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My Downing Grant Adventure: An Epistolary Encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright

Tita Peterson, Vanderbilt Senior, HART Major

While researching for my Undergraduate Honors Thesis, the subject of which entails a peculiar relationship between renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and lesser-known Dutch Modernist architect, Hendrik Wijdeveld, a unique opportunity fell into my lap. That is, to access decades’ worth of correspondence between the two individuals, primary documents which few have had the pleasure of reading. These precious letters lie in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive at Columbia University. As a recipient of the Fall 2019 Downing Grant, I secured a visit to New York City over the holiday break, and examined the documents first-hand.

17 December 2019: 9 am

After a bumpy flight, my plane lands at LaGuardia Airport. Hail pelts the windows, and a rainy sheen covers the runway. I rush toward the taxi queue, eager to arrive at Columbia University before my scheduled appointment at the Avery Library Architectural Archive.

11 am

Upon arriving to main campus, I make my way to a small administrative office, greeted by a kind lady behind an imposing brown desk. She hands me a dainty paper card, my fragile access key to the precious archive. I nervously traverse Columbia’s concrete landscape, admiring the neoclassical grandeur of Butler Library, and wish luck to the students still deep in the throes of finals. Keeping to the lady’s instructions, I follow a small path to the left of Butler, past St. Paul’s Chapel, to the quiet façade of the Avery Library, the heartbeat of fine art and architectural studies at the University.

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11:30 am

After proudly presenting my access card to the attendant, I descend a narrow staircase, cautiously turn twice to the left, and find myself at an unassuming hallway, glowing with a purple tita3hue. The regal color guides me to a hidden room, guarded by a set of double glass doors. I ring the bell, and a man with a sweet smile allows my entrance to the research room. He introduces himself as Mathieu Pomerleau, the Public Services Archivist for the Library, and instructs me to leave all my belongings, save a notebook and pencil, in a set of nearby lockers. Mathieu then points me to a cabinet, replete with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of microfiche, tiny pieces of film, which document letters written to and from Frank Lloyd Wright during his lifetime.

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  Painstakingly, I sift through the database of microfiche, and identify over one hundred letters relevant to my    Honors Thesis.

  18, 19 December 2019

  Referencing the list compiled on my first day of research, I carefully slide pieces of film, one by one, into the      microfiche reader. This technology enlarges the film’s tiny script to its life-size glory, and projects that image  onto the adjacent computer. I copy each correspondence in PDF form to a USB drive.

  Now, with my resources securely in hand, I endeavor to complete my Honors project! All my thanks to the    Downing Family, the HART department at Vanderbilt, and the archival experts at Columbia University.