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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Preserving the Past

Wisconsin’s architectural record

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  Nestled within the splendid interior of Milwaukee’s Central Library is one of the city’s well-kept secrets, the Wisconsin Architectural Archive. Established around the same time that some of the city’s architectural assets were razed to make way for freeways, it’s become a haven where the state’s architectural wealth can be safeguarded from the wrecking ball of fate or changing fashion.

  In the early-’70s, says Gabi Eschweiler, her husband, Tom, grandson of the celebrated Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. When closing the doors on the family’s architecture firm, Eschweiler and Eschweiler, he could either find a new home for the firm’s drawings or allow them to be unceremoniously deposited in a dumpster.

  “He got busy and looked around for where to store the drawings…and ended up here at the library,” Gabi Eschweiler says. And by the mid-’70s, the architecture archive was established.

Safe Home

  It began with a project inventory of 1,200 items, made up mostly of the work of Eschweiler and Eschweiler and their associates. Over the years it expanded, often following the closure of local architecture firms that sought a safe home for their drawings. Its current project inventory sits at well more than 10,500 items, representing the work of more than 470 architects and spanning more than one-and-a-half-century’s worth of architectural design.

  “The archive is actually two things,” says Virginia Schwartz, the library’s coordinator of humanities and archives. “It contains the work of Wisconsin architects both here and elsewhere, and it contains buildings in Wisconsin by a variety of architects from other parts of the country.”

  The archive is located off the beaten path, on the second floor of the library. Along the length of one wall are flat files containing hand-drawn elevations, sketches, details, plans and more. A number of the older drawings are completed in meticulous detail, some on seldom-seen taupe-colored linen; other items include building plans reproduced using the cyanotype process that results in the deep blue pigment from which the term “blueprint” survives, even if the process has long been outmoded. Also included are photographs, biographical resources on the architects, city directories, even ledgers where you can pore through detailed accounts of building costs for structures such as the WisconsinGasBuilding.

  However, one of the greatest assets the archive boasts is the presence of Gabi and Tom Eschweiler, both of whom have been working at the archive since it first began around 30 years ago, and have been members of the city’s architectural scene for even longer than that. “[Architecture] is a very important part of life, and maybe something you appreciate as you get older,” Gabi says. She and her husband share a multitude of stories that bring aspects of the collection to life.

Digitally Bound

  “It’s a step back in time here,” says Win Thrall, curator of last year’s Alexander Eschweiler exhibit at the CharlesAllisMuseum. Thrall’s statement does more than describe the resources available here; it’s also an apt description for the archive’s cataloging system.

  Until recently the archive has been organized through an old-fashioned card catalog system. Recently most of the reference information was transferred to a computer database, but it’s not one that the public has full access to yet. Currently, if you wish to access material, your best bet is to go to the Humanities Archive and ask a librarian to fetch the resources you desire. However, Schwartz hopes eventually to see the entire collection accessible via the library’s Web site.

  “We need to have everything digitized … this is the 21st century,” she says.

  According to Gabi Eschweiler, they have begun the digitizing process with Eschweiler’s buildings. “They are the ones the public asks most about,” she says.

  The nature of the material itself is undergoing a great transition, too. “Right now everything is on paper, but it will change as the architecture world changes,” Schwartz says.

  With so much design work now produced on computers, this collection becomes even more valuable. Though computer-generated drawings take up less room and are impeccably precise, they lack the indelible mark of the human hand. It’s an increasingly rare pleasure to look at an architectural drawing and revel in the exquisite details achieved not by a machine but by a skilled draftsman.

  And quite apart from its visual appeal, the archive serves an important utilitarian function. Contractors looking to remodel existing structures, or homeowners seeking information on their present or prospective homes or neighborhoods regularly make use of the resources here. Architecture students do as well, and Thrall hopes design students and avid architecture enthusiasts like herself will also begin tapping into this resource.

  “We all have to look at history to know where we’ve been,” she says. “When you study these drawings you see the evolution of styles and you see how we’re working in a continuum.”

  The Wisconsin Architectural Archive is located in Milwaukee’s Central Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave.For more information, call 286-3061 or go to the library’s Web site at www.mpl.org.

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