About this Collection

A systematic record of early American buildings and gardens documented by the noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952). This special collection has more than 7,100 photographs taken primarily in the 1930s but spanning 1927 to 1944. The images show an estimated 1,700 structures and sites with an emphasis on rural and urban areas of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana as well as a few locations in Florida, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Johnston's interest in both vernacular and high style structures resulted in detailed portrayals of the exteriors and interiors of small houses, mills, and outbuildings as well as grand mansions and public buildings.

[Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, standing in front of door, with camera, facing slightly left]

Johnston's survey of early American architecture began in 1927-29 with a privately funded project to document the recently restored Chatham estate and then old buildings in nearby Fredericksburg and Old Falmouth, Virginia. Her exhibitions of these photographs were well received, and Johnston then dedicated herself to pursuing a larger project to help preserve historic buildings and inspire interest in American architectural history, specifically in the South. The Carnegie Corporation became her primary financial supporter and provided six grants starting in 1933 on condition that the large format 8x10-inch black-and-white film negatives be deposited with the Library of Congress. The Library formally acquired the CSAS negatives from her estate in 1953 as part of the purchase of Johnston's extensive papers and approximately 20,000 other photographs.

To learn more about Johnston, see the Biographical Overview and Chronology.

Subject Strengths | Geographic Coverage | State by State Summary | Biographical Background | Survey Method | Survey Experience in Johnston's Own Words | Relationship to the Historic American Buildings Survey

Subject Strengths

The CSAS photographs cover many types of buildings constructed in the 1800s, with a few structures from the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1900s. The in-depth subject index lists each building type and many architectural details as well as the state, county, city, and town locations. Johnston provided extensive caption information for many structures, including construction dates, owners' names, and notes on special features. (As with all old photographs, please treat the caption information with caution. Johnston compiled her data more than seventy years ago. The Library did not have the resources to verify all of her information in current reference sources, but will gladly update the online records when notified of corrections.)

Domestic dwellings are the most frequently represented structures, ranging from farmhouses and slave quarters to elegant mansions and houses, including abandoned buildings and ruins as a reminder of the heritage in need of preservation or already lost. Public and religious sites include city halls, courthouses, schools, churches, and cemeteries. Among the business establishments are law offices, mills, stores, and taverns. Other interesting subjects include bookmobiles, children, clotheslines, dovecotes, and sofas.

Many buildings are documented with multiple views that increase the opportunity to understand both design and construction. Johnston’s large-format photographs captured enough information to appreciate the special craftsmanship in such features as balconies, brickwork, chimneys, columns, doorways, fanlights, gables, hip roofs, porches, and windows. Interior views highlight fireplaces, mantels, paneling, stairways, wallpapers, and decorative arts. Outdoor scenes draw attention to fences, gardens, gates, ironwork, and Spanish moss.

Photographs this detailed can support work in many disciplines, including the study of historic preservation itself. Some sites were in pristine condition; others were crumbling. Among the buildings that have disappeared since Johnston's survey are such well-known estates as the Belle Grove plantation in Louisiana and Montmorenci in North Carolina. Others have become national historic landmarks, such as Drayton Hall in South Carolina. Occasionally, Johnston included photographs of contemporary houses in her CSAS files. The views of newly constructed buildings include the Virginia House in Richmond (built in 1929 from an English manor) and buildings designed in Baltimore around 1926 by the architectural firm Palmer and Lamdin.

Geographic Coverage

The depth of geographic coverage varies widely. Virginia and Maryland are the most heavily documented areas because Johnston lived nearby in Washington, DC, in the 1920s to mid-1940s. By contrast, a single town, Natchez, represents Mississippi. Buildings in the cities of Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Augustine, Florida, are the core coverage for those states. Although each photograph is identified by state, the word "unidentified" indicates images that need further research to determine the specific location or the name of the depicted building.

State by State Summary (quantities are approximate)

Alabama (1939): 350 images of 150 sites in 19 counties

Florida (1936-37): 175 images of 60 sites in 2 counties; chiefly St. Augustine

Georgia (1939, 1944): 670 images of 235 sites in 17 counties

Louisiana (1937-38): 440 images of 150 sites in 19 parishes

Maryland (1926-37): 565 images of 135 sites in 16 counties and an independent city

Mississippi (1938): 75 images of 30 sites in 1 county

North Carolina (1935-38): 1,170 images of 320 sites in 48 counties

South Carolina (1937-38): 660 images of 150 sites in 8 counties; chiefly Charleston

Virginia (1926-35): 3,090 images of 510 sites in 62 counties and independent cities

West Virginia (1930s): 6 images of 1 site in 1 county

Biographical Background

Johnston is often considered the first American woman to achieve national prominence in diverse areas of photography. Her talent and energy, combined with a need to earn her own living, fueled a long 60-year career. Johnston first established a national reputation as a professional photographer between 1890 and 1910 while operating a portrait studio in Washington, DC. In addition, as a photojournalist, she provided photos to the Bain News Service syndicate and wrote illustrated articles for many weekly magazines. Johnston's active participation in the art photography movement called pictorialism and world's fair photo exhibitions demonstrated her strong artistic as well as her technical skills.

In the 1910s, Johnston specialized in contemporary architectural and landscape photography, working for a time with Mattie Edwards Hewitt in New York City. Johnston also began to travel widely to present illustrated lectures about gardens that she selected and researched. By the late 1920s, she turned her focus to the systematic photographic documentation of historic buildings. During the Great Depression and World War II, while in her sixties and seventies, she rode thousands of miles by car through southern states to preserve old buildings visually before they disappeared physically. The lecture she based primarily on her Carnegie Survey work is called "Tales Old Houses Tell."

Johnston's long-standing interests in early Americana, public photo exhibitions, and writing articles were a good fit for the growing historic preservation movement. The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926; the Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture started at the Library of Congress in 1930 (including a purchase of 156 negatives from Johnston); and the National Park Service, Library of Congress, and American Institute of Architects jointly launched the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933.

To learn more about Johnston, see the Biographical Overview and Chronology.

Survey Method

Johnston established her basic work method during her surveys of the Chatham estate and then the neighboring towns of Fredericksburg and Falmouth in Virginia. She researched an area; gathered suggestions of sites to document from books, architecture experts, and local residents; visited the sites and photographed them with skillful use of light and shadow to highlight special features; and, finally, arranged for an exhibition of prints to attract interest in historic preservation and gather support to continue her project.

Frances B. Johnston's car and Huntley [Ruff] at the Wheel Inn, Morganton, N.C.

Johnston funded her southern architectural work for more than ten years by combining several sources of financial assistance, including her own money. In 1926, while working in Virginia on assignment for Town & Country, Johnston met Helen Devore, who owned the Chatham estate. Devore agreed to buy photographs of her own house and garden, which she had recently restored, and also sponsored the Fredericksburg-Falmouth work. Johnston continued to photograph on her own, primarily in Virginia, until the six Carnegie grants began in 1933. She recovered some of her costs for the intervening years by printing earlier negatives for the Carnegie Survey.

The Carnegie name is attached to the whole CSAS project because the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC, provided the largest single source of assistance. Other funding came from private patrons who bought sets of survey prints, often 16 x 20 inches, after exhibitions and donated prints to local libraries and colleges. Johnston also provided illustrations for such books as Colonial Churches in Virginia by Henry Brock (1930) and Plantations of the Carolina Low Country by Samuel G. Stoney (1939). For the two books based on her CSAS photographs, she worked with the University of North Carolina Press to publish The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941, with Thomas T. Waterman) and The Early Architecture of Georgia (1957, with Frederick D. Nichols).

Survey Experience in Johnston's Own Words

Johnston approached two men with a strong interest in early American architecture about collaborating on a grant proposal. Professor Edmund S. Campbell was head of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Dr. Leicester B. Holland, Chief of the Division of Fine Arts at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and had launched the Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture with a Carnegie grant in 1930. In a letter dated October 9, 1932, to Dr. Federick P. Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York (1923-41), Johnston wrote: "If it is possible for the Carnegie Corporation to provide a fund for this purpose, we are in agreement that it would be advisable to apply part, first to making an index set of prints from my negatives [of Virginia] and later supplement these with new plates of important buildings, of which no adequate records now exist and which are fast disappearing, especially in remote sections."

On March 4, 1933, Johnston wrote to Professor Campbell after receiving notification of a first grant from Carnegie, ". . . Now a substantial retainer has been given me, which will enable me to secure some very necessary new equipment and also cover the cost of the 500 prints of record. . . . The remainder of the fund, more than two thirds of the total amount, will be issued to me in the form of a monthly drawing of about six months, through the spring, summer, and fall . . . " The Carnegie grant specified that Professor Campbell would receive a set of prints from Johnston's negatives for use at the University of Virginia. Campbell also assisted her work by assembling a team to research Virginia structures that had not been documented in other sources by drafting a travel plan. Given her own knowledge of the subject, Johnston also recognized additional structures to include in the survey because they contributed to the fabric of the area.

On June 21, 1933, she reported from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Leicester B. Holland, who administered the Carnegie-funded portion of the survey and would receive the negatives, ". . . I have been able to cover a great deal of ground around Petersburg, also in a section of Chesterfield County along the Midlothian Road out of Richmond. I have long had my eye on Petersburg as a promising field, . . . In this area, I have located a number of minor dwellings and small buildings quite distinctive in type from those found along the Alexandria Winchester pike . . . On the outskirts of the city, I discovered an architectural gem in "Battersea," a Georgian mansion with wings, . . . Also an extraordinary small stone building which might easily date from the eraly [i.e. early] 1700s . . ." The small building she refers to could be the Lloyd House.

Johnston's work in the field had its pitfalls, as she reported in a handwritten note dated Sept. 6, 1933, to Leicester B. Holland. "I had "Hell & High Water" literally on this trip but it did not seem proper to include it in a lady like report. Half the days were boiling--suffocatingly hot and with more than 8 days of torrential rain. I was marooned by the hurricane storm for the better part of a week at the Mathews Court House." This view of Garth Road in Virginia is a good reminder of the road conditions that Johnston and her driver faced.

In a letter to Dr. Holland sent from La Cross, Virginia, on June 7, 1936, Johnston reported Dr. Keppel’s positive reaction to her work. "Perhaps you have already had this information through other sources, but to me it came as a clap out of a clear sky. I was stunned, thrilled, overwhelmed, and finally convinced, as you have so often intimated, that Dr. Keppel really likes my work! Now I can go along quite serenely, even more self-satisfied than ever, having thus received the ultimate hallmark of achievement."

Relationship to the Historic American Buildings Survey

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the CSAS photographs complement each other well. HABS began in 1933, while Johnston was active in Virginia, and continues to this day to document historic structures using photography, measured drawings, and narrative essays. Johnston was aware of the HABS program. Whether by design or accident, they sometimes covered the same sites. For example:

  • Lloyd House in Petersburg, Virginia, appears in both CSAS and HABS
  • Alabama plantations are in both CSAS and HABS, with distinct views