The Drawings of the Supervising Architect's Office, 1852-1860
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
The Supervising Architect’s Office (SAO) of the Department of Treasury was the largest and most powerful architectural firm in antebellum America. It simultaneously implemented the design and construction of dozens of federal public building across the nation from its central office in Washington, DC. The Office’s main form of communication was lithographed sets of architectural drawings—elevation, plan, section, site plan, and details—for both internal and external functionalities. Drawing emerged as an important tool to distinguish the design profession from construction. This paper explores the SAO’s various modes of architectural communication and how those techniques amalgamated into a larger discursive practice.
Inside the office, lithographed drawings were a specialized form of communication intended to organize the project. To convey ideas to various audiences, the SAO utilized free-hand sketches, watercolor presentation drawings, photographs and text for the appropriate viewership.
Outside the office, the lithographs were the ultimate on-site authority representing the SAO’s design intentions. The drawings were instrumental in controlling the cost, quality and pace of construction. Professionally, this sharp distinction between ideation and implementation differentiated architects from builders. Without textual explanation, the SAO drawings eschewed pattern book precedents, and targeted a professional audience that could extrapolate the significance of the work solely from the visual. The content of these designs, which introduced builders to iron I-beam technology, further magnified this differentiation.
From 1856-59, the SAO published Plans for Public Buildings, which encompassed sets of lithographed architectural drawings that were distributed at home and abroad. Depositing folios at museums, universities, libraries and consular offices, the drawings were circulated for pedagogical, political and diplomatic purposes. Plans for Public Buildings highlighted the SAO’s awareness of its pioneering modes of architectural communication and their professional implications.