Launching a Lexicon: North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary
Maintained by the North Carolina State University Libraries and the North Carolina State University Libraries Copyright & Digital Scholarship Center.
The award-winning database, North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, contains biographies and building lists for the men and women who created the architecture of North Carolina.1 North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries launched it in June 2009 as a pilot digital publication. Designed as a web-based research tool, the database offers the researcher several options for querying its contents. Users can search for an architect’s or builder’s name, by birthplace and residential locations, by work or site locations, by date, and by building trade or type. Initially started with 170 biographical entries, in six months time the database had grown to include over 200 biographies highlighting more than 1,800 buildings through its search and browse functions.
The database remains organic. Research into North Carolina’s architectural heritage continues and this accrued knowledge is funneled into the content of the biographical dictionary that ultimately will have upwards of 500 entries about practitioners in the state.2 Admittedly the database will never be a fully realized catalogue, impossible as it is to match every building to its builder. Yet the inclusion of artisans as well as architects enables the North Carolina Architects and Builders (NCAB) database to expand our understanding of the built environment through its thoughtful introduction of those many individuals who shaped the state’s architectural landscape.
The primary emphasis of the NCAB database is, therefore, on the individual architect, builder, or artisan and his or her body of work. It reaches beyond the lexicon of architects by purposefully enumerating artisans and contractors with skills in carpentry, masonry, and plasterwork. This expounds the vocabulary surrounding who a builder is, to admit the tradesmen who together crafted the architectural history of North Carolina. Its approach differs from that needed for a catalogue of particular buildings listing the aesthetics and conditions of each. Instead, all buildings in the NCAB are associated with the builder, architect, or artisan who made them.
By focusing on who constructed space, and not on the architectural vocabulary embedded in the structures themselves, the NCAB connects the history of various builders to a specific place. This connection encourages discussion of the social and cultural context that framed the architectural landscape of North Carolina. It also encompasses the vernacular through the association of a builder with the state’s historic farmhouses as well as with the more recently constructed suburban neighborhoods, and with industrial buildings such as the state’s many textile mills and factories. In this way, the NCAB conveys information about the dissemination of the familiar or commonly seen building types.
The content of the database, and how it would be presented, emerged through collaboration between the NCSU Libraries technical staff and architectural historian Catherine W. Bishir, who is the project’s editor-in-chief.3 The content was developed under their guidance. It was augmented by material from other repositories and through the research of over 50 volunteer authors. The content also was drawn from expertise gained through decades of architectural fieldwork, much of it conducted under the auspices of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. The inaugural entries were gleamed from these sources as well as from work done in the 1970s and 1980s for the project that culminated in Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building in 1990.4 Initially that book was to include bibliographical entries, however, the depth of the material called for independent, yet complementary, volumes. The companion biographical volume was planned even as additional studies on the state’s architecture were completed. These studies generated several books, such as North Carolina Architecture (1990); History of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 1913-1998: An Architectural Heritage (1998); and a three-volume guide to the state’s historic architecture.5 In 2004, the biographical volume received renewed attention, and shortly thereafter was reconceived as a web-based digital publication, that is, into the database-format of the NCAB biographical dictionary.
Since its debut, the NCAB has become an increasingly valuable research tool. It receives between 6,000 to 8,000 user visits per month. NCAB is especially beneficial to preservationists preparing local historic property designations and National Register of Historic Places nominations. Knowing who built what helps convey the significance of the properties in question. Moreover, despite its roots in one state, the NCAB lexicon slips past its prescribed boundaries. Many of North Carolina’s architects and builders also worked in other states and countries. The database accommodates their geographic fluidity through its search functions and with cross-referenced entries that reveal relationships among individuals operating in local arenas and with those on the national stage. In this way, the research ongoing in North Carolina and presented through the NCAB sheds light on the architectural history of a much larger world.
Virginia B. Price is a historian with the Historic American Buildings Survey program of the National Park Service, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) recognized the importance of the North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary with its Paul E. Buchanan award in May 2010.
2. The biographies are predominantly pre-World War II in time period; the biographical dictionary database does not include information on living architects and builders.
3. The website was developed by Catherine W. Bishir, Editor-in-Chief and Curator of the Architecture Special Collections at North Carolina State University Libraries, along with Markus Wust, who served as Project Manager, and Joseph Ryan, the Technical Project Manager. Other project team members included Jason Casden (Lead Developer), Brian Dietz (Image Management), Babi Hammond (Content Editor), Cory Lown (Developer), Jason Ronallo (Technical Product Manager), Shelby Shanks (Project Team), and Tito Sierra (Project Consultant).
4. Catherine W. Bishir et al., with research assistance by J. Marshall Bullock and William Bushong, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
5. Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for Historic Preservation of North Carolina, 1990); C. David Jackson and Charlotte V. Brown, History of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 1913-1998: An Architectural Heritage (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 1998); Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).