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Column: Architectural archives unknown to many

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As archives go, the one for Columbus’ architecture is pretty impressive.

Stashed away in its confines in the basement of Bartholomew County Public Library are more than 33,000 papers relating to the built environment in the city, some of them original designs for iconic structures.

Stored in a local warehouse are more than 70 scaled-down models of buildings and art forms that have put Columbus on the map of contemporary architecture.

The Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives is home for both old and new, the former represented by design plans for the 1800s Prall House on Fifth Street, the latter a colorful model of the Luckey Climber in The Commons.

There is one thing that the archives definitely lack, however — attention.

“I’m still amazed at the number of people who don’t even know we exist,” said Rhonda Bolner, a volunteer who over most of the past decade has been helping collect and catalog materials for the collection. “We’ve got an enormous amount of material already, but there is far more that is still out there. We just need to make people aware that we’re here.”

The group has taken some important steps in bringing about that increased awareness. Last week the board of directors of the archives approved the hiring of a full-time archivist/curator.

When that position is filled, it will mark the first time in the organization’s history that it has had a full-time, paid staff position. The closest to that would be the part-time position of director, which was created last year and filled by Tony Costello, a retired member of the Ball State University School of Architecture. Bolner and fellow volunteer Jim Nickoll have been assembling and cataloging materials on their own time.

That the archives have reached this point is attributable to an ongoing fund drive that over the years has raised almost $900,000.

“I think this step (hiring a full-time archivist/curator) is important in demonstrating our legitimacy,” said Steve Risting, president of the archives board. “We intend to make the archives meaningful, not just to visitors and architects, but to the people of Columbus who live in the midst of all this.”

That might be the next step for the organization. The board has begun preliminary planning on developing an exhibit space where its treasures can be more easily available to the public.

That’s pretty difficult at present. The library has generously made available space in the basement, but its primary purpose at present is storage. Even that is in short supply. Most of the papers are stored in long file drawers, and artifacts such as scale models are mostly shipped to a local warehouse. Only 10 models are on hand at the library.

At last count there were materials relating to 163 structures in Columbus, according to Bolner, but that’s only a small fraction of the potential for a full collection.

While a great deal has to do with contemporary architecture, the city’s older buildings are represented. There are plans for the old Columbus City Hall, built around the turn of the 20th century, and the original Carnegie Library, which was replaced by the present I.M. Pei building.

Even more fascinating than the plans for existing buildings are examples of structures that were envisioned but never built. One of the most striking is the scale model of a triangular addition to Lincoln Elementary School, which was designed by renowned architect Gunnar Birkerts.

It’s what the archives still need that is drawing the attention of the board and staff. Ironically, the most prolific architect in terms of Columbus buildings is not represented in the archives. Charles Sparrell designed more than a dozen Columbus buildings in the 19th and early 20th century, including many that are still standing, but none of those designs has surfaced.

“That’s what can be so frustrating,” Bolner said. “These materials might still be out there, squirreled away in some cabinets or file drawers, but people aren’t aware that we would love to preserve them.”

The addition of an archivist/curator is considered an important step in making people more aware of the archives. The ultimate goal is to share those treasures with the public.

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