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Photographs of a single building record vital information about scale, materials, purpose, and context. Is it a shop, a church, a residence, a courthouse, a gas station, or an inventive roadside attraction? The Library’s collection of architectural photographs spans centuries. Images taken by renowned artists, talented professionals, and sharp-eyed amateurs. An assembly of such breadth and depth offers an invaluable tool for understanding the evolution of America’s built environment and, by default, the country’s growth from a fragile young nation to a world power.
In this exhibit, buildings range from the illustrious U.S. Capitol to an Inuit’s summer home constructed of seal or caribou skins stretched over a frame of driftwood or whale bone. And although most buildings have a modest life span, even the commanding beauty of New York’s Pennsylvania Station—artistically captured by the Czech immigrant Drahomífr Růžička—was torn down to build a new train station that will also soon be replaced. Less orderly and more violent destruction of cities was wrought between 1889 and 1904 by three historic disasters: The Johnstown Flood (1889) that killed more than 2,200 people; the Galveston hurricane (1900) that killed 6,000 to 12,000 people; and the Great Baltimore Fire (1904) during which more than 1,500 buildings burned.