Researching an Architectural Structure
Researching an architectural structure is challenging and involves the use of specialized materials. This guide discusses the strategies for such research, and identifies several key resources that can be found in The New York Public Library. In particular, the Art & Architecture Collection has a rich collection that will be useful to architecture students, scholars, and those interested in learning more about the world around them. The resources described below can be found at The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
- Basic Resources
- Key Reference Titles
- Periodical Indexes
- Other Resources
- Research Strategies
- Visit the Library
- Contact Us for More Help
The online Catalog of The New York Public Library can be accessed at https://catalog.nypl.org. For general instructions on using The Catalog see Using the Library's Online Catalog. The following information is specific to the subject of Architectural Research.
The Catalog allows searching by author, title, keyword, and subject. A subject search will generally yield complete, well-organized results, but only if you know the appropriate Library of Congress Subject Headings for your topic. You can learn more about subject headings in the Research Strategies section of this guide. Here are some examples of Subject Headings:
If you do not know the Library of Congress Subject Headings for your topic and you are searching offsite it will be easier to use a keyword search. A word search will generally retrieve more items, though many of them may not be relevant. When performing a word search, be sure to use "and" between each term:
After you retrieve your results in a word search, scan the record of one of your best hits. Scroll down the record and you will see the item's subject headings listed. Using these subject headings you can now perform a subject search.
The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals
The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals is the best resource for finding articles in journals on all aspects of architecture, including architectural aspects of archaeology, interior design, housing, city planning & landscape architecture. It is international in scope with coverage from the 1930's and selective coverage dating back to the 1740's. The index includes a large number of architects' obituaries which is a rich source of biographical information. The database consists of bibliographic citations. It is not full text.
The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects (New York: Free Press: London: Collier Macmillan, 1982)
Consists of four volumes and is an excellent resource for information on architects. Arranged alphabetically, covering architects internationally through the ages, it features articles with illustrations. At the end of each article is a chronological list of works, followed by a bibliography. All articles are signed. At the back of volume four is an excellent index of buildings by name. This is helpful in locating an individual structure without prior knowledge of the architect.
Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased) by Henry Withey (Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1956)
This work contains entries on nearly two thousand men and women, all deceased. Each entry carries birth and death dates and a short entry on the architect, along with references indicating from where the information was obtained. This is a good source for well-known and more obscure architects.
Architects in Practice, New York City, 1840-1900 by Dennis Steadman Francis (New York: Committee for the Preservation of Architectural Records, 1979)
Architects in Practice New York City 1900-1940 by James Ward (Union, N.J: J&D Associates, )
Published for the Committee for the Preservation of Architectural Records, each work follows a similar format. Compiled by searching directories of the five boroughs between 1840 and 1900, Francis' Directory lists architects with their addresses and room numbers. Ward's volume includes the firm's official landmarks in New York, when known.
Encyclopedia of World Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959-1983)
Comprised of 16 volumes and has excellent articles written and signed by internationally renowned scholars. Accompanied by an extensive bibliography, it includes photographs, plans and sections. The index is extensive and provides access to specific structures listed under their city. (ie: Florence - Strozzi Chapel.)
Oxford Art Online (Onsite access at NYPL Research Libraries and Mid-Manhattan Library)
Covers all aspects of art history and architecture including architects, architectural history, styles & movement. Includes the Dictionary of Art, comprised of 33 volumes, plus an index. Articles are written by scholars and experts in the field and each one is signed. Electronic resource updated regularly.
Oftentimes, an entire book is not written about an architect or a building. This is especially true for lesser known architects and buildings that are not famous. However, you could find within a periodical article floor plans, facade illustrations, and even elevations. If the article appears in a journal that is scholarly there may be footnotes and a bibliography that can lead you to further sources.
Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals
As discussed earlier, this is the single best resource for finding articles on architects or architectural structures. Indexing over 1,000 periodicals published worldwide, its subjects include: archaeology, architecture, architectural design, city planning, historic preservation, history of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and urban planning. The Avery Index is available from computers in The Research Libraries.
Another excellent source for periodical articles dating back to 1929. The electronic version is divided into two parts. Art Full Text covers 1984 to the present and Art Index Retrospective covers 1929 to 1984. Art Full Text has many full text articles while Art Index Retrospective consists of bibliographic citations. It is international in coverage.
Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA) and Repertoire International de la Literature de l'Art (RILA) are two scholarly indexes that can be accessed at the Getty's website at library.getty.edu/bha. These indexes are searchable together, free of charge and cover material from 1975 to 2007.
BHA/RILA indexes books, periodical articles, conference proceedings, festschriften, collected essays, exhibition catalogues, museum publications, and doctoral dissertations. Some abstracts are provided. In 1989, RILA and Repertoire (see below) merged to form BHA. Published bilingually in French and English, BHA covers European art from the 4th century to the present, and North & South American art from the European discovery of the Americas to the present. It includes the fine arts, decorative & applied arts, industrial design and photography. They are international in coverage with many articles in Italian, French, German, Dutch and other languages.
Repertoire d'Art et d'Archeologie (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. 1st ser., v.1-68, 1910-64. N.s., v.1- , (annee 1964) 1965- 1989).
International Bibliography of Art (IBA) (2008-present) is the successor to the Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA). It contains records that were created by the Getty Research Institute as part of BHA and covers scholarship up to 2009. IBA is published by Proquest who will be building the database by the addition of 25,000 new records per year. It covers European art from late antiquity to the present, American art from the colonial era to the present. It includes many non-English publications and contains 60% of its records in German, French, Italian and Spanish.
For non-book materials The New York Public Library Artist Files on Microfiche (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey Inc., ) may contain information. Although concentrating on artists primarily, they also include architects and architectural firms. These microfiche files are an excellent place to check for ephemeral material such as clippings, announcements, newspaper articles, etc. The contents of the file date back to the 1880's and coverage ends in 1972. A supplement consisting of hard copy ephemera continues to the present and is available for some artists. It is presently being organized and should be complete soon.
Newspaper indexes may also be helpful in tracking down an architect or a specific building. It's possible that when the building was constructed or opened it may have been newsworthy due to the prestigious nature of the architectural firm, building, design, cost, etc. The New York Times is an excellent resource for New York City, nationally and internationally. The New York Times is available full-text onsite from 1851 to the present. In addition to searching national newspapers, newspapers of that city may be particularly useful. Check the Newspaper Research Guide for assistance in this area.
Apart from the extensive holdings at The New York Public Library, there are other Art & Architecture Libraries whose holdings should be consulted. In New York City both the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art contain many helpful architectural resources for study.
There are five approaches that may be followed when researching a specific building:
Famous named structures may be found directly under their own names in The Catalog (i.e., Flatiron Building). You can try both a subject search and a keyword search, to see which produces the best results.
This is often the best general approach. If you do not know the name of the architect, and if the building is in New York City, try to find the name of the architect. If you cannot find it in a web search use the AIA Guide to New York City to determine it. There are comparable guides for other major American cities. If the structure is a well-known, named building (i.e., Taj Mahal) use the index section in Volume 4 of the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects to determine the architect.
If there is not an entire book on your building, there may be a chapter or section in a broader subject category. Try to find a subject heading (see discussion above) that is specific to your building project. Some examples are:
- Architecture, Domestic, Italy
- Architecture, Domestic, Designs and Plans
- Palaces, Austria, Vienna
- Office Buildings
- Apartment Houses
To broaden your search still further, approach it through the style or period of architecture. For example:
- Architecture, Baroque, France
- Architecture, Renaissance, Italy
- Architecture, Germany, 18th century
- Architecture, Oriental
The broadest approach would be to search through the country. However, if your structure is obscure this may be difficult and you may only find a limited amount of information on your building. Please note that as your search gets broader and broader, the amount of information that you find on a specific structure will probably be small.
The Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, located on the first floor in Room 121, holds many items of interest to those studying architecture of US cities. It is particularly strong in its collections relating to New York City.
- Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s
This microfiche collection reproduces over 54,000 original photographs that mark the development of New York City and its architecture. You can access these images through the NYPL Digital Gallery.
- Lloyd Acker Collection--Views of New York City Buildings 1935-75
This microfilm collection is indexed by street and house number and is valuable for views of facades of less significant buildings.
- Card Index to Illustrations in Books
Good for researching types of buildings such as: hotels, restaurants, monuments, etc.
Resources in the Map Division
For the serious researcher, there may be information on buildings in New York City as well as other localities in the United States found in the Sanborn maps and other fire insurance and property atlases. These materials begin in the mid-nineteenth century and may offer street addresses, building footprints, dimensions, block and lot information, heights of buildings and materials used in construction.
The collection also includes other property maps of New York City, especially Bromley, Hyde, Perris, REDI, Robinson, in addition to the Sanborn maps, at the block and lot level from the 1850s to the present. Property evaluation and ownership data for all five boroughs is available on microfiche.
Resources at The Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL)
Located at 188 Madison Avenue (between 34th and 35th streets) this library contains some of the materials relating to architectural research. Certain structures such as bridges, airports, trains, stadiums, arches, etc. are considered engineering projects and materials relating to these, as well as all forms of construction, are found there. Occasionally there is overlap, such as with well-known architects such as Eero Saarinen and the TWA Terminal at Kennedy airport. In these cases, material will be found at both SIBL and in the Art and Architecture Collection.
This resource guide is a small sample of what The New York Public Library can offer you in your research. For further assistance, the librarians of The New York Public Library are here to help you.
Ask a Librarian enables you to ask questions via email, phone, text and chat.
Art & Architecture Collection, The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Located in Room 300, the Reference Desk is staffed during all hours the library is open. We can assist you in getting started with your research, or help you with any stumbling blocks you have encountered.
Make an Appointment
Consult with a Research Specialist
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Science, Industry and Business Library of The New York Public Library
Research relating to engineering structures such as bridges and airports are covered at SIBL. Located at 188 Madison Avenue, the Information Services Desk is on the lower level in the Research Library area.
Make an Appointment
Consult with a Research Specialist
Ask a Question
Written by Lee Robinson, Librarian