozen local, state and national awards for preservation, documentation and service, including honors from AIA and Docomomo-US.