Preserving the Past
Wisconsin’s architectural record
within the splendid interior of
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,
“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.
began with a project inventory of 1,200 items, made up mostly of the work of
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
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
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.
a step back in time here,” says Win Thrall, curator of last year’s Alexander
Eschweiler exhibit at the
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.
to Gabi Eschweiler, they have begun the digitizing process with
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